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Ema Klugman

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Reflections of a Baby Lawyer (Plus, Some Horsing Around)

Much can be gleaned simply from watching ringside at the warm-up. What’s the best way you bring your thinking cap to your riding? Photo by Sally Spickard.

“You’ll find that as you start working, you have less and less time to think.”

I have just started my second year of law school. One of my professors said this to us on the first day back in class this semester. He was, of course, primarily admonishing us to read our case assignments and come to class prepared. But he was also reflective about the fact that once you leave school, you may not have time to think about and consider lots of different ideas. You won’t be required to read so much, so you may not read enough because there are more pressing things on the agenda.

He had put his finger on what I like most about school: the whole point is to think. There are subsidiary goals, like performing well on exams and writing good briefs or papers, but in the end the greater goal is to think about stuff, often in a critical way. If you learn how to do that well in school, you can apply that skill to anything later on.

I spent the summer working full-time at a small firm outside of Washington, DC and riding my horses in early mornings and evenings. Learning the law and practicing it could not be more different, and as usual, I have been thinking about how the horses relate to what I have learned. Here are some themes I noticed:

What can be gleaned from well-respected horsewomen such as Ingrid Klimke? Photo by Tilly Berendt.

The thinking happens behind the scenes. Great horsemen and great lawyers have a few things in common: they make mistakes, they use their brains, and they are able to not only work in the dredges of the everyday but also pull back and see the longer view. In short, they are able to keep thinking, even if the majority of their time is spent in the day-to-day of managing the smaller pieces.

One of my favorite things to do is watch the warm-up or practice arena at a major horse show. Watch it as the sun is rising, and you see how the riders prepare their athletes by stretching and relaxing them, or allowing them to have a playful buck on the lunge. Watch closer to the time of the class, and you see how they put the horses through their paces a bit, or school some fences and get the horse ready to perform. When they get to the arena, the “proof is in the pudding,” but getting to watch back-stage means you get an idea of how the pudding is made.

Watching lawyers work—and trying to work like they do—is similar in many ways. We have all seen lawyers on TV, speaking and reacting and presenting at a trial. However, that is just the tip of the iceberg (assuming the case actually goes to trial). Preceding those moments are hours and hours of thinking, revising, strategizing, and researching. Just like preceding the moment in the show ring are hours and hours of training and conditioning and preparation.

Problem-solving, teamwork, and creativity lead to success. I have worked in the barns of two former U.S. Team riders. When you show up to someone’s barn, you know that it will run in a particular way. It will function a bit differently from anywhere else you have been. This is particularly true in a high-performance setting. The owner or head trainer will have philosophies and preferences, whether they be the way blankets are hung, the manner in which manes and tails are trimmed, or the frequency of fitness work the horses do. A law firm is a bit like a high-performance stable: there are specific house rules to follow, and the tone of teamwork and excellence is contagious. Unlike riders, lawyers generally have the luxury of air conditioning, but like great riders they spend most of their time problem-solving and working with a team to figure out how to succeed.

Everyone has their own style. In law school, they taught me how to write like a lawyer should write. Not many frills; lots of formatting and other technical rules; no room for metaphors or even an ounce of humor. Needless to say, I enjoyed writing horse blogs more than legal briefs. But at work, I read and edited briefs that were written in all manner of styles. Within reason, there is room for creativity, as long as it is in the service of being persuasive.

Everyone has their own preferences and method of learning, and there’s nothing wrong with finding the trainer who has the right philosophy that matches your style. Photo by Sally Spickard.

People skills matter. I know some amazing riders who can hardly hold a conversation for over five minutes. They could be the next Michael Jung, but without communication skills to connect with the people to help them get there, it doesn’t really matter how well they ride. Interacting with so many lawyers over the summer—as well as my colleagues and classmates at school—has made me realize that people skills are very important, perhaps over and above anything else. It doesn’t matter what industry you are in: building a relationship of trust through communication, whether it’s with a client or a colleague, leads to new opportunities. That doesn’t mean you have to be someone other than you are in these situations. You should be authentic and true, because people need a feeling of connection to build bridges, and in this sport and this life we can’t get to the places we want to go without those kinds of bridges.

Competitiveness and the “winning feeling” are important, but they aren’t everything. Lawyers are competitive people. Most good riders I know are also competitively-minded. One thing that I have learned from horse people is that if you do the sport to win, you won’t last long in it. Even the best people don’t win all the time. The day-to-day of training and improving has to be motivating to you, because even when you do everything right, there’s a chance that you won’t win. The same is true in lawyering, especially in litigation. There has to be a winner and a loser. Just like you cannot get mad at your dressage judge for giving you an unfair mark, you have to accept the results of a ruling—although you may have the opportunity to appeal it in some instances. The point is that circumstances beyond your control may determine whether you win, and you certainly won’t win every time.

It’s fun to win, and it’s important to enjoy it. But I imagine that relying on that “winning feeling,” whether you’re a lawyer or a rider, is not the secret to longevity.

¡Vamos a Pratoni! Highlighting Mexican Event Rider Daniela Moguel

Daniela Moguel and Cecilia. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

“If we don’t do it, who else is going to do it?”

Anyone who has met Daniela Moguel knows she has a fiercely positive attitude. As the first female Mexican five-star rider ever, she specializes in breaking barriers. When I spoke to her last month about her ideas about diversifying our sport, she was quick to highlight the issues but also committed to finding solutions.

If you scroll down the list of results of any FEI event, you don’t usually come across many Mexican flags. The nationalities of most riders in the U.S. are American and Canadian (sometimes with a rogue Australian thrown in there!) despite the fact that Latinos make up almost one-fifth of the American population. Daniela would like to change this. She wants to “open the vision” to include people from different backgrounds in eventing, from the grassroots to the top of the sport.

For Daniela, this has to start with “changing the vision and changing the stereotypes.” When you hear the words “event rider,” the image that pops into your head is likely to be one of a white woman or man. If you don’t fit that stereotype, it is hard to see yourself in the sport, much less at the top of it. “Exposure is a big part of it,” Daniela says.

“The resources are out there” to support more inclusivity in the sport, especially from a financial perspective. Daniela believes this to be true, but more organization and leadership is necessary to put these resources to work. For example, she raises the idea that professional riders could commit to discounting their clinics so that one or two riders could ride for free. That would mean that those who usually couldn’t afford to ride with a top professional might gain access to an excellent educational opportunity. And you never know—a young rider who meets a professional at a clinic may end up as their working student or full-time employee down the line. The opportunities begin when the door opens.

Daniela Moguel and Cecelia. Photo by Shannon Brinkman Photography.

Daniela also spoke about how eventing in Latin America is really still a military sport. In Mexico, she became aware of the fact that the sport was largely for men only. For example, at the Pan American games, almost all of the riders are in the military, and almost all of them are men.

“As you go up the levels [of eventing in Mexico], there are fewer and fewer girls and women competing,” Daniela notes. She cites the military influence as creating a gender stereotype, and also the fact that many women go into show jumping instead of eventing because there are more opportunities in that sport. Daniela came to America from her native Mexico in 2018. She had reached a point in her country where she could not progress any higher up the levels. For a long time, in fact, she was the only woman competing at the upper levels of eventing in Mexico.

Daniela has since ridden at the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event several times, as well as the 2018 World Equestrian Games in Tryon, North Carolina. Later this month, she will be contesting the World Championships in Pratoni, Italy on the horse with whom she has met all of these previous goals: Cecelia. “My preparation has gone well,” Daniela says, citing her outings in show jumping in Wellington, Florida, and a recent good finish in the River Glen CCI3S. Cecelia is 19 years old this year, so Daniela has tried to keep her fresh and not over-compete her, but she says that she has gotten the horse very fit with the hilly championship venue outside of Rome in mind.

Just a few of the shirt designs available for Daniela’s fundraising campaign!

“Let’s look at the big picture,” Daniela urges. “This is what we can give back to the sport and to the world.” Daniela hopes that her success will encourage more Latina girls to take up eventing. “Women need to have each other’s backs,” she says, “we need to encourage each other.” She notes that she had a student come into her program who said she used to want to go to the Olympics, but now she thinks that goal is too ambitious. Daniela wants everyone to have big dreams, even if it is unclear how feasible they will be. “There is no goal that is too high, you just have to work for it.”

Daniela is selling t-shirts to help fund her journey to Pratoni. Designed by Britt Gillis and Sally Spickard, they display the slogan “Mex-I-Can” in a nod to her country and her optimism. If you would like to support Daniela’s journey, please follow this link to order a shirt or this link to her GoFundMe page for the World Championships. The EN Team will certainly be cheering her on.

Expanding the Horizons of Sport: Meet South African Eventer Vicky Scott-Legendre

Victoria Scott-Legendre and Valtho des Peupliers at Tryon in 2018. Photo by Pierre Costabadie.

When Vicky Scott-Legendre left her native South Africa and arrived in France with the goal of getting to the top level of eventing in 2013, she had one problem: she didn’t speak a word of French. That turned out to be a technicality. Like most event riders, Vicky didn’t let those kinds of small details get in the way of her resolve and determination.

In the ten years since that recent university graduate packed up and moved overseas, she has represented South Africa at a World Championships and an Olympic Games. For riders who are not from countries that are traditional eventing meccas, she is an inspiration. However, her story is also an illustration that in order to reach the top levels of eventing, sometimes it is necessary to leave home and go to those meccas to learn the trade and compete against the best. For Vicky, leaving home has meant that she has the opportunity to fly the South African flag proudly at championships—whether that is Tryon, North Carolina; Rio De Janeiro, Brazil; or Tokyo, Japan.

Vicky grew up Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. The decision to get into horses wasn’t necessarily an intentional one by her family. In fact, they were “totally non-horsey,” Vicky admits. It was rather by chance that Vicky got introduced to horses. Her family’s neighbors had a property that wasn’t being used, and acquired a horse to eat down the grass. Vicky and her siblings asked to ride the horse, and before they knew it they were swinging their legs over bareback. Vicky’s family then purchased a pony of their own. It hadn’t been backed when they got it, “so it was a rocky start!” Vicky laughs. After that rocky start, Vicky began competing and eventually made her way into eventing.

South Africa’s Victoria Scott-Legendre and Valtho des Peupliers at Luhmühlen. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

South African eventing sometimes involves animals other than horses. “One of our events is on a small animal reserve, so there are giraffe and zebra around, and they are always curious about what’s happening. People are having to shoo them away from the arenas.” Vicky describes one occasion on which she had to stop in the middle of her dressage test because there was a herd of zebra sauntering toward the arena. Talk about desensitization!

One of the major challenges of eventing in South Africa — and one of the reasons that Vicky decided to move abroad — is that the numbers are very small. “In a three-star, for example, there might be only four riders in the class,” Vicky explains. It’s difficult to get a competitive atmosphere in a smaller eventing community. It’s also difficult to find horsepower in South Africa, not least because of the strict quarantine requirements for importing horses. Horses coming to South Africa have to spend two to three months in quarantine in Mauritius, which means that they lose a lot of fitness and training time.

After university, Vicky thought it would be good timing for her to move to Europe to pursue her goals more seriously. She sold some of her horses to fund the trip and brought one horse to France with her. All of her family is still in South Africa.

“When I first arrived in France, no one took me seriously.” Vicky had been a big fish in a small pond in South Africa, but in Europe she was not a known entity. Now that she has been to the Olympics and World Championships, she’s gotten noticed more. However, moving overseas has been somewhat of a double-edged sword: although she has better access to training, horses, and competitions, it is difficult for her to stay connected with South African sponsors and owners because she isn’t based in South Africa.

Victoria Scott-Legendre and Valtho des Peupliers. Photo by Shannon Brinkman.

Vicky’s coach is Rodolphe Scherer, a French team rider in his own right who was recently appointed as the cross-country coach for the German eventing team. Vicky initially based at Rodolphe’s yard. She now has her own yard with her husband, Edouard, where they are also raising their two-year-old daughter, Charlotte.

“There are benefits and drawbacks to riding for a smaller country: it’s much easier to get selected for big championships, but there is no financial aid, so you have to pay your own way.” Vicky explains. “However, when you are riding for a big country, you are competing against 100 other riders to get selected for a team!” she admits.

This point—that riding at the top level in an emerging eventing nation means the chances of selection are very high — is a huge deal for an owner who wants to see their horse at an Olympic Games or World Championships. While owning a top-level horse (even a very, very good horse) in America or Great Britain means that an owner has a slim chance of going to a championship with their horse, owning the same kind of horse for a rider from a country like South Africa means that selection is almost guaranteed if the qualifications and preparation go to plan. With an experienced jockey like Vicky in the irons, the chances of making it happen are high indeed.

A good example of that is Vicky’s current top horse, Valto, whom she took to both the 2018 World Championships and the 2021 Olympic Games. “He’s a tiny horse with the biggest heart,” Vicky says. For example, he went to Tryon in 2018 as a relatively young horse and stepped up, despite being Vicky’s reserve horse. However, she has had a string of bad luck with him. For instance, in Tokyo last year he had an amazing clear cross-country round, but injured a tendon. Earlier this year at Luhmuhlen, he again had a fabulous round, but withdrew before show jumping because Vicky’s veterinarian discovered a bone chip in the horse’s leg that needed to be removed. Although her goal is still to qualify and compete the horse at the 2024 Paris Olympics, Vicky knows that she needs more horsepower to remain competitive at the championship level.

“I am proudly South African—coming from a small eventing world, it is very exciting to be on the big stage.” Vicky believes that South Africa needs more momentum to be able to field teams for championships in the future. While the country did have a team for the 2010 World Equestrian Games, they have not had one since. Vicky was the sole individual in Tokyo. She hopes that more riders and owners will be enthusiastic about the prospect of flying the South African flag at the Olympic Games and beyond with her.

Should Eventing Have a 5*-Short Level?

Liz Halliday-Sharp and Cooley Be Cool contest the recently-added 4*S cross country track running concurrently with the Kentucky Three-Day Event. Photo by Abby Powell.

After a dark cross country day at the Bramham International 4*L last month, course designer Ian Stark remarked that the sport of eventing is at a kind of crossroads.

As the current qualifications stand, Ian said, not all horses and riders are ready for the level for which they are qualified. That means that testing the best horses and riders with a tough course can make it prohibitively difficult for those who are just barely qualified but still enter the event. “As a course designer, I now have to figure out if it’s my job to dumb it down to make it acceptable for that level, or if we expect them to get better,” he said.

Ian went on to explain that this problem comes, in part, from a lack of standardization across events. It is possible, for example, to qualify for a 4*L with one 4*S run, and that 4*S can be at a relatively flat venue with a course that is known to be on the softer side. A rider can do that, check the qualification boxes, and head off to a 4*L like Bramham. You can be qualified on paper, but not in practice.

In fact, I did this in 2018. I did two 4*S events that spring, got one qualifying score, and then went to Bromont 4*L and promptly fell off. It was my and my horse’s first 4*L. I was qualified on paper, but I wasn’t ready to go to Bromont, which is one of the biggest and hardest four-stars in North America. That horse and I went on to do our first 5* together successfully after four 4*Ls. We got a lot of experience at the four-star level before trying to go five-star.

What about having a 5*S?

When I was first learning about the FEI levels of eventing, it struck me as strange that there was no 5*S to correspond with the 5*L. Every other level has a short format to go along with its corresponding long format. For example, there is a 2*S level as well as a 2*L level. But there is no 5*S corresponding with the 5*L.

The Lexington 4*S has quickly earned a tongue-in-cheek reputation as a “5*S” track. Photo by Abby Powell.

Starting at the three-star level, it is required that horses and riders do a Short format before they can do a Long format in most cases. These requirements are softened for riders in the higher-level categories (based on their MERs at 3*, 4*, and 5* levels), but in general a minimum eligibility requirement (MER) in the Short format is required for qualification for the Long format at any level above 3*. However, the 5* level does not have a short-format division at all.

Would one solution to Ian’s concerns be to have a 5*S division which was a prerequisite to entry at a 5*L? Ian’s main concern seems to be about people who are qualified to compete at a certain level but probably need more experience at the level below that. This can happen at any level, but it is probably most dangerous at the 5* level because of the lack of margin for error and the sheer difficulty of the cross-country test.

If 5*S divisions existed and were required as MERs to move up to the 5*L level, then competitors would have to show their ability for that level before actually attempting it.

How would a 5*S be structured? One idea is to have the dressage and jumping phases be at the 5* level of difficulty and dimensions, while the cross country could be more technical than a 4*S, but not much longer.

Another benefit of a 5*S would be that horses that lack the endurance for the long courses but have the scope and ability for the 5* fences could contest a shorter course. The 5*S could be like their championship event of the year.

Some have remarked that the 4*S at Kentucky, which has run as a new division in the last two years, is tantamount to a 5*S. Perhaps that should be the standard for this kind of division: it could be held alongside the 5*L’s which are already running (Maryland, Badminton, Burghley, etc.), sharing the same venue and perhaps some of the same fences over a short course. Riders could test their horses over this kind of course, provided they are qualified to do so, before attempting the absolute top level of the sport.

Of course, there is no silver bullet for safety or readiness.

In my previous article, “Most Planes Don’t Crash for One Reason”, most of my discussion touched upon how individuals tend to have the mindset that everything happens for a reason.

Proper, careful practice and preparation are needed to safely contest the top levels of the sport. Photo by Shelby Allen.

However, there are usually a multitude of factors that contribute to or cause a problem or accident. On a broader, sport-wide level, we can also think about accidents in a holistic way. It is very, very sad when fatalities occur in the sport. It is also easy to jump to conclusions about how things should change based on what people think causes accidents. “The courses are too technical” or “the time is too tight” or “the jumps are too difficult” or “the qualifications are too easy to meet” are all arguments made. And while these are all rooted in valid concern and desire for a safer sport, these are often blanket statements that simplify the actual problems. What we need to realize is that there is, in all likelihood, more than one thing that needs to change in order to reduce the number of tragic accidents in our sport.

There may not be a silver bullet, however, one area to direct some focus is a creative way to ensure the standard of riding is up to par with the courses. Cross country is the essence of eventing, and it should continue to be the centerpiece — the ultimate challenge — over the three days of competition. Adding a 5*S division as a qualification for 5*L could be a multifaceted solution to the safety and perception issues our sport faces.

Not all accidents are preventable, and even the best riders in the world have crashes. That is the nature of our sport. However, even though it’s impossible to eliminate all accidents, we shouldn’t take that as reason to throw up our hands before trying harder to mitigate the risks.

Everything Happens for a Reason – but Most Planes Don’t Crash for One Reason

When we leave the start box, a world of possibilities await, including that of something going wrong. Do things go wrong for a specific reason? Photo by Jenni Autry.

In college, I read a memoir titled Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved. The author, Kate Bowler, chronicles her challenges in facing stage 4 colon cancer. Bowler taught at my university but I never had the pleasure of meeting her. However, the principal lesson of her book — that everything doesn’t happen for a reason — struck me at the time as being both rebellious and freeing.

“Everything happens for a reason” is a convenient mindset, a way of tying up all of the pieces so they make sense to us. But sometimes there is no reason. Sometimes your mentor passes away, or your kid gets sick, or your horse gets injured, or your partner loses their job, or you get in a car accident. And sometimes there really is no good reason. Sometimes it’s unexplainable.

My friend Elena Perea and I were talking about this the other day. She has written guest posts for Eventing Nation, and the most recent ones involve a silly but quite serious accident that she had. She was walking on foot and managed to severely injure her shoulder such that she couldn’t ride her horse for several months. She put the mare in training with a professional, who moved her up to the Preliminary level.

Then, back in the saddle, Elena accomplished her goal of doing her first Preliminary herself on her horse. You could say that her accident “happened for a reason.” Elena’s injury forced her to change her plans, which you could read as the explanation for the injury itself. However, I think that a better mindset is that every setback has a solution if you’re willing to be creative.

Ema Klugman and Bronte Beach. Photo by Abby Powell.

I’d like to propose three alternatives to “everything happens for a reason.”

The first is to say “not everything happens for a reason.” This one applies to those tragic situations in which trying to explain why is just a futile exercise. The second is to say “good things can come from bad things.” This one actually applies to everything, I think, and what I like about it is that it emphasizes agency and forward-thinking. And the third, which is most empowering for me from the point of view of analyzing but also wanting to move forward, is to say that “most planes don’t crash for one reason.”

Are we talking about planes? Not really, but the same logic applies. Someone said this to me the other day as a metaphor: “Most planes don’t crash for one reason. They crash for a number of different reasons.” The point was that if we take too simplistic of a view — that a problem can be attributed to one particular reason — then we aren’t really seeing the whole picture.

The idea behind the plane metaphor is that most often problems arise because of the cumulative effect of several different underlying issues. It can all come to a head at once, which might make it seem like X or Y is the sole reason for the issue, but usually there were lots of other things going on that contributed to the problem.

I’m no pilot, so I’m not sure exactly why planes crash. Luckily it doesn’t happen very often. However, I imagine that a confluence of factors does make it more likely for a travesty to occur. In the same way, accidents in horse sports are not usually attributable to one event.

Photo by Tilly Berendt.

I have been thinking about this concept from both a personal and broader perspective. On a personal level, having had a number of bad falls myself, I have noticed that my reaction to falling off is sometimes extreme. It is easy to throw everything out the window and want to wipe the slate clean when you have an accident. It’s tempting to change the tack, change the strategy, change the training, or all of the above. We have this human urge to explain why things happen, to pinpoint the exact reason, so that we can fix them.

But most planes don’t crash for one reason. It’s pretty hard, usually, to attribute falling off your horse to exactly one thing. You often hear people do it: “I fell off because I was going too fast” or “I fell off because I missed” or “I fell off because I had the wrong bit on my horse.”

There are a whole host of factors that go into making a horse and rider successful, which means that, logically, there can be a whole host of factors that contribute to things going wrong, too. Taking this approach, rather than concluding that “everything happens for one reason,” is a much more practical way of thinking. And it might make us better pilots for our horses, as well.

On Learning: The Application of Knowledge

Photo courtesy of Ella Groner.

Did you miss earlier editions of this series? Click here to catch up. 

“Learning is not getting stuff inside of your head—it’s getting stuff back out of your head!”

These were the words of wisdom of my Property Law professor, an elderly Jewish man who has been teaching the course for nearly 40 years. If anyone is an expert on how to teach—and learn—property law, it would be him.

His point was that doing well in his class (which turned on doing well on the final exam) required us not only to digest the knowledge from lectures, readings, and discussions. That was only step one: the intake. The real requirement was for us to apply that knowledge: to take it out of our heads and put it in an essay or an oral argument.

At the time, I remembered a funny image entering my brain. Property Law was not making much sense to me at that point —- the life estate system of feudal England and its subsequent development into modern law was not the most logical thing I had ever learned about. So when my professor said this, I imagined my head as a jumble of interconnected but random ideas, and I imagined reaching in there with a hand and scooping out a few concepts and throwing them at the wall like spaghetti.

Needless to say, the picture did not fill me with confidence. I realized that I needed to organize what was in my head in order to be able to get out what I needed to apply to the question at hand. I needed to arrange that handful of spaghetti into a recognizable shape.

So how do we get “the stuff back out of our heads”? It’s not easy. When I teach clinics, I often hear this frustration from riders. For example, I will tell a rider that they have a tendency to lean too far forward on the approach to a fence. They tell me that they know this —- in fact, it’s always been their biggest weakness, but they just cannot seem to fix it. The knowledge is in their head, but they cannot get it out to apply it to their riding in the moment. It’s immensely frustrating.

What I usually tell people in a clinic setting is that they know far more than they think —- they just have to apply it. In particular, I believe amateurs sell themselves short when they think they don’t know enough to ride with excellence. Anyone can ride with excellence. Anyone can learn. And most people have the ability to apply their lessons to their riding.

Yes, you might need a reminder every now and then. A well-timed “sit-up!” from someone on the ground can make a world of difference. But at the competition, we are responsible for being that voice in our heads. We are responsible for pulling the information out of our heads and applying it—- not just throwing spaghetti at the wall, but picking the tools that make sense in the moment and using them in the best ways we know to use them.

Another thing this professor admonished us about was that you cannot come up with a solution without identifying what the problem is. “When you’re a lawyer,” he told us one day, “cases won’t walk into your office with a label on their foreheads saying “property” or “contracts” – you have to figure out what silo they fit into and what kind of law to apply, and you have to remember that there is often crossover between different areas, which might require you to think creatively.”

This advice applies no less aptly to training horses. When a horse walks into your barn, she doesn’t come with a label on her forehead or instructions about how to ride her. She’s a horse —- likely with some history —- but just a horse who is a puzzle for the rider to figure out. The process or training the horse involves the rider assessing the problems, going into their inventory of ideas in their head, pulling out the knowledge that might work to solve those problems, and repeating the process again and again.

The process is iterative. The horse will change. The rider will change. But every step is some version of learning —- taking the information, applying it, and assessing what works.

Back to that quote: “Learning is not getting stuff inside of your head—it’s getting stuff back out of your head.” It would be easy to read this simplistically, to think of the process as shoving a recipe in one’s head and spitting it out when it was needed. But applying knowledge isn’t just dusting off an old idea and plastering it on a new problem. It’s figuring out exactly what part of that knowledge matters for this particular moment. That’s the hard part.

Want more of this series? Click here to catch up. 

‘Heart of a Lion, Position of a Pessimist’ and Other Cross Country Tips from Bromont Rising Coach Rodolphe Scherer

Explaining the water jump. Photo by Ema Klugman.

The riders, grooms, and volunteers were in for a treat earlier this month at the MARS Bromont Three-Day Event: Rodolphe Scherer, the current cross country coach for the German team, was in attendance as a mentor for the Bromont Rising program, hosting three course walks during the week for the 2*L, 3*L, and 4*L divisions which were open to anyone who wanted to join. His insights were invaluable and his humor was contagious.

Rodolphe opened each course walk with overall comments about cross country riding. He mentioned a quote from the British team coach, Chris Bartle: “in cross country riding, you need to have the heart of a lion, but the position of a pessimist.”

This line stayed in my head for the rest of the week. To me, it meant be brave, but sit as though something bad might happen. I found it very useful to remember as I rode around the courses.

Studying the coffin. Photo by Ema Klugman.

Here are a few memorable quotes from his course walks:

“All the time you have to think: two reins, two legs.”

“Pay attention to the spirit of the horse—that is more important than your stopwatch.”

“Your feeling is what’s most important.”

“The distance that we walk, that’s the distance on paper— in real life it may be different for your horse.”

“Keeping your line is the most important thing.”

“No monkey riding!”

“Many problems on cross country are because of the rider losing their position.”

“At the coffin, you need to take the toilet seat.”

“Riding cross country is like driving a race car — it’s not always comfortable, and it’s usually sweaty!”

“Think of a ditch and wall as a big vertical with a nice ground line. It is more to frighten the rider than the horse.”

“The cross country course is like your enemy. But you cannot beat your enemy if you don’t respect it.”

“The smoother you ride, the more petrol in the tank you will have at the end of the course. It is not that Michael Jung has fitter horses than everyone else—it is that he uses the least amount of petrol per jump so his horses are fresh at the end.”

“When there are cross country jumps in an arena [on all-weather footing], often the horse will speed up because the footing is faster, so be aware of that and keep the tempo you want.”

“Many people slow down to try to see their distance- you have to continue with the canter and let the distance appear in front of you.”

Thanks to Rodolphe for his time and expertise. We are so glad that he could come to one of North America’s best three-day events.

A Foot in Both Worlds: Arielle Aharoni Balances Eventing Ambitions with Show Jumping Education

Arielle Aharoni show their prowess on cross country as well as the in the jumper ring. Photos by Abby Powell / Christina Aharoni.

In the Devon arena eventing class a couple of weeks ago, Arielle Aharoni and Dutch Times (Goodtimes – Alino Queen, by Michellino) may have had an advantage over their fellow eventing competitors: not only do they compete at the 4* level of eventing, but they also compete in Grand Prix level show jumping. The mixed course of show jumps and cross country jumps at Devon was right up their alley, and they finished in a competitive fourth place at the end of the night.

It is not often that an event horse can cross into the jumper world at such a high level, but Dutch Times has done it with success. He has taken her from the young rider ranks to 30+ FEI starts in both eventing and showjumping. Arielle told us the story of “Dutch” and their journey together so far.

Christina Aharoni, Arielle’s mother, purchased Dutch as a weanling from Lauren Efford, who breeds European pedigree horses in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, right around the corner from the Aharonis.

Arielle explains that buying a youngster was necessary to get the quality of horse they were searching for. “We were sticker shocked at the price of made horses and decided we would purchase a fabulous weanling and produce them ourselves,” she said.

This strategy can pay off if the foundation is laid well, but it is certainly more risky than having an older, proven horse. Arielle was only eight years old at the time her mother purchased Dutch, so she was too young to do his initial training and competing. Tik Maynard rode the horse for a number of years, producing him to the 3* level in eventing. The intent was always that Arielle would eventually take over the reins when the horse was ready to do the young rider ranks.

However, that did not mean that Dutch was particularly easy. Arielle describes Dutch as “very confident and sassy” as a young horse. “We probably got more education than bargained for!” she explains. But all horses teach us valuable lessons, and Arielle’s current business is primarily a young horse development program so she is grateful for the education Dutch is giving her.

Photo by Christina Aharoni.

Arielle describes Dutch as quite a character. “He loves to make angry faces, and nothing pleases him more than intimidating a newcomer to the barn. We call him the troll under the bridge,” she explains. He is easily bribed with his favorite treat, Sour Patch Kids, and he only likes to be turned out with mares or ponies.

He also has an interesting pattern of hanging out with toads. “Every year since Dutch arrived as a weanling, he has a resident toad living in his stall. Remarkably, there has never been a toad accident. The toad either sits politely under the corner feeder eating flies or sleeps in the banked shavings in the corner of the stall. Establishing a peaceful existence by compromise is something the toads knew instinctively but took me a longer time to figure out,” Arielle laughs.

Dutch has taught Arielle several valuable lessons, but the most important one is to “keep every horse’s confidence intact because that is what makes them successful.” She notes that the sport is stressful in itself, but adding in the traveling, the foreign environments, and the atmosphere creates even more pressure, so it is paramount for horses to stay confident in order to perform their jobs.

As for Dutch himself, Arielle describes his “work ethic, confidence in himself and heart” as the three qualities that make him good at both eventing and show jumping. His strong personality means that sometimes she is simply along for the ride. “While we can nurture those traits, I believe we have no say in some regards!” she laughs.

It’s also true that Dutch has taught Arielle to accept horses for who they are. For instance, she believes that his innate carefulness lends itself terrifically in the show jumping arena, but it can catch them out on the cross country course. She has learned that she cannot change that about him, so she has to just work alongside him and continue to develop their partnership.

Developing young horses is actually what drove Arielle to start pursuing straight show jumping with Dutch. Like any young rider with their first upper level horse, Arielle wishes she knew then what she knows now. However, she can pass the lessons Dutch has taught her onto her next horses.

Arielle Aharoni and Dutch Times. Photo by Shannon Brinkman.

“Other than Dutch,” Arielle explains, “all my stock at home is young, so Dutch became the subject of my quest to compete at Grand Prix show jumping.” The goal to develop more jumpers meant that Arielle wanted to get more familiar with the sport. “I have quite a few young horses from owners and breeders for the show jumping track so I figured I should get better educated in that discipline,” she reasoned. Dutch had always excelled at show jumping in eventing, and Arielle decided that she wanted to be like the top riders who compete in two disciplines at the upper levels.

Most eventers jump 1.30m maximum, but show jumpers are jumping that height with their six- and seven-year-olds. The height, technicality, and precision of show jumping is on another level. Dutch “obliged willingly” to Arielle’s goal of getting into show jumping, not only by taking her through the American standard Grand Prixs but also some FEI show jumping as well. “The FEI tracks have been very challenging but he is very game and wants to know why I can’t just ride him better!” Arielle says.

Arielle works with Andrew Philbrick and Sarah Wayda of Hunter Farms on her show jumping. She describes them as “absolutely brilliant people” not only as coaches, but as mentors and friends. Arielle spends a lot of time horse showing at Princeton Show Jumping, which is in her backyard and suitable for all the horses—from the youngsters on up. Princeton Show Jumping also has a great young jumper development series that culminates in their Young Jumper Championships in the autumn.

One of the highlights of eventing is the experience of traveling to and competing at different venues which present their own challenges. Getting more serious about show jumping has also allowed Arielle to explore different venues across the country.

She was lucky enough to join Hunter Farms at the Split Rock Jumping Tour in Kentucky last year and has also competed on grass tracks at the Kevin Babington Charity Grand Prix in Wellington and Live Oak International in Ocala. She and Dutch placed in the top-ten at Split Rock Sarasota and even won the Welcome Stake and Classic Finale at Princeton Show Jumping last year.

Tik Maynard and Dutch Times in 2015. Photo by Jenni Autry.

Sprinkled in between these jumper shows were good placings at the CCI4*S’s at Great Meadow International and Fair Hill International in the past couple of years. Arielle also placed in the top-20 and won the Maui Jim Award for highest placed young rider in the Advanced division at the 2021 AEC.

As for which discipline she prefers, Arielle declines to answer. “While I do love both disciplines, I don’t think I can compare them. I love training horses, and I understand that each individual horse will excel at different things.” Arielle dreams of making a U.S. team in any discipline, or better yet, in multiple disciplines.

Her short-term goals in eventing are to complete two CCI4*-L events so that she can qualify for a CCI5*. She made headway on that goal with a 10th place finish in the CCI4-L at Bromont just last weekend. As far as show jumping, in the short-term she is hoping to improve on her results over FEI tracks and get down to Wellington this winter and do some U25 Grand Prixs. “I have a lot of work to do,” Arielle admits, “but I’m confident that with the right guidance, training and a little luck I can get there.”

Arielle explains that she has learned lessons from show jumping that have helped her excel in eventing, and at the same time there are several ways in which being an event rider has given her an edge in the jumper ring. “Being an event rider,” she says, “there is nothing in a jumper ring that frightens us in terms of shape.” For example, the show jumping version of a “skinny” is nothing compared to a cross-country skinny. However, the sheer size of the show jumps sometimes intimidates her. At her first Grand Prix with an open water, she recalls politely but jokingly asking her coach if he would like her to go over or through it!

Being an eventer has made Arielle braver and bolder in the jumper ring, and getting into the jumper world has made her much more accurate which has helped with the eventing. She explains that the precision and accuracy that is required in show jumping was “very eye opening and humbling for me as an event rider.”

Arielle Aharoni and Dutch Times. Photo by Shelby Allen.

Being precise and accurate in cross country riding has meant that she can more confidently control where her horse’s body is on the track and at takeoff. (“At least most of the time!” she quips.) And finally, being confident over massive show jumping fences has helped her eventing as well.

Ultimately, though, it’s about the horses. Arielle sums up her approach by commenting that figuring out how to make horses shine is the job of any trainer, which is what she wants to master. Fitting the square peg into the round hole is not the way to go. Rather, figuring out which sport the horses enjoy and excel at should be the goal.

“Having the skill set myself to direct horses into the discipline for which they are most suited is valuable in a young horse program.” Arielle hints that she is contemplating a venture into the dressage world as well in the future. With her flexible approach and open mind, success in that discipline will likely come easily as well.

‘You Are Our Future’: The Bromont Rising Under-25 Program Is Back (+ Dressage Tips from 5* Judge Cara Whitham)

Rodolphe Scherer explains the positive ride needed on the approach to fence 4. Photo by Abby Powell.

Bromont Rising was the brainchild of Bromont organizer Sue Ockendon and the late Steve Blauner. After a two-year hiatus due to COVID, the program is back in full swing this year, with the first installment of the program occurring earlier in June at the MARS Bromont CCI, and the second installment set to occur in November at the fall Galway Downs CCI.

The program aims to provide financial support and education to under-25 year-old riders at three-day events. Riders apply several months before the competition date and are awarded grants of $2500 if they ride at the event. This money helps offset expenses like entry fees, accommodation, and travel costs.

Beyond the financial component, the Bromont Rising program brings in coaches and experts because it is really about nurturing young talent for the future. As Sue Ockendon remarked in the meeting for program participants at Bromont, these young riders “are our future.” The program provides coaching prior to and during the event.

Bromont Rising participants were lucky to learn from Cara Whitham, a Canadian 5* dressage judge in both dressage and eventing who has judged at the Olympics and World Championships; Peter Gray, a Canadian 5* eventing judge who is on the Ground Jury for this year’s World Championships in Pratoni, Italy; and Rodolphe Scherer, a French Olympian who is the current cross-country coach of the German team.

Photo by Abby Powell.

Riders could have individual lessons and receive help in their warm-ups for all phases with Rodolphe, if they opted to do so. Not everyone has a coach at these competitions, so giving program participants coaching for the week is enormously helpful. Rodolphe also hosted course walks for the 2*, 3*, and 4* cross-country courses during the week. Organizer Sue Ockendon thanked the MARS Equestrian for supporting the program, which she hopes will continue for at least the next four or five years.

On Wednesday morning at Bromont, program participants enjoyed a sit-down session with Cara Whitham. This “centerline workshop” focused on the CCI2* dressage test that all of the participants were riding that week (the program is open to riders who enter any level of the competition, but this month they happened to all be in the 2* division).

Cara offered a mix of training tips and test-riding tips. The first thing she asked was: “what are you thinking about when you go around the dressage ring before your test?” Riders had a variety of answers, from trying to relax their horses, to showing them the atmosphere, to suppling them. Cara responded by saying they were making it too complicated—all they should think about, she said, was “be happy”!

Cara then emphasized the training scale. Rhythm, suppleness, contact, impulsion, straightness, and collection may just seem like a collection of words, she said, “but if you really think about it, you can apply it.” She admonished the riders to keep the training scale at the forefront of their minds, whether they were riding at home or in the competition ring.

Going through the FEI 2* test, Cara underscored a few key points to apply to every dressage test. The first was that the riders should know exactly where each movement begins and ends – for example the first centerline – to understand for how long the judge is marking you for that movement. The basic rule of thumb is that one movement ends where the next movement begins.

Bromont Rising participant Abby Dubrawski getting ready for dressage.

Then it was question time again. “How many of you truly look up throughout your test?” No one raised their hands. Cara reminded riders to really look where they are going. That was also Rodolphe’s tip: dressage is not that different from cross country. If you aren’t looking at your destination, you won’t get there.

Cara then moved on to discuss what the judge was looking for in each movement. For example, in the leg yield, keeping the horse’s body straight and looking slightly away from the direction they are going is important.

The workshop was fun because both Rodolphe and Peter chimed in at different points. For example, Rodolphe said “never forget—the judge is not on the horse. So don’t make it appear difficult to ride, even if you are not having the smoothest ride that day. Be happy when you finish the test!” He had an interesting point: when you ride a test, you are basically trying to sell your horse to the judge. It should appear seamless and enjoyable, even if your horse is not the best in this phase. This was an important point about ringcraft and showmanship that will serve the riders well in their careers.

The workshop also drifted to anecdotes. For example, one rider brought up the issue of perception versus reality, and the difficulty of feeling the horse underneath of you and also presenting a good picture to the judge. In response, Cara told the story of competing in dressage for a Pan American Games spot. After the test was over, she thought she had done a brilliant job and ridden her horse very boldly and forward, but when she came out of the ring her coach said to her, “what was the hurry?”. She sympathized with the riders that sometimes what you feel is not exactly what the judge sees, and suggested that over time and with experience, riders figure out how to present the best picture possible.

Beautiful Bromont. Photo by Abby Powell.

Peppered in these explanations were some riding tips, including:

“Always think of two legs to two reins.”

“Don’t make the lateral movements too sideways because then you lose the outside of the horse.”

“Think of your outside leg in the leg yield as a mattress—a bit heavy but with plenty of give.”

“Look where you are going!”

“When you do your medium trot, think of trotting up a steep hill. That way you keep him light in the shoulders. Don’t think of trotting down a hill!”

“On the centerline and diagonals, think about riding a horse down a corridor that is wide enough to have a few inches on either side of the rider’s legs.”

“Cross the diagonal in free walk with a purpose, not just ambling along like you are going home for Sunday dinner.”

“It’s important to practice the walk at home.” (And Peter Gray chimed in on this one: “Practicing the walk doesn’t mean wandering around and catching up with Facebook!”)

“For hot horses, ride with your legs on; for lazy horses, ride with your legs off.”

Cara also went over some common issues she sees over and over again as a judge. For instance, in medium walk, riders tend to restrict the horse’s neck too much. Keeping your hands forward and your arms soft allows the horse to keep a good rhythm, she explained. In the reinback, riders tend to pull back too much, which causes the horse’s shoulders to drop, so Cara told riders to try to avoid this common mistake. Another example was giving the reins in canter, which is a movement in the 2* test. Cara explained that in this movement, the horse’s frame should not change—“he should not be digging ditches in the dirt with his nose!” she warned. She said that the key in this movement is to keep the rider’s seat deep in the saddle. Finally, in counter canter, Cara said that a common mistake is to bend the neck too much in the direction of the lead. If the rider does this, the inside of the horse is shorter than the outside of the horse, which unbalances them.

The session was also interesting because the riders learned about ringmanship. Cara told them to remember that judges have blind sides. There are things that the judge can see and can’t see depending on where they are sitting—whether they are on the side of the arena or at C. Smart test riding, therefore, involves thinking about what the judge can see. For example, the side judge sees the accuracy of a halt at X, while the judge at C can see the straightness but not the exact placement of the halt. This realization also can help riders understand why they may get different marks on the same movement from different judges.

One thing I loved about the centerline workshop was that Cara kept calling the movements “exercises,” which was a nice reminder that dressage is really all about training and gymnasticizing the horse. Cara comes to the judging from a rider’s perspective, which made her talk particularly valuable.

Riders also had the opportunity to ask questions throughout the session. For example,
when asked what to do in ring familiarization at an FEI event, Peter Gray answered that you should do whatever you need to do to have your horse leave the ring confident, positive, and relaxed. That usually means, he said, “Don’t practice your test!”. This kind of insight is really helpful for riders contesting their first international events and learning the best ways to prepare their horses to perform.

Some other soundbites from Cara during the workshop included:

“Short ends are for repairing and preparing.”

“I love brave riding in the dressage ring.”

“It’s okay to be nervous. It’s okay to have butterflies in your stomach, but just make sure that your butterflies are flying in formation!”

“Read the directives on your tests to understand what the judge is looking for.”

“Be sure your warmup is not your test. Don’t use up all the gas in the tank in the warmup.”

“The harmony mark is the overall impression you give the judge.”

It was a privilege to sit in on the centerline workshop and learn from Cara, Peter, and Rodolphe. I was lucky to receive the Bromont Rising scholarship in 2019 and truly believe that it had a significant positive impact on my career.

“Education is very good because re-education is very difficult,” Rodolphe said when explaining his belief in the program, and in emphasizing the importance of supporting young riders in general. These words encapsulate the spirit of Bromont Rising and the people who make it happen. Access to seminars like the centerline workshop and coaching during the event will have had a major educational impact on all of the program participants. Thank you to Bromont Rising for investing in the education of young riders in our sport.

Does Remote Coaching Work?

Dressage marks are a reflection of your training — but what if you don’t have access to training all the time? Photo by Shannon Brinkman.

Once every two weeks, I trailer over to my dressage coach’s farm for lessons. She’s rarely there. She spends the winter season in Florida, but she has a built-in camera in her arena at her facility in Maryland, which is close to where I live. When I arrive, I tack up and get on my horse, and then I call her. She can see me on her camera, and we proceed with a lesson just as if she were sitting at C.

I was skeptical at first -— I thought that my coach would have to see me and my horses in the flesh from inches away to teach us effectively. Somehow, the separation of the camera would change the dynamic.

In fact, it does not.

Perhaps the only difference is that both teacher and student need to remember to charge their phones before the lesson. Remote lessons feel and work exactly the same way in-person lessons do. There is simultaneity, direct feedback, and the possibility of accessing coaches who live hundreds or thousands of miles away.

The effectiveness of remote communication — whether through Zoom, Google Meet, or some other medium — took almost all of us by surprise during the pandemic. Suddenly people in different time zones could meet simultaneously with remarkable success. Obviously the importance of seamless, efficient platforms is integral -— otherwise, people become frustrated with unclear connections and delays in sound or visuals. But the major lesson from the pandemic about remote meetings was that they are excellent substitutes for in-person meetings.

The equestrian world would do well to embrace this lesson more broadly. I only know three coaches who do remote teaching. Not only could coaches expand their market reach by offering remote services, but students could gain access to so many more experts. There are different ways that people can do remote lessons.

My coach has a camera set up in her arena, so I can just call her on the phone. However, there are also apps like Ridesum, which is conveniently set up for it and has a nice recording option.

On the app, riders can either connect with their coach using two phones (one to record from the ground, and one to speak into) or just one phone (recording from a tripod and connected via Bluetooth headphones to the rider). Users can also record their lessons through the app and then watch them later, which can be a major benefit for learning and review of important concepts. There are also a whole slew of features useful for coaches to keep their busy schedules organized, making Ridesum worth checking out (and no, this isn’t a sponsored post!).

The advent of Zoom has meant that a college student in California can tune into a meeting with a team of researchers in Massachusetts without ever getting on a plane. It took a global pandemic for people to use technology in this way, at least on a regular basis and a major scale. Remote coaching has similar potential, but it has not caught on as much yet.

Apps such as Ride iQ offer access to guided riding, and more coaches are embracing remote coaching — but there’s still a ways to go. A live coaching app like Ridesum has the potential to make equestrian sport and training more accessible for riders at all levels by connecting them with trainers despite their location. Riders gain access to the Ridesum trainer pool with instructors from over 40 countries in every equestrian discipline.

Although it may seem unnatural or less real to have a lesson with a coach who is not physically in your arena, the differences between in-person and remote coaching are negligible. I was skeptical at first, but I liked my coach so much that I wanted to figure out a way to keep working with her. I am glad that I was open to trying the remote lessons because it has made continuity in our training throughout the year possible.

The horse world is known for being set in its ways and rather old-fashioned at times, but this is one area where the possibilities abound if we are open to some change. The technology is at our fingertips.

Acronyms for Amateur Riders

Gerlinde Beckers & Roscommon Fagan. Photo by Shannon Brinkman Photo.

As an aspiring amateur rider (I am currently a professional, but my goal is to be an amateur with a full-time career who rides horses as well), I was thinking the other day about the crazy and funny things amateurs do.

Some of these acronyms are far too long to actually catch on in any way, but they capture the lifestyle of someone balancing riding horses with all of the other life things.

Most of them applied to me or some of my students in the last few months. Here are a few examples, but I’d love to hear more suggestions!

WBWOZC – wearing breeches while on zoom calls

WAHSMSE – why are horse show mornings so early?

EHBRTC – explaining “horse-back riding” to colleagues

CFMHITD – can’t find my horse in the dark

CISDTXCS – calling in “sick” to work due to XC school

SWAFHS – skipping work altogether for a horse show

NMC – need more coffee

NMI – need more ibuprofen

NFH – need fewer horses

SNSFTAW – should not shop for tack at work

SAMMOMH – spending all of my money on my horse

IUTBYAB – I used to be young and brave

ETHHITO – excuse the helmet hair in the office

HWTMHPOMD – having way too many horse pictures on my desk

TLSKAW – trying to live-stream Kentucky at work

PFVAHS – planning family vacations around horse shows

MHIMR – my horse is my refuge.

Horses and Graduate School, Part IV: Beware the Pitfalls of Perfectionism

As Ema Klugman navigates her way through law school and a professional riding career, she’s taking us along for the ride. You can catch up on previous editions of this column here.

Ema Klugman and Bendigo. Photo by Abby Powell.

I had a conversation with a friend and fellow law student a few weeks ago that got me thinking about standards and goals. We get along really well because we respect each other, and we try to learn from each other’s life experiences. She doesn’t ride horses but she loves to hear about my riding and my goals, and we often trade stories. She said something recently that surprised me: “I’m wary of perfectionists. I don’t trust them. I used to be one.”

She went on to say that the problem with perfectionism is that it is a bit of a cop-out. Perfectionists are shooting for infinity; they are trying to achieve the unattainable. In doing so, she explained, they lack standards. It’s a paradox, of course, because we think of perfectionists as having the highest standards. But in a way they don’t have standards at all, because their bar is always higher than what’s possible to reach.

Perfectionism is moving the target after you squeeze the trigger. It is dishonest and counterproductive to expect complete excellence when the majority of your work is good. Producing young horses has taught me this. The “perfect” is so often the enemy of the good with horses, especially in the context of developing their strength.

My late riding coach used to say “the medium trot is at maximum going to be a seven right now, so don’t make it a four by trying to make it a nine.” What he meant was to know the horse’s capacities at the time, and not try to surpass them by trying to create more than what was possible. He didn’t mean that we couldn’t be aspirational — he meant that at some point, the medium trot probably could be an eight or nine. But at that stage, going for more was just going to make the horse lose its rhythm or break to canter or become nervous. It would be like making a gymnast do triple backflips when they had only just learned how to do a single one. Successive steps lead to confidence and strength. Skipping steps to leap to the top, to achieve the “perfect,” is not a reliable method.

Perfectionism is the absence of standard. Standards are definable, specific goals that are achievable. High standards entail connecting an entire network of specific subsidiary goals. When we set a high standard, the path to get there should look more like a map than it a thesis statement.

Let’s say my goal is to ride at another five-star in the next two years. To do that, I have to compete every month or two weeks. To do that, I have to ride six times a week. And in each ride with each horse, I have goals of X, Y, and Z that I try to achieve. If those goals aren’t met on that day, I have to regroup and see how today’s work will help tomorrow, or how I can make tomorrow more successful than today. It’s a network of goals. It’s very specific, defined, and multitiered, and it involves two living beings that are not robots or machines.

Perfectionism is blind to these intermediary steps. It is an attempt to shortcut the process of hitting targets and staying on course, and in effect it glamorizes what should be a down and dirty process.

In graduate school, we are urged to spend a lot of time thinking about professional development. They tell us that there is a whole scheme of skills we need to learn that cannot be found in a textbook. One of them is grit. At the end of the semester, we read an article that discussed grit and growth. To my surprise, I had never actually defined these terms in my own head or read their definitions anywhere. Gerkman and Hogan define grit as “perseverance and passion for long term goals” and the growth mindset as “basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work.”

Law students are an intense bunch. You make a mistake and you are suddenly behind the curve. But if you put in the hours, the dedication, and the hard work, and you can grow. It is easier to do this in school when the steps are outlined for you, and the path is already set.

Horses don’t come with such playbooks. In school, by contrast, the building blocks of required classes mean that there really is structure to develop basic skills. The harder part is creating one’s own building blocks to suit the long term goals, and having confidence to stay the course. By design, we can’t be perfect, where no mistakes are made and nothing goes wrong. But we can have grit and perseverance for long term goals.

No horse comes with a syllabus. There is no chapter by chapter, unit by unit, concept by concept formula that produces a horse. There are boxes to check, for sure, and a training scale to follow, and general rules of thumb we would be remiss in forgetting.

But we should never overlook the fact that we are the custodians of their stories, the writers of their chapters, the structurers of their standards and goals. Being wary of perfectionism is important as we write their scripts.

The Growing Trend of Expensive Young Rider Horses

Ema Klugman and Bendigo, the Saddlebred/Thoroughbred gelding who took her to her first 5*. Photo by Shelby Allen.

Talent is broadly distributed in the horse industry, but opportunities are not. In a previous article, I wrote about the barriers to accessing equestrian sport and the corresponding lack of diversity in the industry – and one such barrier is the increasing cost of horses, particularly for younger riders who are trying to get a foothold in the sport.

While it is still possible to find the diamond-in-the-rough types — those horses with big hearts that are inexpensive because they do not look like much initially, but become superstars — more often, parents are having to make large investments in horses for their children. If they can’t, the upper levels of the sport are seemingly unattainable.

Buying safe, quality mounts with proper training has gotten harder, and much pricier, in recent years. Whether someone is looking to compete at the Novice and Training levels, or move up to contesting the young rider international classes, competitive horses have come to be worth much more than they used to be.

On one hand, this trend is good for professionals. Professionals can produce young horses and make money on them if they are well-trained, good quality animals that are capable of campaigning with kids who are starting out in the sport, or even looking to compete in higher divisions such as the young rider championships. Higher prices mean that professionals who find these horses can expect to do well out of them, which in turn makes their businesses more successful and allows them to pursue their own opportunities. Higher prices can also trickle down to breeders, who can price their quality youngstock higher because the professionals buying them can expect to price those horses even higher when they become six-, seven-, and eight-year-olds.

On the other hand, it’s hard enough to get into this sport in the first place, and access to the higher levels of the sport should not require such a big checkbook. It should be possible to train an inexpensive, non-warmblood horse to get to the young rider level in dressage, show jumping, and eventing. I did it on a Saddlebred/Thoroughbred who took me to my first five-star.

But this is not the norm, and it happens so infrequently that the perception of that kind of situation being possible is that it’s just dumb luck.

Who are we missing out on if the cost of competing at a high level as a young rider is so astronomical? Is the next Kent Farrington able to imagine himself getting to the young rider championships, or is he just completely priced out of the market?

Young riders in dressage used to be able to compete at the North American Young Rider Championships on self-made horses; now the quality of horses is so high that they need to start with a six-figure horse to make the team. In eventing, it is not uncommon for the young rider teams to be made up of former five-star horses.

While it is fabulous for these young competitors to learn from the wisdom of experienced horses, the kid with the Saddlebred cross or the Thoroughbred/Appaloosa who will never move like a warmblood, but is qualified at the level, probably won’t make the team. So although it’s good that the quality of riding and horses has gone up, it also means that the whole thing is that much more elitist.

The perception is that you need to start with a huge amount of money to even get in the door. The trend of families with resources buying their junior riders a six-figure, experienced horse to get to the upper levels seems not just common but the standard. These riders are talented, but how much talent are we overlooking because their families don’t have a blank check to buy a horse to take them to young riders?

As the saying goes, “good horses make good riders.” A good horse is a good horse, no matter its breeding or its price tag. It’s possible to find them in unexpected places, and it’s also useful for riders to go through the trials and tribulations of training an animal that is perhaps not the easiest or has had all of the formal training that a more expensive horse has had.

At the same time, it is good for the industry that the caliber of horses, breeding, and competition has improved. Quality jumping horses make the sport safer. But it is bad for accessibility when the perception — and the reality — is that so many promising riders are priced out of the market.

On Education, Part V: Does What You Do Need To Be Who You Are?

Did you miss Parts I – IV of this series? Click here to catch up. 

Ema Klugman and Bendigo. Photo by Abby Powell.

“First find out what you are capable of, then decide who you are.”
– Tara Westover

“If your whole life was about building up to one race, one performance, or one event, how does that sustain everything that comes afterwards? […] Eventually, for me at least, there was one question that hit me like a ton of bricks: Who was I outside of the swimming pool?”
– Michael Phelps (speaking about the post-Olympics letdown)

I wrote in 2020 about the case for not becoming a professional in our sport. Since then, I have worked in other industries and started graduate school. I’ve edited over 50 memos on economic issues. I have read thousands of pages of law textbooks.

But also, I have watched every five-star live stream in the past two years basically from start to finish. I sold about 30 horses in a little over a year during the pandemic; I coached hundreds of lessons and put thousands of hours in the saddle; I jumped a lot of jumps and circled a lot of circles.

And often, I have doubt. Doubt about giving myself a fair shot in both worlds. Doubt about being good enough. Doubt about feeling judged — on the one hand, by riders whose lives and livelihoods are horses: who eat, drink, and breathe the professional lifestyle and do nothing else; and on the other hand, by attorneys and academics and colleagues who feel as comfortable in a courtroom as I feel on a cross country course.

If I still love the sport this much — if it’s still so tempting to me to watch a live stream instead of doing my readings — then is splitting my time going to be enough? But then, I also think of the times when I would rather read a case instead of going to teach a lesson or ride a horse, because the material is so gripping and fun and consequential. The best athletes are obsessive; they are abnormal. The best scholars are, too.

Am I allowed to be obsessed with both? I’m banking on that. I’m willing it to be true.

The 24-7 nature of horse life makes it nearly impossible to ‘leave your work at work.’ Even I, as a half-student-half-horse professional, have a hard time leaving the horses at the barn and leaving my law studies at school. They both come home with me and I think about them frequently, often relating them or pinging from one idea to another. (In case you were wondering, it is hard for me to turn my brain off sometimes.)

It is difficult, mentally, to do this. How much better of a rider would I be if I focused solely on riding? How much better of a law student would I be if I studied more? These are questions I try not to think about too much, because they make me question the way I’m doing life.

Is who you are what you do? To an extent, it is. What you spend your time doing becomes your identity. And that can be empowering, and exhilarating, and all-consuming. But as Michael Phelps said in one of the quotes with which I started this article, “Who was I outside of the swimming pool?”. If you are a professional rider, who are you outside of the barn, or out of the saddle? If you are a professional in another industry, who are you outside of the office, or off the stage?

In my appointment book, which is a paper calendar that I keep the old-fashioned way, writing things in by hand, I have two main sections. At the top, there are rows for each of my horses, so I can write what they are doing each day and any notes related to them. Below is my class schedule and any assignments I have due. Then I have random phrases peppered throughout, which is I guess what you could call ‘everything else.’ Usually these are written in a variety of colors, and they are reminders of things I need to do, any other appointments that I have, and ideas that spring to mind.

In short, it’s a mess. But it’s who I am, and corralling the mess into some shape or another is my job each week. Doing that each week gives shape to each month, which gives shape to each year. There are lots of balls in the air and every now and then I drop one. And that’s okay.

Don’t decide who you are before you find out what you are capable of. That’s the message of Tara Westover’s quote from the beginning of this mess of words. It requires a bit of patience and a little self-belief, as well.

Horses and Graduate School, Pt. III: What Wintering Up North Taught Us

As Ema Klugman navigates her way through law school and a professional riding career, she’s taking us along for the ride. You can catch up on previous editions of this column here.

 

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The eventing season in England does not start until March. In America, it starts in early January in Florida. While I’m jealous of the professionals and lucky amateurs who can go to Florida or Aiken for the winter, I like to think that the more traditional way of preparing event horses for the season ahead is also valuable.

There are the obvious reasons: the horses have a longer break between the end of the fall season and the beginning of the spring season, the riders are less likely to get burned out by a year-round showing calendar, and the long, slow fitness work that you have to do because you can’t go cross country schooling or eventing tends to help with soundness and longevity.

However, wintering up north is valuable for another reason. It means that because I start showing later, I don’t have the impending deadlines of competitions about which to stress. There is something important about riding a horse in order to simply improve it; not with the idea to shave two points off the dressage test by practicing it incessantly or to prep specifically for a type of cross country combination you imagine will be on the course next weekend. Just to train the horse, to make it stronger, to make it better.

When the competitions are several weeks or months away, rather than around the corner, there is a certain “quiet” that surrounds the practicing you do. You can really examine your own strengths and weaknesses, and you can feel like you’re allowed to try new ideas and techniques without worrying about whether they will make things worse in the short-term for the next show. You are less likely to fall victim to “quick fixes” that might get you through a weekend but won’t help your horse be successful for years to come. The off-season is when the sausage is made.

What wintering up north also teaches us is that competition really does change our mindsets. It certainly changes mine. Competition is about performing: there is a stage-like aspect to it. After all, we do pay to be judged and told we are, at best, a C+ (or very rarely, a B-, for all of those dressage divas who score sub-20). Thinking about the stakes of the performance makes us do weird things, like ride with tension or try too hard. Shows can be stressful, and striving to be competitive means we put pressure on both ourselves and our horses. Without the pressure of shows being around the corner, we can avoid falling into the trap of training to compete rather than training to train.

This isn’t to say that all of us cold-toed, multi-layered, double-scarfed, red-faced riders aren’t simply twiddling our thumbs up here. We are riding, we are studying, and we are often training with clinicians if we can convince them to come freeze their toes off with us. But we are not caught in the heat of moment that precedes a competition, and that is really a nice thing. Remember that a horse does not know if she is getting a day off or going to jump an intermediate horse trial tomorrow: all she probably knows for sure is that someone is going to come in the morning to feed her breakfast.

But it is not only competing that changes our mindset: it is preparing to compete. I had a coach several years ago who looked at me puzzledly one Friday afternoon and asked, “why are you riding differently because it’s the day before the show?”. They were right; I was riding differently. And my horse was not going any better. It’s a good thing to notice, but a hard habit to kick: that we change course because we want to do well at the competition.

I was reminded of the difference between the training mindset and the competition mindset last week. I had signed up for a jumping show to be held in a couple of weeks, and then the next day I jumped my horses. I felt more stressed than usual. I had trouble focusing. Maybe it was the rust from a lack of jumping practice, as I’ve been doing mostly flatwork and slow fitness work thus far in the year. But it was also probably a result of feeling the pressure to prepare for the show (which, in the grand scheme of things, doesn’t really matter—it is an outing to give my horses’ and I some practice and time in the ring, so I should be thinking of it simply as a training day). At least I recognized it.

Let’s be more like our horses—let’s behave the same way whether we have the biggest competition of our lives the next day or simply a hack on the schedule. Because both humans and horses thrive on consistency, whether we like it or not. If we start making exceptions and changing things up before the competition, we are likely to do more harm than good.

I was reading a case for my Criminal Law class last week about whether defendants should be able to use the idea of “mistake” as a defense to their alleged crime. In this case, the court responded that such a defense would create a slippery slope:

“If defendant’s argument were accepted, the exception would swallow the rule. Mistakes about the law would be encouraged, rather than respect for and adherence to law. There would be an infinite number of mistake of law defenses[].”

I like this idea of never allowing the exception to swallow the rule. We have to be consistent in what we do: the basics have to always remain intact. Making exceptions before the horse show isn’t going to make the horse show go better. If your horse cannot achieve Third-level collection, don’t suddenly start practicing it the day before hoping it will stick for the weekend. And if you find yourself doing that, perhaps you are entered at a level which is higher than you are prepared for.

Don’t start doing weird things just because you are about to go ride in front of people wearing a nice jacket and spit-polished boots. The more you change, the more your horse will think it’s a big deal. A show should feel like another day of training, just with a few more people around and a grade of C+, if you’re lucky. There’s comfort in remembering that a horse show should feel just like another cold winter training day with no show on the immediate horizon.

The Vet, the 4* Winner, and the Little Horse Who Makes Dreams Come True: Meet Alex MacLeod

Alexandra MacLeod and Newmarket Jack. Photo by Kim Miller.

“Everybody thinks they’re busy.”

Those are the words of Alex MacLeod, a full-time veterinarian and four-star event rider. When Alex topped the leaderboard at the CCI4*L at Galway Downs last fall, you had probably never heard of her  – but that performance secured her a spot on the shortlist for the 2022 Eventing Development Program.

Everybody does think they’re busy, but none of us are quite as busy as Alex. The Los Angeles-based rider balances work and top sport remarkably well. For example, here’s a typical week in her life: on the days that she’s riding before work, she wakes up at 3:45am so she can get to the barn, ride her horse, and then get to work by 7:30am. On the days that she rides after work, she leaves around 5:30pm to go to the barn and gets home at about 9pm. She tries to take dressage lessons in the evenings with Jane Arrasmith Duggan, and come rain or shine, she rides five days a week.

Finding the Little Horse Who Would Make Dreams Come True

Alex’s 4* winner is Newmarket Jack, a 2009 Irish Sport Horse gelding owned by Alex and her mother, Carla MacLeod. He’s a horse that Alex has produced from the very beginning of his eventing career.

After graduating from Princeton, she knew there was a possibility of horses being in the picture.

“I wanted to give it a shot, to see how I felt about it,” she says.

During college she had been a working student for Phillip Dutton and rode through the intermediate level, and her horse at the time was ready to step down from the upper levels, so Alex began looking for another one. She was looking for “a going horse, not a green one.” But as horse shopping sometimes goes, you get what you fall in love with, not what you were actually looking for.

Alex’s mother, Carla, is Spanish, so they go to Spain every year to see family. Right after graduation, Alex went to Spain and then on the same trip hopped over to England and Ireland to look at horses, as she’d been looking at horses in the U.S. for a while but hadn’t found anything suitable.

It was in Ireland that Alex met Jack. He was five years old at the time, and according to Alex, jumped with “the best instincts in the world.” He was fairly small, only about 15.3hh, but he gave Alex a great feeling, and after she tried him, she couldn’t get him out of her head. She sent some videos to Phillip, and he approved. Then, the fun began.

Alexandra MacLeod and Newmarket Jack. Photo by Kim Miller.

An Inauspicious Start

“He was horrible,” says Alex, reflecting on the early years with Jack. The gelding was difficult to load on the trailer and wild under saddle, and quickly became notorious for his naughty behavior at Phillip’s barn. Alex explains, “It’s always busy in Phillip’s indoor arena, but when I went in on Jack, everyone would clear out. No one wanted to be in our path!” People knew to steer clear of her opinionated youngster, whom she confesses had virtually “no steering, so we really needed the walls of the indoor to stop.” He also would often go up when she asked him to connect to the contact.

Tricky was to be an understatement, and that five year-old year was particularly difficult. Jack was in the habit of bolting to and from the jumps, so Phillip told Alex not to jump the horse until he had better flatwork. Phillip went away for a couple of months to a championship, and upon returning he assessed the horse again. Jack promptly bucked him off.

But as most good horses do, Jack turned a corner the next winter, when he was turning six years old. The flatwork began to come along, and his mental game was now more on Alex’s side. Because he was such a natural jumper, he easily went preliminary in his six-year-old year.

Alexandra MacLeod and Newmarket Jack. Photo by Abby Powell.

Balancing Vet School with Upper Level Eventing

The pair kept ticking along, and moved up to Advanced when Jack was nine years old. But Alex had a few other things going on when she was moving up to the Advanced level for the first time: she was attending vet school at the University of Pennsylvania.

Alex started at Penn when Jack was going intermediate. She recalls that it was “really hard mentally – I thought that I would be okay because I went to a good college, so I would be well-prepared. But I was not.” She had to memorize a complete textbook within a month, including the full anatomy of different species of animals. Her first year was made even harder when Jack had a bad colic scare and Alex tore a ligament in her foot so she couldn’t ride with stirrups for several months.

According to Alex, “the second year of vet school is the worst year.” She had exams every week. The workload was nearly unmanageable: she had textbooks to memorize and so many species of animals to learn about. But she also had a special little horse to train.

Halfway through vet school, Alex moved Jack to the barn of Dan and Kaitlin Clasing who were, at the time, based in Pennsylvania. Alex was working at New Bolton Center, which was conveniently right across the street from their barn. She describes Dan as “very scholarly about the whole thing. He studies riding in ways that most people don’t.” As an intellectual person herself, Alex appreciated Dan’s approach to the sport. She was studying to be a vet, but she was also studying to be a successful rider at the top level – and she moved up to the four-star level under Dan’s tutelage.

With all these balls to juggle, you might be surprised to learn that Alex describes herself as a “chronic procrastinator.” So how did she manage her time effectively? She’s a creative planner and crucially, she’s not afraid to ask for help. She’s also brave about making scheduling requests to event organizers – for instance, in vet school she would ask to ride on Thursday if she had an exam on Friday.

One story she tells encapsulates the juggling quite well: at the end of her second year of vet school, she was required to do a practical horse handling exam. The exam included ‘very basic horse handling,’ so the irony was not lost on Alex that she could have done it with her eyes closed. Still, it was a requirement. The problem was that the exam was during the trot-up at Jersey Fresh, and it was a few hours’ drive away. She drove Jack to Jersey Fresh early that morning, braided him, and then had a friend trot him up for her while she took the exam.

 

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Working As a Vet While Going Four-Star

If vet school was busy, Alex’s schedule as an intern has been even more intense. Part of being a medical professional is working emergencies, and being on-call brings special challenges to riding. Alex’s first equine internship, at Fairfield Equine in Connecticut, required her to be on-call for the first 90 days.

“The thing about being on-call,” Alex explains, “was that I had to be to the hospital within 20 minutes. My horse was 12 minutes from work, so if I got paged, I had 8 minutes to put him away and get in the car to get to the emergency. Needless to say, some of our trot sets turned into canter sets if I needed to make it back to the barn quickly.” She also couldn’t go off the property with her horse during that time. But she kept training, and kept the horse fit. When circumstances allowed it, she knew she wanted to be ready to compete.

Luckily for Alex, the internship had a satellite practice in Wellington, Florida, during the winter. She spent six weeks there, and brought Jack with her, so they were able to get a good start for the year. She successfully competed him at the Jersey Fresh four-star later that spring. Then, in July of last year, she moved to California to start a job at a small animal emergency hospital in LA called VCA Animal Specialty & Emergency Center. There, she does exclusively imaging, which is a crucial step on her path to becoming a radiologist.

Alexandra MacLeod and Newmarket Jack. Photo by Abby Powell.

“You Just Make It Happen”

One challenge of being a young veterinarian is having to gain experience from different jobs, which often requires moving around. Alex says that “every time I change my job and start something new, I think I won’t be able ride.” But she makes it happen. She finds a barn, figures out a commuting schedule, and keeps training her horse.

“You can’t change the hours of the day,” Alex says, but you can change how you spend them. “I don’t know, maybe I sleep less or just get more efficient at doing things!”However she manages it, Alex is sure to note that she makes room for doing fun things on the weekends, whether it’s going on short trips or enjoying LA. This might mean that she has to do the bulk of her riding during the week days.

Because California’s events are almost always spread out over three days, Alex finds it difficult to compete sometimes, as working five days a week means she can’t leave on a Thursday to get to an event on a Friday. Last fall, she used up some of her vacation days for competing, but it’s undeniably tough to make it all work. Her mother, Carla, tries to make it out to the big events when she can to groom and cheer her on, and came out to California for Woodside and Galway last fall.

 

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Looking Ahead

With a residency on the horizon, Alex is prepared to move again. Her dream is to be a radiologist, which would be ideal because it offers a lot of flexibility. She could work part-time at a hospital and do the rest of her work remotely, thanks to tele-radiology. She would like to have two or three horses eventually, and although she loves competing at a high level, she also loves the process of starting young horses and bringing them along. Whatever she does, she does it well – and as proof, I’ll leave you with a story that encapsulates her grit, drive, and attitude better than any other.

At Galway Downs 4*L last fall, the event Alex and Jack went on to win, Alex missed a turn on the cross country course. She had to make a circle to get back to the correct path, which put her down 20 seconds on the clock. At the four-star level, 20 seconds down is a lot — and it’s very difficult to make up, because of the technicality of the combinations and the high speed you are already traveling.

But as she would, Alex put the pedal down. She gave Jack a squeeze, and they chased down the clock.

They came in under the time. Maybe it was from all the practice of racing from the barn to the hospital in 12 minutes when she was on-call in Connecticut.

Getting To the Playing Field: Increasing Diversity in Horse Sports

Photo courtesy Georgina Hannay / EQuerry Consulting.

When you arrive at a horse show and look around, you mostly see white faces. There are relatively few people of color competing in horse sports. According to the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF), the national governing body for most equestrian sports in the U.S., the member profile of a USEF member is:

  • 85% Female
  • 66% college-educated
  • Average income of $185,000
  • Average net worth of $955,000
  • Own an average of four horses
  • 40% own a farm; 66% of those are 10 acres or more

USEF does not mention a breakdown by race. The United States Eventing Association (USEA) only just began tracking race and ethnicity demographics of its membership this year. But the USEF member profile is proof that equestrian sports are inaccessible to the average American child since the median American household income is just over $31,000, about one-sixth of the average income of a member of the USEF. This inaccessibility is further exacerbated for children of color, whose representation within the sport is so low that most governing bodies aren’t keeping track of it.

China’s Yingfeng Bao talks with reporters at the Tokyo Olympics. Photo by Shannon Brinkman Photography.

Horse sports have made strides in diversity and inclusion – but not enough. 

“We like to think that sports is this great meritocracy, in which winning is the only thing.” Those are the words of Chris Rider, an associate professor of strategy at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business who has studied diversity in sport.

One of the things people love about sports is that once you’re out on the playing field, it doesn’t matter who you are: you compete equally with your opponents, whether it’s a tennis match or a show jumping class. The rules are the rules, and the winner is based on points scored or fastest time. The measurements of winning are almost always objective, making sport a model of meritocracy. We are, after all, one of the only sports in which women and men compete on equal grounds, and old and young compete against each other as well. The problem, of course, is getting to the playing field.

Horse sports are not alone. Almost every sport has issues with inclusion. There has been tremendous progress, but the Women’s World Cup hasn’t reached nearly the same heights as the Men’s, and the Paralympics does not come close to creating the same number of viewers as the Olympics. We think of horse sports as different –- but it was not that long ago that women were not allowed to compete at the top level of the sport. Lana du Pont Wright was the first woman to compete on an Olympic eventing team, in Tokyo in 1964. But even after women were technically allowed to compete, systemic biases persisted, and it wasn’t as though suddenly women became included on championship teams. For example, it would be nearly twenty years later that Bettina Hoy would become the first woman to compete on a German championship team in eventing, in 1982 (and she would also go on to become the first woman to top the Olympic podium in eventing, followed nearly two decades later by the second female to earn the accolade in fellow German Julia Krajewski).

We’ve seen progress in diversity and inclusion, particularly in terms of gender. Women often make up half or more of the equestrian Olympic teams, and most amateur riders are women now. But they are still mostly white. There has been very little progress in improving racial diversity, and this is because there has been too little focus on the other pieces of the puzzle.

Strides for Equality Equestrians Ever So Sweet Scholarship recipient Sierra Lesny. Photo by Sally Spickard.

Accessibility is an issue in horse sports because horses are inherently expensive.

The issue of accessibility is multilayered and complex, but one of the largest barriers to participation in horse sports is cost. Horses are not tennis rackets or soccer balls. They have to be fed, watered, blanketed, fitted with tack, provided with veterinary care, and shod. We are not going to magically reduce the costs of keeping and riding horses: there are fixed costs associated with horses that just cannot be avoided.

This reality of cost means that increasing diversity in horse sports has to be about finding ways to make the sport more affordable, whether that be through scholarships for horse riding camps and lessons, or efforts to keep unrecognized schooling shows alive so that the costs of competing are not prohibitive for those who want to try their hand at competitions.

The Tokyo 2020 Paralympics winners of the team competition. L to R: Rixt van der Horst – Findsley, Sanne Voets – Demantur, Frank Hosmar – Alphavile (NED) Silver medalists; Lee Pearson – Breezer, Sophie Wells – Don Cara M, Natasha Baker – Keystone Dawn Chorus (GBR) Gold medalists; Kate Shoemaker – Solitaer 40, Roxanne Trunnell – Dolton, Rebecca Hart – El Corona Texel (USA) Bronze medallists. (FEI/Liz Gregg)

But it’s not only about money.

Let’s return to that scene when you arrive at a horse show, and you look around to see almost all white faces. If you are a person of color, you may feel as though you don’t belong there. And it’s not only at competitions where the lack of diversity is obvious: it’s at almost every barn, competitor’s party, clinic, and usually in almost every magazine.

There is so little representation in our sport, in every area. Even if someone has the means to participate, they may not feel welcome. Furthermore, the horse world doesn’t come with a playbook; people learn as they go, and often lack mentorship opportunities. Having a mentor who looks like you is important. Seeing people who look like you riding at a high level is important, and it’s something that’s easy to overlook if you’ve been surrounded by people who look like you throughout your life in the sport.

Lots of horse kids grow up in barns. They learn important life lessons, like how to work hard, how to learn from mistakes, and how to be diligent and detail-oriented. Kids should also be learning that people from all backgrounds and walks of life can be riders. When people of different races and backgrounds compete in sports together, they learn to accept each other as their equals. Inclusion through sports can have a huge social impact.

There’s also the economic impact to consider: including a more diverse population in horse sports expands the overall number of people in horse sports, which contributes to the growth of the sport.

Fouaad Mirza (IND) and Siegneur. Photo by Sally Spickard.

Change is possible –- but change requires action.

Stakeholders in the industry need to support programs that aim to improve diversity and inclusion. One such program is the Opportunity Fund, which is a grant-making resource dedicated to supporting grassroots organizations with a mission to increase access to horses, horse sports, and equine-based learning opportunities among under-represented and/or under-served communities.

There are several grassroots organizations already doing good work on the ground, but expanding their reach requires more resources. The Opportunity Fund provides grants to eligible organizations for the purposes of endowments (like establishing an investment fund or a permanent, self-sustaining source of funding), events (such as fundraisers, conferences, or workshops), and individual assistance (such as tuition, financial support, or emergency aid).

USEF has announced Equerry / Co, an equestrian marketing and website design agency, as a USEF Opportunity Fund Partner. Equerry / Co believes strongly in the mission of the USEF Opportunity Fund and has committed to pay a royalty fee to US Equestrian’s Opportunity Fund for each completed website project in 2022 to support the Fund. Equerry / Co has also committed to offering its services at a discounted rate to recognized USEF Community Outreach Organizations.

For Christine Bjerkan, founder of Equerry / Co, “encouraging participation from those who for a long time have felt excluded is difficult.” The Opportunity Fund supports under-represented and under-served communities in equestrian sport, including but not limited to:

  • BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) individuals/communities
  • Veterans and active military personnel
  • Persons with disabilities
  • LGBTQ+ community
  • Low-income individuals and families
  • Geographical diversity (state/national region, urban areas, rural areas)

In efforts to help create opportunities, Equerry / Co also offers free websites for equestrian charities. Organizations doing good work need their voices amplified, and social media and other forms of web-based communications are their microphones in the modern world. More information on this can be found here.

Anyone who has worked with or ridden horses can attest to how magical the experience can be. Whether it’s a quiet moment with our horse in its stall, the adrenaline of tackling a show jumping course, or the happiness and pride we feel when crossing the finish line, there are amazing moments of magic that horses afford us. Increasing people’s access to horse sports allows everyone to be able to enjoy these amazing animals.

Lightbulb Moments with Bettina Hoy

We brought you one report from on the sidelines of a clinic stop on Bettina Hoy’s January tour, and now we’ve got perspective from the rider’s eye. Ema Klugman checks in with her clinic report below.

EN always welcomes reader-submitted clinic reports! Please send yours to [email protected].

Neko Duvall jumps with Bettina during a lesson in Florida. Photo by Sally Spickard.

Riding with someone new can be like a fresh snowfall: if you’ve been skiing down the same slopes for a long time, you get stuck going down the same tracks. You find your groove in these familiar tracks, and it feels smooth and comfortable. But a new coach puts down a fresh coat of snow, giving you freedom to try new things and to forge new tracks.

I was very lucky to organize and ride in a clinic with Bettina Hoy in January. The three-time Olympian is as clever and witty as she is tough. You can sense her work ethic just from being in her presence.

I was worried, at first, that I would not be ready to ride with Bettina by the time she came. My horses had been in full work for only three weeks, and we certainly hadn’t been to any shows or clinics yet this year.

It turned out to be perfect timing. What we worked on with Bettina was training — old-fashioned, back-to-basics, daily work. We were not riding millions of movements or running through tests. I spent the majority of my lessons with my Intermediate and Advanced horses on a 20-meter circle. I had been worried that we weren’t ready to “perform” for the clinic, but that concern was misplaced. Bettina taught me how to school my horses day-in and day-out, and as I’ve been putting those tools to work in earnest over the last couple of weeks, I am seeing the value of her system.

 

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Here are some of my lightbulb moments from my weekend with Bettina, both quoted and paraphrased:

“Build a bridge for your horse.”

I loved this one. Bettina insisted that we communicate fairly with our horses. If the work was getting hard and the horse was struggling, she said “build a bridge.” It is a nice gesture: to meet the horse halfway. It felt like reaching out a hand.

“Don’t chase her; connect her.”

Bettina had me ride one of my horses more forward than I had ever dared to ride her. It was not a charging around the ring, however; it was a push into looseness. She insisted that the leg build the connection, and we got some of the best work out of that horse than I ever have.

“What’s happening behind you has to stay on line.”

What she meant was to think of putting the shoulders in front of the haunches, not the other way around. The mobility and control of the shoulder was a major theme in every lesson.

(Paraphrased): “The hard part is getting the horse truly through and supple. You need to be working the whole body. This way you are preparing the whole body for the cross country, for the running and jumping. All of the dressage work is really about keeping the horses sound in the long-term.”

It makes sense that riding a horse straight is important so you can get an 8 or a 9 on your centerline. But Bettina also pointed out that straightness is vital for long-term soundness: if your horse is always leaning on one side, they are going to put uneven pressure on different parts of their body and legs. Making them truly balanced carries over to the intensity of jumping and galloping.

“Open the door, and let her get on with it.”

I liked this visualization because it was similar to the bridge idea. It was a way of allowing the horse to perform rather than forcing them to do anything. “Open the door” means giving the horse freedom; often, this was by moving the hand forward or out, but never back. On one of my horses, in particular, I could feel how opening the door gave her an outlet to release tension and express herself more.

“The movements are just tricks.”

Related to the previous point, this idea was essential for understanding Bettina’s system. The point was that you have to have the horse working properly through the whole body; after that, the movements should be easy. They are just tricks to teach the horse once the basics are established. I had never thought of dressage in this way before. But it made sense: after spending two lessons doing 20-meter circles on my 4* mare focusing on the connection from the hind leg that weekend, I rode a few test movements the following week after warming her up the same way and they felt easy.

“It’s shoulder in, not ass out!”

(I think this one is self-explanatory, and too funny not to include.)

 

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I was also lucky to talk to Bettina in between lessons and over meals. My experience with her reminded me of what it feels like to talk to someone who really loves their job: she had endless fascination with the sport and with the horse. For as much as we get wrapped up in the details of our craft, it is important to remember that we are learning an artform.

On Education, Part IV: Frequently Made Mistakes

Did you miss Parts I – III of this series? Click here to catch up. 

Ema Klugman and Bendigo. Photo by Sally Spickard.

My Property law professor is an endearing, small man who has been teaching law students for longer than I’ve been alive. As such, he knows not only much more than any of his students know, but he knows what mistakes his students will likely make.

He said something funny last week, something I thought was very useful. He said that everyone likes to talk about FAQs (frequently asked questions), but the more important things to think about are FMMs—frequently made mistakes.

We were in the middle of a class about “adverse possession”—which is basically a legal mechanism whereby someone can come to own a property after possessing it for a certain number of years during which the owner does nothing to stop them from occupying it. It’s a little strange, because it effectively legalizes stealing, but it is an essential element of property law. The policy reasons for allowing it made sense in the English common law development of the idea, and as with a lot of legal doctrines developed back then, they have filtered through to our world today.

As usual, our professor lectured about the topic and we then discussed several cases that demonstrated the doctrine. If we were brave, we raised our hands and asked the questions that we knew everyone else was thinking. He gave me the sense that he had heard all of our questions before. But he also walked us through all of the “frequently made mistakes” that students (and some errant courts) had made in applying the doctrine because he knew we would make them.

We might make those frequently made mistakes (FMMs) anyway. After all, there’s much more weight to learning from your own mistakes than to trying to learn from others’ mistakes. Sometimes you have to do it wrong before you can do it right.

It’s useful to think of FMMs on two levels: a personal level and a broader level. Knowing yourself and your FMMs is important. What mistakes do you make frequently? Why do you make them? These can be mistakes you make on a horse or off of one. Do you let your horse fall into the downward transitions? Do you lean left or right because you are weaker on one side? Do you always let your phone battery run down (ahem, me)? Do you procrastinate work or school until the very last minute?

Some of our FMMs are simply who we are, and we can function around them. But some of them really are changeable if we insist on creating new habits for ourselves. We ask as much of our horses, so perhaps we should hold ourselves to those standards as well.

But it’s also useful to think of FMMs on a broader level, like my professor did in our first year class. Honestly, humans are not that different from one another. We share FMMs, whether they be from inexperience or naivete or lack of attentional to detail. If you watch an entire division of training level show jumping at an event, you will see dozens of riders make exactly the same mistakes. They will tend to cut a turn in a similar place, which ruins the distance to that particular jump. They will tend to get faster as they go around the course. Their reins will invariably be longer at the last jump than they were at the first.

I’m not immune to these kinds of mistakes. In fact, I make them all the time. My point is that because we all make them, they are predictable. Predictable things are easier to solve because we can see them coming. It’s not a curve ball if your reins are always longer at the last jump than they are the first. It is just not recognizing your FMM and taking responsibility for it.

I wrote in a previous article that the good thing about law school is that your entire grade for each class is based on the final exam, but the bad thing about law school is also that your entire grade is based on the final exam. There was an exception to this in one of my classes last semester, in which we had a midterm exam.

Our professor in that class told us that taking this test would feel like trying to swim when you haven’t actually ever been in the water. Conceptually, he had taught us the strokes and the breathing patterns, but until we actually got in there, we could not really learn how to do it. It’s a bit like trying to explain how a zipper works to a persistent child (click here to read the article I’m referring to here): if you’ve never done it before, the continuous questions could stump you.

I think that my professor was trying to both scare us and comfort us. It’s frightening to be thrown into the deep end with only a conceptual sense of how to stay above water. But it’s also nice to know that everyone around you is going through the same experience, to be working out how to apply the conceptual lessons to real life. Being vaguely familiar with the rules and cases would not suffice when we were faced with a new issue on the exam: we had to figure out the mechanics in a way that showed we truly understood the larger concepts. But we also had to have an idea of the FMMs, so that we knew what mistakes we were likely to make, and how to avoid them. It’s easier said than done.

Virtue of Being Like an Annoying Child: Separating Familiarity from Mastery

Ema practices under the watchful eye of Packy McGaughan. Photo courtesy of Ema Klugman.

“You mistake your knowledge of what happens for an understanding of why it happens, and you mistake your feeling of familiarity for genuine knowledge.”

-Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons

In my last article, I wrote about the Socratic Method—a teaching method where the teacher leads the student to the correct answer through a series of questions. I discussed the pros and cons of the approach as applied to our sport. As to the question of whether it’s a good method to use when training horses and riders, my final answer was basically “it depends.”

I’m fascinated by the ways people and horses learn. As someone who has found my home and joy in school, I have only recently realized that it is by pure coincidence that the teaching methods used at most of the schools I have attended match up with the way that I learn. But people learn in lots of different ways: by watching, by doing, by listening, by feeling, by emulating. Learning how you learn is perhaps one of the most important things to learn about yourself.

But then there’s the problem of thinking we understand something when we may actually not understand it. Most of us have probably had the experience of studying for a test, believing we are prepared, and then taking the test and realizing that we can’t answer a lot of the questions because we don’t understand the underlying concepts on a deep level. It’s that deer-in-the-headlights feeling that nobody enjoys. It’s similar to forgetting a dressage test you thought you had down-pat. Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons describe this problem brilliantly in their 2009 book:

“Because of our extensive experience and familiarity with ordinary machines and tools, we often think we have a deep understanding of how they work. Think about each of the following objects and then judge your knowledge of it on the same 1 to 7 scale: a car speedometer, a zipper, a piano key, a toilet, a cylinder lock, a helicopter, and a sewing machine. Now try one more task: Pick the object that you gave the highest rating, the one you feel you best understand, and try to explain how it works. Give the kind of explanation you would give to a persistently inquisitive child—try to generate a detailed step-by-step description of how it works, and explain why it works.”

-The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us (from the chapter entitled “Virtue of Being Like an Annoying Child,”)

I think it’s interesting to actually try doing what’s described in the above example. Personally, I chose a zipper as my example. It seemed simple enough; I’ve zipped lots of zippers before, and zipping zippers doesn’t seem all that complicated. But then I tried to explain to someone how they actually work, and I truly had no idea where to start. How do the teeth push together? How do they stay locked in place after the zipper has passed by? What mechanism is used to actually lock them in place? I could only hypothesize about these questions, and I definitely wasn’t confident in my answers.

I like the passage from the Invisible Gorilla book because it reminds us that to truly understand something, we have to be “persistently inquisitive,” even to the point of being annoying. This means that we can’t say something is so “just because it is.” There has to be a reason, and a reason for that reason, and perhaps even a reason for that reason, too. This is the virtue of being like an annoying child.

There has to be a reason why a zipper stays zipped, just like there has to be a reason that it is mechanically harder for your horse to canter on the left lead than the right lead. Just like there has to be a reason why leg yielding is easier in one direction for you. Just like there has to be a reason for just about everything we do.

The mechanics matter. And it matters for coaches and riders to be able to understand the mechanics, because unless you can understand them, you cannot teach them. If an annoying child asked you, “what’s a shoulder-in?”, could you explain, step-by-step, how it works? To do so, we have to be more than familiar with the concepts. We have to genuinely know how and why they work. And it can take a lifetime to achieve that.

On Education, Part III: Should We Use the Socratic Method to Train?

Ema Klugman & Bronte Beach Z. Photo by Abby Powell.

Did you miss Part I and Part II of this series? Click here to catch up. 

After my final exams had concluded last semester, I went through the backlog of documents open on my laptop. Among the practice exams and outlines and all sorts of other study materials, there was a word document with two lines. The first read:

“We should not teach our horses using the Socratic Method.”

I sort of laughed. This is how some of my articles start: I have an idea or I take a position, and then I put it somewhere to look at later. The funny thing about this very-empty document was that it had almost no explanation — a few lines later, there was a second line, which was a single hint:

“It is too frustrating!”

Clearly, I had started this document in irritation during or after one of my classes. I can imagine which class it was because although all of my law professors use the Socratic method, one of them last semester did so in a particularly infuriating way. He would ask the same question over and over for minutes, to dozens of students, usually without any hint, no matter how many people got it wrong. And once someone did finally get it right, he didn’t stop: his follow-up question was always, “why?”.

Obviously at the time I was not convinced that it was the best way to teach, or a suitable way to learn. But in hindsight I think that it is. The Socratic method is a conversation between teacher and student where the teacher leads the student to the correct answer through a series of pointed questions. The idea is that the student will better understand the material if she arrives at the answer on her own, using her own logic.

It is valuable for the students, and fun for the teacher. I imagine that it feels a little bit like guiding a blindfolded student toward the correct answer: “warmer, warmer… no, colder, colder… yes, warmer, hotter, there you go.” Taking wrong turns is part of the process, and the best teachers keep you nimble and curious and willing to keep trying, even if the process is frustrating.

Spending the last few months and preparing to spend the next two-and-a-half years working through the Socratic Method made me think: should we use it when we are training our horses and riders?

There are obviously some reasons not to use the Socratic method with horses:

The stakes are too high. The whole point of law professors asking us incessant questions is to allow us to make mistakes. We are wrong A LOT. But do we want our horses guessing the wrong answers? Maybe not. Not if it means putting them in dangerous situations or scaring them.

Confusion breeds frustration. Having been incredibly frustrated with the method myself, I am not sure that I would want my horses to feel that way. They might begin to despise me as their rider!

Some horses are better learners than others. Not every horse is super clever. Sometimes that is a blessing: you can keep things simple and basic, and they don’t overthink everything that you say. However, it is our responsibility to understand our horses and then to meet them halfway. If they aren’t getting to the answer on their own, the prudent thing to do is to make it very clear. Think of putting wings on a skinny jump, and guiding rails on the approach side — you want to make it as obvious as possible where the horse is supposed to jump, particularly if they are young.

But maybe the Socratic method with horses can make sense in some ways, if used prudently — after all, that “aha” moment tends to be more memorable than when the teacher just tells you the answer and you write it down. Take the example of teaching a horse to be careful in the show jumping: at home, if the rider is always placing them at a ‘gap’ distance and lifting their front end off the ground, they might be clearing the jump, but they aren’t learning the idea that the colored poles are something they are responsible for avoiding.

To learn that lesson, they need the freedom to jump without our help, even if that means that they make a mistake at home. And crucially, when they pick the right answer, they need lots of praise and to be told they are an absolute genius. Remember that if you don’t know you’ve gotten the answer right, you are probably going to keep guessing. Make it obvious when they are correct! If we want our horses to choose the right answer in competition, particularly when we make a mistake and they need to hold up their end of the bargain to pull through, having those teachable moments from the training makes a lot of sense.

The same ideas apply to teaching riders. My most memorable lessons came when I arrived at the answer on my own: by the feeling that my horse jumped much better when I rode a particular way, or the movement he gave me when I showed him how to be through. Your coach can explain things a thousand ways, but you only really learn to repeat them in competition when you have explained them to yourself through feel. You have to be convinced.

On the other hand, because riding horses is dangerous and difficult, coaches need to be mindful that their teaching methods are always putting safety and confidence first. This idea is particularly important when riders are lost or unsure about what they are doing and without further guidance would continue to make mistakes.

My best law professors (including the one about whom I was writing when I began this article, in honest frustration) did not send us blindly into the world to answer a legal question. They gave us a place to start, a framework to follow, and made us keep asking “why?” They walked the line between giving things away and hiding the ball so much that we would never find it. So, too, should we learn to be those kinds of coaches and riders — the kind that guides patiently. Because the reward when they pick the right answer on their own, whether they are a horse or a student, is both lasting and special.

On Education, Part II: Addicted to Ideas

Ema Klugman and Bendigo. Photo by Shelby Allen.

“We are all of us more complicated than the roles we are assigned in the stories other people tell.” — Tara Westover

I had a lightbulb moment in college a few years ago. It was in a political science seminar course. We spent the majority of the class time debating the merits of abstract ideas that ancient philosophers developed and trying to map them onto current policy debates about technology, immigration, healthcare, and more broadly, the role of government in society. A light went off in my brain when my professor said three words, which, in hindsight, were not that groundbreaking: “ideas have consequences.”

At once this phrase encapsulated so little and so much. On the one hand, of course ideas have consequences—that’s why we have education and emphasize it as a public good. Understanding ideas and debating them informs us about how to improve things for ourselves and those around us. But the concept that “ideas have consequences” also underlies our faith in this experiment we call democracy. The problem is that only the ideas that bubble to the surface have consequences—those ideas which are unspoken or unheard (either because they are suppressed or because people are afraid to mention them) do not really have consequences because they are never considered seriously or enacted as policies.

As a law student, I think the phrase “ideas have consequences” is even more true than I did before. And that is because ideas represent decisions and tradeoffs. Consider some examples that I came across and wondered about during my first semester of law school. The idea that statutes of limitations differ from state to state. The idea that defamation is a tort, but only when someone is alive. The idea that an oral contract can be enforceable just like a written one. The idea that unless you understand these ideas, no one will take you seriously in your attempts to challenge them.

Which takes me to my next idea: that without education we really cannot understand ideas, which means we cannot understand their consequences either. A lawyer is supposed to be an advocate, a voice on behalf of the person or people they are representing. It should not be lost on us that we have access to the tools to understand ideas and their consequences. We are learning how the system works, and with that privilege should come the responsibility that if we see something wrong with it, we should try to fix it.

In my first semester of law school, I learned that I knew very little about the American legal system. This made me hungry. It also made me stressed—particularly when other students in my classes seemed to know what was going on. But I learned to pay less attention to what other people were doing, and ask the questions that were plaguing me. Because if they were questions consistently popping up in my head, they must have also been popping up in others’ heads.

I also learned something that was hard for me: to trust that ideas would make sense in time. I lost track of the number of times I encountered ideas that made no sense to me. It was as if they were being presented in a different language, on 3x speed. It was funny to review my notebooks at the end of the semester—in several spots, I had pages with the heading “Stuff I Don’t Understand,” where I had written down all of the most recent concepts that had flown straight over my head. I would then Google them, look up YouTube videos about them, or call my friends to talk about them. I would look at the materials that my professors posted online. Even then, I often felt like I had only a basic understanding of the concepts. It was nerve-wracking because I felt so stupid, so behind. But then a miraculous thing would happen: two or three weeks later, everything would just click.

Sometimes concepts really did not make sense in isolation. But when we had covered more material, I could understand where they fit in. I could start to see what their purpose was. Why they existed. What their consequences were.

So here I am, a little bit addicted to ideas. The problem—and the joy of it—is that I am persuaded by so many ideas, and driven to investigate them further. And that must be why I love school, and debates, and classes that make me feel inadequate for a while and then satisfied when I start to understand what is going on.

The late David Foster Wallace said that “the real value of a real education… has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us.” Education is realizing that ideas have consequences. It is seeing an idea from different angles, at different times, through different lenses. It is wondering: even if this seems like a good idea for most people, is it fair to everyone? It is asking whether an idea we had 40 years about how society should work should apply to our world today. It is looking at the rules, and the people they affect, and considering the possibilities of what could be different.

This story was originally published on Jumper Nation

On Education, Part I: Trying on Different Ideas

Ema Klugman & Bronte Beach Z. Photo by Abby Powell.

People say that there is always more to learn about horses. Just when you think you have it figured out, whether that’s riding a particular movement in dressage or honing your eye over jumps, you realize that you don’t. It can be frustrating and confusing. The horse should understand what to do because you’re explaining it right. Or at least you think you are.

But every horse has their language, and as they develop and progress new problems often pop up just when you think that you’ve conquered the old ones. Corrected the right drift? Now you’ve lost the rideability. Improved the impulsion? Now you’ve lost some straightness. It can feel like playing whack-a-mole. But that’s the joy of training horses—there’s always a new problem to solve. Even the best riders admit that they are still making mistakes, often daily, and learning from those mistakes. The horses teach us.

I think it’s interesting to consider the riders we admire and how they came to be the way they are. How did they develop their style, their timing, their balance? Which horses taught them those skills? Did they learn what to do by doing it right or (probably more often) what not to do by doing it wrong?

I recently read the memoir Educated by Tara Westover. It is a story of growing up, of abuse, and ultimately a story about the power of education. Over the next few articles I write, I will be drawing from some of her insights in the memoir (which I highly recommend). At one point, she writes, “it was only as I grew older that I wondered if how I had started is how I would end—if the first shape a person takes is their only true shape.” As a child, Westover had basically resigned herself to the life that her family chose for her. Education helped her imagine a different future.

And she definitely built one. Westover’s life changed immeasurably over the course of 10 years—she went from never attending school to doing a PhD at Cambridge. Though her story is exceptional, the lessons from it apply to all of us. It is easy to believe that how we started is how we end, that the first shape we take is our only true shape. I often hear this sentiment among students, whether about themselves or their horses—“I have never been able to see a distance” or “he always rushes at the end of the course.” But the whole point of training and of education is to overcome these problems. Adopting a defeatist attitude is the first step in blocking your way to solving them.

The whole point of learning is to try on different ideas and figure out which ones fit. Thinking about education in this way reminds me of a quote I read earlier this semester from Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes: “the young know the rules; the old know the exceptions.” It takes forever, it seems, to learn the rules. But once you’ve got your thumb on those, you begin to learn the exceptions. They appear like the negative space in a painting, and the harder you look, the more you begin to see.

Understanding the rules—and more excitingly, the exceptions to the rules—is hard because it requires us to admit that there is always more to learn. What education means to me is the freedom to keep learning, forever. A couple of weeks ago, when I finished my last exam of the semester, I expected to feel exhausted and daunted by the prospect of doing all of that studying again next semester, and the semester after that, and the one after that…

But instead, I was overcome by a different feeling: I couldn’t wait to do it all again. I wondered what I might learn, what other ideas were out there. What the rules were, and what the exceptions might be. It had been hard, and I had felt inadequate at times. But I felt that I was finding out my true shape.

I guess all that I am saying, in words far less apt than those of Tara Westover, is that learning and growing is a sacred thing. It gives us power and hope. It makes us question, wonder, grapple; it makes us want to debate, to expand, twist, invert, and warp ideas until they fit the mold of what we think they should be. It makes us imagine.

This post originally appeared on Jumper Nation