“The only way to get good at this sport is to never stop learning.”
I’m not entirely sure who said this originally — someone much more wise than I am — but I have heard variations of it throughout my entire 20 years in the saddle. It could not be a more true statement to keep in mind when working with and around horses. There is always another way to approach a situation and every horse has a unique personality and there will never be a cookie-cutter way to teach and ride.
I am incredibly fortunate enough to be a part of a fantastic barn with more knowledge floating around than I could ever hope to absorb and retain. Jill and Mark O’Donoghue have always been parental figures to look up to, and I try to learn from every statement that comes out of their mouths.
I also had the privilege of growing up with Meghan, who is now a household name in the eventing community, and her sister Kelty, along with other girls who have gone away and come home with new tips and tricks of the trade.
When Meghan, Kelty, and I were in high school we used to spend hours upon hours in the barn together. We would set jump courses, ride as many horses as we could get our hands on, and sit to study each other’s lessons.
We were hungry for ways to become better, and we found those through watching and listening, something that I unfortunately don’t see a lot of riders doing now days. There is a serious lack of desire to learn, along with any type of support for one another within barns. I have seen this in multiple programs the last couple of years, and it bothers me.
I have arranged my horse’s schedule the last two weekends so that I have been able to travel with Meghan to her clinics in the area. While I justify this as spending time with one of my best friends since she is gone six months out of the year, I also have made a point to pay attention to every moment of these clinics.
While the combinations have all been lower level horses and riders, I have probably learned more than if I had sat at Phillip Dutton’s farm and watched a bunch of 4* riders jump their 4* horses all day.
The horses ranged from absolutely perfect packers to hot young Thoroughbreds, and the riders spanned from nervous children who had never been in a clinic before to adult amateurs who ride with Meghan every chance they get.
This made for every possible situation one could imagine throughout the two weekends, and we also got to see a variety of communicating with the horses on the flat, throughout the show jumping, and finally out on the cross country. No pair was perfect and Meghan found something for everyone to work on!
I have watched Meghan teach hundreds of lessons, sat through several of her clinics, and had her work with me and my horses countless times, yet I still manage to take away something from every session I continue to hear. I try to do this with lessons I take myself, or that I have the opportunity to watch.
I have been amazed recently with some of the younger riders in the barn who don’t take the extra hour out of their day to sit in the arena and watch her teach. I was also amazed at the number of riders in the clinic who loaded up and left immediately following their rides, or did not get there early to watch some of the other groups.
Now I know that with clinics a lot of participants have time constraints and cannot stay, or they haul in from a distance, but I still find it amazing at the lack of interest in sitting and watching others learn. Even the lack of attention paid by riders within their own groups, talking to their husbands/wives or other supporters instead of watching and listening to the clinician.
Yes, this is a fast-paced world, but if we really want to be masters of our craft, or hell- even just kind of good at it! You have to take the time to study the sport and not just participate in it.
I see way too many people who just get to the barn, ride their horse, and jump in the car and leave. Very few riders will put pressure on their horses when not riding in a lesson, therefore losing any ability to work through tension on their own. At some point in your career you will be warming up by yourself, and if you have never practiced at home and alone, you will be lost trying to figure out how to ride without help in the warm-up arena.
While at events riders may run over to the ring to watch their friends ride, but they don’t sit by the ring and study other riders throughout the day. You can learn something from every ride, even if it is just what NOT to do, and I know I see a lot of that (and definitely contribute to the cause at times as well!). How many riders sit down and watch the videos that are available online from major events and watch what the riders are doing as opposed to just watching for entertainment value?
We can all be held accountable for how good we really want to be at this sport. While things such as work, family, and other obligations in the lives of amateurs do play a part in how much time we can devote to it, I guarantee all of us could find time to watch someone else ride, stay a bit longer for a clinic/lesson, or to help set a course and learn about distances and why courses are set the way they are.
I have run the Intermediate level, and I learned more from the Starter and Beginner Novice riders in the last two weekends than I did from the Preliminary riders. You are never too good to quit learning, remember that.