TEN THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT BEING A YOUNG EQUESTRIAN (Part 1)
I have been a top level dressage rider and coach for over a decade now. In that time I have won national and provincial championships. I have travelled around the world with horses. I have coached pupils to win for their provincial teams in various disciplines. I have completed several equine based qualifications with distinction, and written for many publications.
This is not a brag, because I have also been run away with in a prize giving parade, broken several bones, got lost in the middle of a dressage test, forgot my boots at home on show day, fallen off in a parking lot (that was quite recent), had my coach throw a book at me because I was about to ride over her, and on one memorable occasion I was asked to leave the championship arena because my horse was so badly behaved he was upsetting the other horses. I have been stepped on, bitten, and kicked… and that is just by other riders.
So I thought carefully about what I wished someone had told me as a young rider and came up with ten things I think all young riders and young adults need to know for your life as an equestrian…
- Be nice to your peers – you’ll need it back one day.
Remember that we were all beginner riders once who didn’t know better. Understand that this is a tough sport, so encourage each other when things go wrong, and stay humble when you win. Have you heard the saying “Pride comes before a fall?” … that person rode ponies!
- If you want to blame someone, ask if it should be you.
Riding is a 50-50 partnership, and you are responsible for half! When things go wrong it is a learning opportunity, and an opportunity for you to do something better. Never stop learning – everyone will have something to teach you, so that’s pretty easy – but the best gauge of how you are developing is your horse.
- Get your hands dirty.
Be real horsemen and horsewomen, not merely riders. If you learn to look after your horse, they will look after you! Every single top rider in the world has worked as a groom at some point, but by the same token, every top CEO has some real-life low-level humility-inducing history behind them. There is no part of your horse’s care that is beneath you if you want to stay on top of your game, just as there will be no element of your lives and businesses that do not deserve your attention to detail.
- Hard work can trump talent.
Keep at it, consistently, day after day, and you will see the results. There is a great saying that goes “You can have anything you want if you are willing to sacrifice everything else.” My most successful horses were not the “best” nor the most expensive horses – they were just average ones with great attitudes and excellent work ethics. They made the work fun, and gave their all. The same applies to people – effort will always be better to work with than just talent.
- Be a good leader, but a better partner.
Horses don’t care how much you know if they don’t know how much you care. Like everything in life, this is a relationship, and relationships are built on mutual trust and respect. It’s easier to be trusting and respectful with a partner who offers you the same. Always try to be a more thoughtful owner and rider, and err on the side of kindness. Remember that none of us are machines; everyone has bad days, horses, children, parents… A bad day does not make a bad horse. It doesn’t make a bad life either! Keep trying.
- Don’t measure success in accolades, but in pleasure and progress.
To be honest, not every horse is a winning horse – BUT every horse IS special. Every pony you ride brings a lesson, even if it’s a tough one you didn’t want! Indeed, sometimes those are the ones we need the most. Even for professional riders, sometimes a win means a slow clear round, and sometimes it just means getting back on when you have had a fright. The only real failure we experience when falling is from not rising again! The only person you should be interested in beating is the rider you were yesterday.
- Be gracious and appreciative to the people who got you here.
Any great success in your life is the result of a team effort. This means your coach, and your groom who looks after your pony while you are at school, but also your parents who support this, your friends who make it fun, and the people behind counters who help things run smoothly. You will never be too big, too good, or too successful to appreciate the people who facilitate you achieving. The mark of great people is not how they treat their superiors, but how they treat their supposed inferiors.
- Have fun, but stay safe.
Safety first… then let the magic happen! Always wear your helmet, check your equipment yourself, be careful even around ponies who you know. These rules don’t change when you grow up, and getting complacent in life can lead to accidents. DO NOT TEXT AND DRIVE! Make sure there is toilet paper BEFORE you sit down, and always check if your coffee is too hot.
- Be mindful of the big picture.
Whether you are doing this as a hobby for now, or dedicated to this as a lifelong journey of heady obsession, horses offer you amazing opportunities. They lend you wings, teach you to fly, teach you to love. They might break your bones, which is okay because you have 206 of those, but sometimes they break your heart too. This is great training for the first date your parents hope you never have! They teach you to keep your chin up and your heels down, especially when things are getting rough. They teach you that sometimes you get pooped on for no reason. They teach us what it feels like to be brave, and they give you your first taste of freedom.
The equestrian sport is unique because it doesn’t just hone physical skills – it moulds your empathy and character. The rosettes you win today will be forgotten when you are as old as I am, but the imprints horses leave on your soul (and your butt!) will last a lifetime.
- The difference between ordinary and extraordinary is that little extra.
If you want to learn, no one can stop you. If you don’t want to learn, no one can teach you. Read books, ask questions, be involved – this applies for everything you ever want to pursue. Pick up your score sheets after your classes, and ask the judges where you can improve. There are many people who will happily help you in life if you are enthusiastic to learn, show the extra effort, and work hard!
I am so excited to see so many young riders in the equestrian sport. Some of you are already exceptional young riders, looking towards successful adult careers. I am optimistic that there is a committed future Olympian amongst you. Some of you just want to enjoy time with your hairy best friend – I am JUST as excited by this, because it is the start of a lifelong love affair. Enjoy every step. Love your horse. Be grateful for every ride. It is a privilege that such a big animal lends us its power so graciously, one that we must never forget.
For the parents, there is a saying I love: teach your kids to love horses, and they will never have the money for drugs! Though it must be said that my mother always said that cocaine would be infinitely safer and cheaper. This is a wonderful lifestyle. It has highs and lows unlike any other. It is exponentially more complex because there are two athletes, not one. Try to prioritise the right version of success here, one where safety, fun, and friendships are glorified. Your reactions will teach your children how graciously to accept it when things go wrong. Invest in good solid mounts, not fancy ones, but invest in better tuition and coaching. If your child doesn’t want to ride, don’t ever make them – have a party and go buy some golf clubs! But if your child DOES want to ride… you will never ever be able to stop them. Invest in a bakkie, a big washing machine, a good hip flask, and a sense of humour.
Good luck to everyone embarking on this journey… it’s a glorious one!
The Off Side