I'm not even remotely old, but I find myself using the old refrain "Kids these days" more often than I'd like to recently. I think despite my mere 25 years of age, I grew up in a different fashion from my peers, and certainly from the young stock coming up through the ranks now. I was raised to realize that falling off would happen, and often. I was told that running around the barn without shoes was stupid, but if I chose to ignore the rules I had to accept that there would be no crying allowed when all my toes were broken by a giant hoof. I was bought ponies who were less than perfect, and when I was older, horses who were straight off the track. I figured out pretty quickly that it wasn't about ribbons, but the long term relationship and the goal of harmony at some point in the distant future.
Kids these days....I feel like 9 out of 10 young riders learn to work with horses in a completely different environment. Our country in general is far less agricultural than it used to be, and so most people don't grow up with farm animals surrounding them, much less horses in their back yard. They learn about horses in a less organic way, in the same way that they learn about soccer or girl scouts: once a week lessons. As a nation we are far more concerned about safety and insurance issues than ever before, and it has the unfortunate consequence of only letting kids learn in a super controlled environment. Obviously, I'm not advocating oblivious neglect, but letting your kid rip-roar around the countryside bareback isn't always a bad or dangerous thing. Let's face it, riding is dangerous by nature, and if you're not ready to take a little risk, you're in the wrong sport.
So, given these fundamental differences in how the future of our sport is learning to ride, how do we create the same gritty, determined, scrappy riders who successfully navigate their first cross country round on a pony determined to stop? How do we convince them that it's worth it, and despite the fact that you did everything right except have that one rail down, your weekend was amazing? Too many parents and children get hung up on ribbons and placings, but how do we convince them to think in the long term and persevere the way we want them to?
I recently saw a video on TED (a nonprofit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading. It started out in 1984 as a conference bringing together people from three worlds: Technology, Entertainment, Design) that was about how kids succeed both in school and in life. The talk was titled, "The key to success? Grit". Angela Lee Duckworth spoke in short about her work studying success based on several different attributes. She found that people who had the most success in life were not people with the most money, the best looking, social intelligence, physical health, or highest IQ. It was grit. "Grit is passion and perseverance for very long term goals. Grit is having stamina, and sticking with your future, day in day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years. And working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life like a marathon, not a sprint."
So the next question is, how do we create grit in our future stars? The scary thing is that....nobody knows. Science doesn't know. Teachers and parents want to know how to teach their kids a solid work ethic, and keep them motivated for the long run when they are 30 and possibly in the running for the US Team, but how? Angela explains that they only thing we do know is that talent doesn't make you gritty. Data from her experiments shows that grit is usually unrelated or inversely related to talent.
The best idea about building grit is called "Growth Mindset" by Carol Dwek. A Growth Midset is based on the idea that the ability to learn is not fixed, and it can change with your effort. When kids read and learn about the brain, and realize that it can grow in response to challenge, they are more likely to persevere when they fail because they don't believe that failure is a permanent condition.
So how do we apply this to riders for the future? How do we impart upon our future generations that riding (and Eventing specifically) is a sport that rewards those who pursue their goals for years, not just weeks? Those who put in the 10,000 hours, and ride anything they can to get to where they are going? I fear that our society is much too obsessed with short term rewards and pretty ribbons, and I worry about the future of Eventing as a sport in a changing world.
Check out the amazing talk by Angela Lee Duckworth at TED, and just extrapolate what she says about learning in general instead of specifically for schools. Success is success, no matter what situation you are in.