In this wonderful little world we call eventing, the depths of affluence can seem dizzying at times. Do you see that rider who just galloped by? Her bridle costs as much as my first car. But for every rider who is turned out in all the latest, most stylish gear there is another who has just as much passion but infinitely fewer resources.
The gap can be intimidating for those of us on the shallower end of the financial pool but there is, in fact, a lot that can be done to bridge that distance. As a young rider I felt that I was doing the best I could with the knowledge and resources I had but, in looking back on those years, there is so much I could have done differently.
It would be an enormous privilege if I could share lessons learned in my journey and, in doing so, offer encouragement to riders such as myself who are doing their best with limited resources. So while not everyone can afford a fancy imported horse and a four-horse head-to-head trailer, there are innumerable ways to level the playing field. Where should we start?
Knowledge Is Power
Having a great trainer is absolutely essential but also costly. If you can’t afford lessons as often as you’d like, augment your lesson schedule with free or low-cost learning opportunities.
Reading is a wonderful place to start. There are loads of amazing books on riding and training in all disciplines — don’t box yourself into only eventing related material. Good horsemanship is good horsemanship, regardless of the sport. Some of my personal favorites are Complete Horse Riding Manual by William Micklem, Riding and Jumping Clinic by Anne Kursinski, Hunter Seat Equitation by George Morris, and Reiner Klimke’s Basic Training of the Young Horse and Cavaletti. Inexpensive used copies of books are typically easy to come by, but the library really is an unsung hero of the world these days. It’s easy to search your local library system for any book you want and if none of the libraries own a copy most branches are great about purchasing books through a simple request process.
For visual learners, watching videos of top riders is a tremendous tool and totally free as long as you’ve got internet access. It can be helpful to find several riders whose style you want to emulate and watch them at various levels and in all three phases. Lots of competitions are available for live streaming these days as well. In my time as a working student I definitely benefited tremendously from amazing lessons, but the amount of time I spent watching great, consistent, correct riding day after day was equally enlightening. Auditing clinics is another option although there is typically a fee.
Looking the Part
When it comes to learning, we would be doing ourselves a terrible disservice by seeking knowledge only about riding and training. I spent years riding and competing in lower level barns and one of the most notable differences between that setting and an elite professional operation is the attention to detail in turnout for both horse and rider.
The most exciting thing about this observation is that, while we can’t all afford to hire a pro groom, anyone can learn the skills and habits that make grooms so successful. The single most tangible quality that sets a supergroom apart from a messy horse owner is critical thinking when it comes to the horse’s overall well-being as well as his appearance.
Grooms are constantly evaluating everything. If you want your horse to look like Emma Ford has been pampering him, step one is to begin paying very close attention. Shavings in his tail? Grab the detangler and brush it out. Pee stain on that grey belly? Wash it! And not just for shows; you would never catch a pro schooling at home on a dirty horse. Make it a habit to polish hooves every time you groom and keep that mane pulled neatly. All of this comes at little to no cost to you, save your own time and effort. And this applies to the rider just as much as it does to the horse. A hair net costs a few bucks, tucking your shirt into your breeches and wearing a belt is free (if you don’t have a belt hit up the the thrift store, a place that can seriously be a broke rider’s secret weapon).
Years ago I would have rolled my eyes and joked about how pointless all of that nonsense is. If my horse looks clean at the show then why does it matter at home? I’ve truly come to believe, however, that developing this type of discipline and mindset has boundless benefits. First and most obviously, your horse will look and feel great every day with all the little details looked after, but that is really just the beginning. When it’s time to step up the turnout for a show or clinic, your prep work will be much easier, leaving more time and energy to focus on knowing your test inside and out or walking your course a few extra times.
The deeper benefit here is the gift of discipline. What you’re really doing is cultivating an attitude of extreme attention to detail. In time you will most certainly notice this attitude carrying over into your riding as well. Your horse may not have arrived on an airplane from a distant land but if you can present yourselves immaculately and ride accurately and correctly you will be competitive. This was clear even in Kentucky last week. Some of the leading horses in the dressage were truly extravagant movers, but just as many were merely good movers ridden with painstaking attention to detail, and accuracy was just as influential on Saturday and Sunday.
You can bet good money that in every division you enter there will be a handful of horses who are, to some degree, unfit. By developing a strong fitness program with a knowledgeable trainer and sticking with it (especially on that day you’d rather not and say you did. I feel you, I’ve been there!) you’re putting yourself in a more competitive position before you ever step foot on the event grounds.
In addition to keeping your horse fit (again — no added expense there) rider fitness can provide an edge that you don’t have to pay for. I personally love doing workout videos, tons of which are free on YouTube (check out the BeFit channel for fun, high quality workouts for all levels), but walking and running are great too. Lots of professional riders hire personal trainers but that does not mean that the rest of us can’t be just as fit!
Where to Spend and Where to Save
While everything thus far has been focused on ways to level the playing field without emptying you wallet (and your checking account … and savings) there is a certain inevitability when it comes to eventing: it is expensive and you will sometimes need to spend those hard earned dollars. It is valuable, then, for those of us who do not have inexhaustible assets, to determine what is worth splurging on and what isn’t.
This is going to be unique to each individual and his or her situation, and that’s a good thing. You don’t necessarily need to have the same spending priorities as your barn mate, as long as what you are doing is working for you and your horse. For example, I would personally rather spend big bucks on really good quality tack and ride an OTTB that only cost me $1,000. One of the greatest horses I’ve sat on was a thousand-dollar Thoroughbred (and I’ve somehow been blessed enough to have previously ridden three of the horses who trotted down the center line at Kentucky this year, so I don’t say so without perspective). We’ve all heard the story of the $800 Neville Bardos and countless other horses who came from meager beginnings and went on to have enviable careers.
If you personally prefer a pricier mount and still love that old saddle you’ve had for years that’s great, too. Whatever works great for you is the right answer, so try to ask yourself the right questions when it comes to big purchases. It should be about what you personally want and need. Or we just could hang up our boots and switch to yoga. All you need is a mat, some stretchy pants and, like, $10 per class. But that won’t happen, will it?
At the end of the day, I believe that we are all privileged beyond belief to have these amazing creatures in our lives and any success beyond that is just icing on the cake, right?