“I had this plan.”
I’ve started conversations (and, I believe, at least one or two blogs!) with those four little words so many times I’ve lost count. This year, I’m certainly not alone. This is not a piece whining about “woe is me,” so let’s get that clear from the get-go. I’m healthy. My family is healthy. I have been gifted an amazing life. I have perspective.
But I’m also hard-wired for yearning. If I was a cattle dog, they’d describe me as having a high prey drive. I live in a constant state of hunger for more, more of whatever it is I’ve turned my focus to at any particular time. On a good day, that’s great. On a bad day, that makes me the kind of person who is tempted to chew off her own arm.
Excellence in riding is certainly high on the list of things about which I’m prone to arm-chewing. I remember the first day I began to even remotely appreciate how hard international level dressage sport is: I had just turned 20. I was working for Monica and Georg Theodorescu in Germany and watching Monica ride Whisper through beautiful work, but watching her still be unsatisfied. The gorgeous poetry in front of me was not good enough for what she wanted to achieve. I’d never seen dressage like that, and that level of elegance and grace wasn’t good enough? Whoa.
The top riders in the world are still learning and perfecting things. Since no one’s gotten 100% yet, we’re all still learning and perfecting things. That’s incredible. And also terrifying.
So I’m hungry, hungry to be better, hungry to know more. I take all the lessons I can pay for. I watch videos. I listen to others teach. There’s a saying I like: “There are riders who make things happen; there are riders who wait for things to happen, and there are riders who wonder what the hell happened.” I am a woman of action, doing my best to make things happen.
And it isn’t just the riding I’m studying, of course. It’s the approach to the training of the horse, on a day, through the year, through the career of the horse. What are the top riders doing with their 4-year-olds in November, and how does it differ from what they’re doing with their 9-year-olds in June, and how does that set them up for success with their 12-year-olds in the summer of the next Olympic cycle? Because it’s a long, long, LONG game, followed by a window from 12-16, give or take, where the horse is at its best. Oof.
I think about this all the time, and it occupies a great deal of my focus. But not all of it. In fact, it might even come second. Because I’m also abundantly aware of how, in spite of excellent planning, excellent judgment, no missteps along the way, and a terrific team providing terrific advice, sometimes the horse still limps, colics or dies.
So the thing I’m thinking about, learning about, studying about, reading about, and, to be honest, fretting about, is the even longer game: how to build a system that doesn’t just help shepherd one horse to success, but a string of them, over many, many years. Because it’s a long game, but it’s also a numbers game.
That means lots of horses. I’ve been incredibly fortunate over my career to be able to work my butt off and support a string of horses. I get them young, when they’re vaguely affordable (but more on that in a minute), and I’ve always been able to keep at least three at all times, spaced out over an age range, so I’ve always got one at FEI, one percolating in the middle, and a young horse. Some of them have grown up to be horses for high sport. Most have grown up to be horses for amateurs, at various levels of performance, and that’s marvelous because their sale funds the purchase of the next one. Net-net, I’ve made more than I’ve missed. And even though I’ve not yet had my Verdades or Valegro, all the ones along the way are making me a better, smarter horse trainer with a broader toolbox. I’m a woman of action, with a broader knowledge base. The system works.
But it’s been a weird few years—Danny’s tragic health challenges; Bev’s passing forcing Swagger’s sale. My head is above water, even during COVID times, but that wee nest egg that all horse trainers keep pocketing, month by month, little by little, to fund the purchase of the next horse just isn’t very big.
So when I set out to replace Swagger with a young horse of my own, I thought I’d have just enough to get a top-shelf 3- or 4-year-old. I did the things that I do, and I found good options, and yet here I am, horseless, with my budget reduced by one-seventh, because I’m three pre-purchase exams in with no success.
So I’m … nowhere. And that’s a really freaking annoying place to be.
I’ve done a lot of soul searching about what’s making me craziest. Is it the loss of these individual horses? A little bit, of course. The first two were particularly exciting because they were American-bred mares, and man, I’d love to be on a world-class American-bred mare. But I tell my students all the time that good horses aren’t going out of style; there will always be more. Is it the money? For sure, a bit. Getting video after video of an exciting horse that I can’t afford is frustrating, although not nearly as frustrating as getting video after video of ones I could afford but are absolutely not good enough. Is it the rerouting of the plan? No, I have plans rerouted all the time. I’m getting great at it. And I think I’m the sort of person who’s at her best when her back is against the wall.
It’s the powerlessness of it all.
I can’t make horses pass the vet. I can’t make people price them so I can afford them. And right now, I can’t travel to Europe and see 20 in a matter of days. I’m having to rely on others to do much of my searching for me (and it should be noted that my friends who are doing this for me are saints because I’m trying to not be a nuisance, but sometimes I’m failing. You guys know who you are. You rock.)
And all this is up against a backdrop of the facts that I can’t make people wear masks, and I can’t make people be more politically and socially tolerant, and I can’t contribute to science. I know, I know, being sad about not having another pony to play with is a really dilettante-y problem. But it seems like it should be the easy one of the many things on my mind to fix, and I can’t even fix that one. Acknowledging that the world is going through real, honest-to-goodness crises, this is the one that’s pushing me over the edge into Crazytown.
So I’m doing all the things I can do to keep myself from slowly descending into madness. I’m exercising more. I’m watching “The Queen’s Gambit,” “Enola Holmes” and the terrific Aaron Sorkin film “Molly’s Game” (well lookee there, programs about really, really driven alpha females.) I’m alternating between reading Chris Voss’ “Never Split The Difference” and a fantasy smut series with dragons and gryphons.
And then I’m being a woman of action, watching countless videos, reaching out to breeders and trainers from near and far. The right horse will eventually make its way into my life, and then I can find all sorts of other things to be impatient about and hungry for. But hopefully those will be things that are at least a little wee bit under my control because waiting for things to happen is clearly not my forte.
Lauren Sprieser is a USDF gold, silver and bronze medalist making horses and riders to FEI from her farm in Marshall, Virginia. She’s currently developing The Elvis Syndicate’s Guernsey Elvis and her own Gretzky RV and Ojalá with hopes of one day representing the United States in team competition. Read more about her at SprieserSporthorse.com, or follow Lauren Sprieser on Facebook and Instagram.