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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

How Ride iQ is Changing the Landscape of Riding Education

McKinsey Lux (Ride iQ Co-Founder) and Leslie Law filming for RideIQ lessons.

Innovation and entrepreneurship have major impacts in the equestrian world.

In 2021, I was approached by two entrepreneurs who asked me to collaborate with them on a new app. Intrigued, I said that I would be happy to help.

I have friends who have worked at start-up companies, and I know that it is often not easy—you have to find your niche in the market, understand what consumers need and want, design a great product, and finally have the organization and management to deliver it. It’s well-known that most start-ups flop—it’s just incredibly hard to get something off the ground. Even a really good idea sometimes doesn’t come to fruition.

Ride iQ is a great idea with an even better team behind it. Since launching over the summer, it has grown considerably and continues to adapt to its riders’ suggestions and needs. My role as a coach has been both fulfilling and educational, and I think Ride iQ has the potential to make a major impact on the quality of education in equestrian sports moving forward. Improving people’s access to quality instruction can be life-changing.

Read on to learn more about the app’s founders, McKinsey and Jessa Lux, and about their vision, motivations, and plans for the future.

What is Ride iQ?

Ride iQ is a mobile app with on-demand, prerecorded audio lessons taught by the world’s best equestrian coaches. As the first audio-focused training platform for equestrians, it offers something completely new to riders: the opportunity to get on-demand instruction while you ride. Lessons cover topics across flatwork and jumping and are organized by level, coach, and duration – all you have to do is tack up and press play.

Here’s how it works: a coach records themselves while they ride a horse, either doing a full training ride or focusing on a specific movement or exercise. Throughout the ride, they talk about what they are doing—whether it be applying left leg through the corner, raising their eyes to the opposite diagonal letter, or giving the inside rein to allow the horse to stretch. Next, Ride iQ publishes this recording on the app, allowing its subscribers to essentially “ride along” with the coach. Riders simply get on their horse, hit the play button, and listen to the coach as they do the same exercise. In effect, they are getting a private lesson with a coach whom they may have never met, and they may live thousands of miles away from.

Ride iQ launched in August of 2021 and is currently focused on English disciplines with coaches who specialize in eventing, hunter/jumpers, and dressage. Ride iQ membership costs $29.99/month or $249/year and includes access to 200+ audio lessons, private podcasts, weekly live Office Hours with a Ride iQ coach (you can ask them any questions you want!), and a private Facebook community. Ride iQ also recently launched its own podcast, “In Stride with Sinead Halpin Maynard”.

Ride iQ provides everyday riders access to an elite level of coaching that is currently only accessible to a small minority of equestrians. By giving broad access to exceptional coaching, Ride iQ raises the standard for safer riding and better performances.

Kyle Carter taking a lesson from Dennis Mitchell for a Ride iQ recording.

Why did you start Ride iQ?

We grew up riding in Minnesota and then in Florida, where we moved to work with Kyle and Jennifer Carter. Instruction from 5* riders made us much more capable riders. Regardless of who we worked with in person, though, our independent schooling rides often felt unproductive and even frustrating. We weren’t making as much progress as we could have been on those days, and we knew this wasn’t unique to us. We built Ride iQ to give all riders access to quality coaching during their independent schooling and in turn, elevate horse and rider experiences and performances.

With Ride iQ, people’s schooling days are no longer repetitive or stagnant. Instead, those are days to ride with real-time guidance from a top-level coach and have great rides (and even breakthroughs!). The feedback from members has been overwhelmingly positive: they’re having more productive and fun schooling rides, and that’s the goal!

Screenshot via Ride iQ.

Who are some of the coaches on the app?

Ride iQ currently features 14 coaches including Leslie Law (British Olympic gold medalist event rider), Sinead Halpin (5* event rider), Gina Smith (Canadian Olympic dressage rider, “A” Pony Club graduate), Dennis Mitchell (US Grand Prix show jumper), Ema Klugman (5* US event rider, “A” Pony Club graduate), Doug Payne (US Olympic event rider, Grand Prix show jumper, “A” Pony Club graduate), and the list goes on.

Full list:

Kyle Carter – Canadian Olympic Event Rider

Leslie Law – British Olympic Gold Medalist Event Rider

Ema Klugman – 5* US Event Rider, “A” Pony Club Alumni

Doug Payne – US Olympic Event Rider, Grand Prix Jumper Rider, “A” Pony Club Alumni

Jon Holling – 5* US Event Rider, FEI National Safety Officer for the US

Holly Hudspeth – 5* US Event Rider

Sinead Halpin – 5* US Event Rider

Peter Gray – Bermudian Olympic Event Rider, Canadian Olympic Event Coach, 5* Dressage Judge

Gina Smith – Canadian Olympic Dressage Rider, 2024 Colombian Olympic Dressage Team Coach, “A” Pony Club Alumni

Jen Carter – 5* US Event Rider

Lesley Grant Law – 5* Canadian Event Rider

Dennis Mitchell – US Grand Prix Jumper Rider

Michael Pollard – 5* US Event Rider, 2011 Pan American Games Gold Medalist

Hilda Donahue – 5* US Event Rider, World Ranked Endurance Rider

Where are app members based, and what level do they ride at?

We currently have members in 43 states and 10 countries, and we hope to continue to expand our national and international presence. Our members range in age from 7 years old to 80 years old, and we have beginner walk/trot riders to Olympians using the platform.

People have told us that before Ride iQ, their schooling rides lacked guidance and direction; with Ride iQ, those rides can be a source of improved understanding, helpful exercises, new insights, and better experiences for horse and rider.

We also have members who ride professionally. They use the lessons to guide their own schooling as well as for inspiration in the lessons they teach. With the best coaches in the world guiding you in real-time while you ride, there is something every rider could learn on Ride iQ.

What other services or events does Ride IQ offer?

In addition to unlimited access to hundreds of listen-while-you-ride audio lessons, the Ride iQ app includes dressage test read-throughs where tests are read aloud for practice and memorization as well as test playbooks from top riders and judges to help you get your best score at your next competition. Ride iQ also offers members weekly live Office Hours with a Ride iQ coach to ask any and all questions and a private Facebook community for 24/7 interaction with the Ride iQ team, coaches, and fellow members.

Ride iQ also hosts in-person events at major competitions around the US (and soon internationally) throughout the year including Ride iQ coach led course walks and sponsored member parties.

How can I sign up for Ride iQ?

You can sign up for Ride iQ by visiting Ride-iQ.com and following the prompts to start your 7-day free trial. All the membership options (monthly, quarterly, or annual) include a free trial, so it’s completely risk free to try it for yourself!

Still on the fence or feeling skeptical? Amateur eventer Abby Powell took Ride iQ for a spin and shared her thoughts in this review.

Building a Syndicate: How 39 Remarkable Women Got Behind A Dream

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

In late 2017, I sent a WhatsApp video to my late coach, Packy McGaughan, of a gangly four-year-old mare trotting around and jumping a few fences with me. I had just tried her, and I liked the feeling she gave me. He replied, “buy it.”

Those two words were pretty rare from a horse trainer as choosy as Packy. Usually he would say something more like, “that looks scopeless” or “not quite right behind” or “it moves like a quarter horse.” He had a discerning, sometimes ruthless, eye. So when you got the stamp of approval from him while out looking at horses, you knew whatever you’d discovered was probably a good horse.

I sent the video to Marilyn Little, for whom I had been a working student that year, and she also liked the horse. We vetted her the next day, and named her Bronte Beach. Four years later, we moved up to the Advanced level and finished in the top-ten at her first CCI4*L.

In 2018, I found myself huddled among a group of young riders in a tent, listening to a lecture during the Bromont Rising program while the wind outside howled. We were fortunate to participate in a range of lectures with top industry professionals, from Peter Gray to Doug Payne. But the most formative one, in hindsight, was a session about how to get sponsors and owners.

There were a couple of individuals present at the session who had owned horses that went to the World Championships and Olympic Games. They described the fun and thrill of the experience, but also the heartbreak when a horse got sick or went lame before a big show. It was a huge investment for them, and quite a lot of pressure on the riders, as I began to realize.

Syndicate member Hallie Brooks with Bronte at Millbrook Horse Trials.

But what wasn’t clear to me was why someone would own a horse for a young rider when they could own one for Doug Payne or Jennie Brannigan or Phillip Dutton. I asked them, “why would someone like you want to support someone like me?”. I had less than two years of experience at the Advanced level. I had never won an international event. Their reply was telling: they said not to think of it that way, but rather to frame the question as “what can I offer this person, and what is unique about me that will make them want to join my journey?”.

I’m a bit of a weird eventing professional. For as long as I’ve been eventing, I’ve been in some kind of school. I moved up to the Advanced level when I was an undergraduate. I did my first five-star a few months before starting law school. I have a foot in both worlds, and my program is small. Furthermore, I do not plan to make eventing my full-time gig in the long-term; I want to have a career in law and policy while also competing at the top level. I don’t know many eventing professionals like me, but that’s okay. Still, if I wanted to make a go at this, I would need some additional support. I needed to work out how to attract people to join my journey.

Back to Bronte Beach: under Marilyn’s expert guidance, the mare was turning into as nice of a horse as we had hoped. I put together a syndicate packet for her and started sending it to just about everyone I knew. A couple of wonderful family friends invested in her, but I received far more “no’s” than I did “yes’s” when I asked people if they wanted to buy a share in the horse. After all, it’s not a way of making money: it is about being involved in a dream and loving the process of developing a horse. Bronte won several events as she moved up the levels, including her first 3*L in the fall of 2020. We were extremely excited about her and we wanted to get more people to join the syndicate.

I had met Elena Perea in the parking lot of the Duke Hospital in 2019 (No, I wasn’t dying, and she wasn’t my doctor). I was an undergraduate at the university and she was a doctor at the hospital, and we connected because she boarded her horse at a barn nearby that I was interested in moving my horses to. I hopped in her car and she drove me out there and showed me around generously. She was funny, smart, and witty; we got along right away. I moved my horses to that farm shortly after, started teaching her, and by the time I entered the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event in 2021, she was a close enough friend that I asked her to help groom for me.

Ema Klugman and Bendigo. Photo by Shelby Allen.

My first five-star was an experience I’ll never forget, and it was made special by the people surrounding me. My unlikely partner, a Saddlebred/Thoroughbred called Bendigo, showed me the way that weekend, but he also did something else important that I did not expect. After I finished as the top young rider at Kentucky, people I was asking to get involved with my younger horses started to say “yes” instead of maybe or no. Bendigo had helped me prove that I could compete at the top of the sport, and now people were interested in joining syndicates to help my other horses get there, too.

After Elena groomed for me at Kentucky (including pulling off a couple of amazing tail braids!), she presented me with an idea: if she put a group of people together, could they collectively buy into Bronte Beach? I said that I was willing to be creative to make it work. I thought that she would get 5-10 people together to buy a share, but she came back to me with a proposal for 37 people to buy 15% of the horse. They were all women doctors who rode horses.

I was a little shocked, but she assured me that she would help with the organization and the moving parts. Fast forward several months and we have all had a fantastic time; Bronte had a great first season at the Advanced level. Better yet, because such a large group of people split that share, the buy-in and maintenance costs to each individual in the group are quite low. This group has led to connections who have also invested in Bronte and in another young horse I have called RF Redfern.

Ema Klugman and RF Redfern. Photo by Abby Powell.

There’s a clear chicken-and-egg problem here: to get noticed and get support, you need a horse to get you to the top, but to get to the top, you need support and a good horse. It was a total accident that Bendigo became a five-star horse; he was a four-figure purchase for a 15 year-old kid. You couldn’t repeat the story again in real life if you tried. But it was really after Kentucky that more people were willing to take a chance with me on the other horses.

Competing at the top level is expensive, and you need a few horses to make it work consistently. I’m 24, and I’m making my way. I’m learning a lot on this journey—about connecting with people, about being willing to be creative, and about figuring out what I have to offer. I’m extremely lucky. I work hard to provide weekly updates and videos to my owners. I invite them to our farm and to events, and I always try to be honest. I talk about our dreams but I’m also realistic. In the end, I’m very proud to ride Bronte Beach, owned by 39 extremely cool, funny, remarkable women who took a chance on a girl and her mare.

Riding Well ‘On the Day’: How Boyd Martin’s Advice Helped Me With My Law School Exams

Ema Klugman and Bendigo. Photo by Shelby Allen.

I was preparing for the Kentucky 5* last April. It was the final serious school for me and my horse. I was lucky enough to do this final preparation in a lesson with Boyd Martin, who helps me from time to time. Everything went fairly well; the horse felt confident and we did all of the practice exercises quite easily.

I asked Boyd for his advice heading into my first 5* competition. What he said surprised me a little, and since then I have understood it more and more. He said:

“You need to have very good preparation leading up to the show, but when it comes down to it, you have to ride really well on the day.”

What he meant was that it wouldn’t matter that I rode well in this lesson, or in the preparatory shows before Kentucky, if I rode like a monkey when it came time to those 11 minutes on course in the spotlight. That was not the time to simply cross my fingers that my training was good enough and hope that my horse would carry me around. The course would be too hard, the questions too complex. We needed to execute the course as a team, and that meant I had to be present, sharp, communicative, and confident.

He didn’t say that it was necessary to ride perfectly; he said it was necessary to ride really well. That meant that I could make small mistakes, but not very many. I used his advice when I was heading “into battle” (or at least it felt that way) on the cross country course at Kentucky, and it served me well. I was nervous as hell but I knew I needed to focus, and my horse was fantastic. I believe he jumped well, but I also think that I rode well. And that made a difference.

Ema Klugman and Bendigo. Photo by Shelby Allen.

I also used Boyd’s advice when I was heading into another battle: my final exams last month. I studied more than I ever have in my life: it felt like the equivalent of riding a dozen horses a day, seven days a week, except I was in front of a computer reading dozens of cases, writing pages of notes, and flipping through flashcards until my mind felt numb. Everyone else in my class was doing the exact same thing. (Unlike in undergrad, where I felt that not everyone studied seriously, in law school people are much more professionally focused and you can assume that everyone is putting in several hours of study each day.)

I knew that not only did I have to study a lot: to do well, I would have to think and write well on the day. It wouldn’t matter how well my preparation went if I performed badly for the three hours of the exam. No professor would know how many hours I put in beforehand: the proof had to be in the pudding, and that requires extreme focus during those three hours, just like the course in Kentucky had required my extreme focus for those 11 minutes. I was experiencing a weird feeling, like: I have been here before; this is familiar territory. Who knew that a lesson with a horse rider could help you in law school.

Ema Klugman and Bendigo. Photo by Shelby Allen.

I don’t yet know how I did on my final exams. However, I think that my ability to think under pressure, which I developed (and hope to continue to develop)  by riding at a high level, probably helped me execute well on the day. Sure, I felt nervous and jumpy and twitchy before the tests began. I felt like a horse in the warm up, on edge but ready.

The lessons horses teach us should not be ignored in other areas of our lives. In this case, it was Boyd’s idea that we have to both trust our training and ride well on the day. I had to trust that I had studied the material and I had to think and write well on the day of the exam. There are always things that can go wrong, and we do not need to hold ourselves to the standard of perfection, but riding and writing well in those critical moments—in the moments that matter—are skills worth trying to master.

Moving Forward — Or Sideways? Horses & Graduate School, Part IV

Around here we’re all huge fans of Ema Klugman and her self-made partner Bendigo who, after jumping beautifully around Kentucky earlier this year, Ema retired on cross country at the Maryland 5* at Fair Hill when she felt her beloved 19-year-old partner running out of steam.

A student at George Washington Law School and a valuable member of the Nation Media family, Ema has been bravely forthcoming about how she balances law school and upper-level eventing. Wherever she decides to expend her energy, we have no doubt that she’ll be successful. You can read Parts I – III of her series here

Ema Klugman and Bronte Beach Z. Photo by Erin Gilmore Photography.

In my last blog, I wrote about how it felt to fail when trying to do it all. At that moment it was hard not to get stuck in reflection—in the mindset of what I could’ve, should’ve, or would’ve done to avoid the mistakes I made. In fact, it was so hard to not replay the moment of failure that I was driving myself crazy. It would pop up in my mind while I was trying to go to sleep, or while I was driving, or even while I was in conversation with someone else. I became obsessed with the failure.

Then it was time to move on from it. You cannot change something that has already happened. But you can move forward—or, as I am now thinking about it, move sideways. I was reading a passage from a law textbook (sometimes these are not as boring as you might think!) that got me thinking:

Considering how and why judges decide that such a development [in Contract law] is necessary, how they move the law forward (or sideways), whether the newly crafted rule is a good one, and even why the rule is rarely or maybe never invoked — that is a worthwhile conversation.” (emphasis added) Carol L. Chomsky, Casebooks and the Future of Contracts Pedagogy, 66 Hastings L.J. 879, 884 (2015).

Judges are craftspeople. As our society evolves, the law has to evolve with it. That means modifying old rules and sometimes making new ones. Our culture has this obsession with moving forward: we value progress and forward momentum. We value improvement, and we value growth. It is never a goal to have stagnation or to move sideways. You’ve never heard an analyst or journalist express joy about the GDP stagnating. It’s all about growth, growth, growth. Forward, forward, forward.

Yet as Carol Chomsky writes above, sometimes judges move the law sideways. In other words, maybe they know something has to change, but moving forward in a radical way could create unintended consequences. So, as a compromise, they move laterally.

Ema Klugman and Bendigo. Photo by Abby Powell.

I’m learning to move sideways. I had never thought of it as an option before—to step aside because one path isn’t working rather than trying to trudge ahead at all costs. For the last couple of weeks, it has meant taking a break from the horses. I didn’t ride for five days straight after the last show of the season; I can’t remember the last time I didn’t ride for that many consecutive days! But creating some distance between me and the sport was a good thing.

I think that sometimes it is difficult to get out of the mindset that everything is a means to an end. In academia, a high school degree is a means to a college acceptance, a college degree is a means to a job or a graduate school acceptance, and a graduate degree is a means to more specialized employment. The qualification requirements for riding and equestrian competition work the same way—the five year-old class is a means to the six year-old class, which is a means to the seven year-old class… and you get the point. Forward, forward, forward. That’s the playbook and the obsession.

But it would do us well to remember that moving sideways is just as helpful, especially when there seems to be a wall in front of you. Stepping laterally has another advantage: you might see something you hadn’t noticed before from a different vantage point.

Of course horse doodles accompany my law school notes!

Thank You, Bendigo

Ema Klugman and Bendigo. Photo by Sally Spickard.

Thank you, Bendigo.

It was always our plan to retire Ben from Advanced-level eventing after this year. His giving me experience at the 5* level was pure icing on the cake— the horse was only ever supposed to go preliminary. He made me the rider I am today, and in turn he has done a huge amount in helping me pass on that education to my younger horses. While it would have been amazing to go out on a high of another 5* finish at Maryland, the horse owes me nothing and he’s ready to have an easier job now.

Marilyn (Little) once said to me: “We can only do the best we can each day as we each continue to learn to become who who we were meant to be— and perhaps attempt to go beyond even that.”

The best way I can describe Bendigo is that he has imposter syndrome, ADHD, anxiety, stage fright, and probably several other unnamed demons that he had to overcome to become the horse he became for me. He was never “meant to be” a 5* horse, or even a four- or three-star horse for that matter. He is half-Saddlebred, after all! He (and we) attempted to go beyond who he was meant to be—and he did that not for himself but for me. I won’t ever meet a horse with more generosity of spirit.

Ema Klugman and Bendigo. Photo by Shelby Allen.

Ben was a massive door-opener. He took me to some of the biggest events in the country. Great horses open doors, and they also connect people. Ben took me down the road to Packy’s, up the road to Raylyn Farms where I gained immeasurable experience, over to Hilary’s where I started and will continue to improve in the dressage phase, and even up to Canada and down to Ocala through the Bromont Rising grant program. He got me noticed by Australian High Performance. I made SO many mistakes on him, but he always kept trying. It is remarkable to look at his record—we started when I was dumb and 15 years old at the novice level, and here’s what we did together:

  • 60 starts since beginning his eventing career in 2013
  • 25 starts at the Advanced/4*/5* level
  • 43 top ten finishes
  • 40 clear show jumping rounds
  • 53 clear XC rounds

Bendigo got me through high school and university and my first job. I managed to crash and burn with him on multiple occasions, but he was always perky and willing to try again the next day. He taught me that failure is no excuse to stop trying. He taught me to be courageous. He taught me that very important skill of “stick-to-it-ness,” even when giving up would have been the rational and easier thing to do. He taught me to carve out my spot in the world when it didn’t seem like I fit in. To end this chapter feels more happy than sad—we did more than we were ever meant to do.

We #BelieveInBendigo! Photo by Elena Perea.

Looking back, I can identify so many moments in which I could’ve and should’ve made different decisions to get better results. But that’s what this amazing horse did for me– he gave me experience right after I needed it and then reminded me that you absolutely never stop learning in this sport, and in life. I really do wish Packy could have seen us over the last couple of years, because I finally started to ride properly on the odd occasion!

Karen O’Connor told me last year that my job is to make all of my horses feel the way Bendigo feels on cross country. The feeling he gave me at Kentucky is something I won’t ever forget. It will be my mission to produce horses that have that kind of keen understanding of the cross country phase, but to be honest I’m not sure another horse will feel exactly like him. Ben made me, and in turn he is making my other horses. I’ll draw on the experience he gave me as I work on getting more horses up to the top level, and back to events like Kentucky and Maryland and hopefully other 5* events around the world.

Ema Klugman and Bendigo. Photo by Shelby Allen.

I was hoping to find a young rider or adult amateur to take over the reins, and it seems that we have made a good match in a lease with one of my lovely students Julie Anne Bigham. He is too full of idiosyncrasies and dear to me to ever leave our farm and program, so I’m very glad that I’ll still get to see his cheeky face every morning. Having him here bopping around like the badass professor he is makes my heart smile. Look out for him next year with Julie; rest assured that he will be doing all three phases a little bit too fast with a grin on his face.

Thank you, my friend. It’s been an absolute honor.

On Trying to Do It All: Horses & Graduate School, Part III

Around here we’re all huge fans of Ema Klugman and her self-made partner Bendigo who, after jumping beautifully around Kentucky earlier this year, took aim at the Maryland 5 Star at Fair Hill. There, on cross country, she made the commendable horsemanship decision to call it a day when she felt her horse running out of steam. The decision couldn’t have been easy, considering that “Ben” is 19, and who knows how many more cracks at a 5* together they’ll get, but Ema’s genuine love and respect for her horse shone through. Of note, too, Ema is no one-horse wonder — she’s got two more exciting ones coming up the ranks in her three-star horse, RF Redfern, and her four-star horse, Bronte Beach. 

Oh, and by the way, she’s a student at George Washington Law School and a valuable member of the Nation Media family. She reflects on Maryland and their journey in her latest blog, which was originally published on EN’s sister site, Jumper Nation. Read Part I (A Meeting of Minds: Horses & Graduate School) and Part II (The Cold Call: Horses & Graduate School).

Ema Klugman and Bendigo. Photo by Sally Spickard.

I have been trying to pack in a lot of things in the past few months. I had three horses competing at the upper levels of eventing, and one young horse aimed at a 4 year-old championship. I was taking a full load of courses in law school. I was also still teaching, though I backed off of that quite a bit. There was a lot of juggling, tons of people behind the scenes helping out, and not that much sleep happening. For a while it worked, until it didn’t.

I retired on course at my second five-star event (the Maryland 5* at Fair Hill), last weekend when my horse felt too tired to finish the course. I was within 500 meters of the finish line. I have replayed the moments of that day over and over, thinking about how I could have gone slower at the beginning of the course to conserve his energy, or how I could have warmed up differently, or ridden more efficiently on the course itself. I’ve also thought about the preparation for the competition, which was similar to how I prepared the horse for our first five-star. Was I too focused on the other horses to prepare him correctly? Did I time the fitness days well enough, or did I back off on the fitness too early in hopes that he would feel strong and rested for the event? Did I overlook something he was telling me in the lead-up that would have made me realize our preparation wasn’t strong enough? Should I even be trying to do graduate school full-time and compete at the top level?

Ema Klugman and Bendigo. Photo by Abby Powell.

In the end, the answers to all of those questions is, frustratingly, “maybe.” I cannot definitively say that if I had done X or Y differently, we would have had a different result. There is no way to know. What I do know is that if something didn’t work, you have to change it the next time.

The hard thing about the competition on the weekend was that it was the inaugural event—no one had done the course before because it was brand new. We knew it would be hilly, but we did not know what the course would be like beyond that. It was an unknown entity to every competitor. I had assumed the preparation I’d done before the Kentucky Three-Day would stand us in good stead for this five-star, but I wasn’t right. Lots of people finished the course on the weekend, some with horses looking very tired, and others with horses with plenty left in the tank. But most finished while we didn’t.

It is demoralizing to feel that you cannot do it all, to feel that you put in the hours and expected things to go your way, only to have them go very differently. It is demoralizing to feel you have failed your team and your supporters, and even worse to feel you have failed your horse. But sometimes, that is the sport.

Ema Klugman and Bendigo. Photo by Erin Gilmore.

It is also easy to assume that once you’ve done something once, it’s a foregone conclusion that you will be able to do it again. My horse had done the Kentucky five-star earlier this year with ease, so I assumed that we would check off another five-star box and hopefully improve on our performance. Simple and easy, we thought. But virtually nothing is a foregone conclusion in a sport with horses!

It’s Monday morning, and I’m writing this to help me process the weekend in between studying for my midterm exam tomorrow. I had thought that I would be studying on a high of completing another five-star, but instead I’m thinking about all the ways I fell short.

It’s a funny old sport. I will be back for more, and wiser for it the next time. Luckily, I have several decades to keep working at it.

Horses and Graduate School, Part II: The Cold Call

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 & Bronte Beach Z. Photo by Abby Powell.

Set the scene:

It’s 6:02pm, and your class began at 6:00pm. You had bet that there would be no traffic, and planned your drive accordingly. As usual, you were incorrect. Okay, two minutes late; what could you have missed? The woman who sits next to you offers you her notes from what you missed, and you copy them down hurriedly.

The professor is one of the best-known at the university, and an expert in “civil procedure” (the name of this class) which basically means all the federal rules that lawyers and courts have to follow during civil lawsuits. It is the most unfamiliar and confusing subject you could have imagined, and he moves through the material quickly. Most days you feel like you are attempting to jump a 1.20m course when you haven’t actually mastered the posting trot yet. But, you figure, most of the other students are probably feeling the same way.

This professor is also notorious for his cold-calls. Different professors employ the Socratic method in different ways, but this one has a list of all the students’ names and seems to pick them at random and grill them with anywhere from three to twenty questions on any topic he chooses. You are lucky if the questions are related to the reading that day, because they may be entirely different and require some serious imagination.

Okay, we are back in class. It’s approximately 6:35pm, and you get cold-called. The difference in how you feel now versus when you simply raise your hand and offer an answer is enormous. It’s as if the rest of the lecture class has gone dark and a spotlight is focused on you. Not only is the professor judging your every word; so too are your classmates (most of whom are actually very nice, despite the stereotype of crazy, competitive, Type-A law students). You hope that you can remember how to actually string a sentence together, and that at least some of your answers will be right. You also hope that you don’t have a stray piece of hay or something in your hair, since you drove here from the barn.

In the end, it wasn’t all that bad. What this professor does so well is he does not let you get away with just saying “yes” or “no”; he forces you to defend your answers. And you realize in the course of combatting his endless “why’s” that maybe if you cannot defend this answer, it is not a particularly defensible or correct answer!

I survived all of his questions and understood more than half of what we were discussing, which counts as a win for me. Finally, after about 40 minutes and several dozen questions, he looked down at his little notebook and called out another first-year student’s name. I was off the hook. I passed the torch onto the next cold-call victim.

This is a horse website, and I do promise that all of this does in fact relate to horses. Here’s how: cold-calls are terrifying and stressful. It’s the uncertainty, the feeling of being singled-out, and the sense that no matter how much you prepare, you may not know the answers to all the questions. I think that horses in competition are effectively being “cold-called.” Each venue and course designer is different. In the hunter ring, this proposition is less true because the courses are so predictable. But in virtually any other jumping class, you have to prepare the best you can and then hope that you can come up with the goods when you are cold-called.

I think that this idea is useful when we are thinking of training young horses or green riders. We have to train the horse and rider for any kind of situation. Will we be able to expose them to everything they might see in competition? No. But we can give them the tools to solve it. We can improve their critical thinking. We can explain the “why” to them so that they can understand what we are asking and apply it to other situations. You cannot predict every question a horse or rider will be asked at a given competition. That’s one of the challenges of our sport.

The other thing that cold-calling has taught me is that to be successful, your brain has to work even when you are experiencing stage fright. It’s happened to me on horses before—I’ve let the anxiety of the competition moment overcome my thinking and made mistakes that I would not make under less pressure. It’s also happened to horses I was riding before—even though I may not be stressed about the moment as a rider, they are.

What is the fix to this anxiety? How does one get better at answering cold-calls? We have to keep putting ourselves and our horses in those situations, no matter how uncomfortable they are. In life, law school, or horses there are rarely quick fixes, but the more we are exposed to new questions and have to think on our feet, the better we will get at it.

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Horses and Graduate School, Part 1

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 other editions of this column here.

Ema Klugman and RF Redfern at Great Meadow. Photo by Sally Spickard.

Just about a month ago, I attended the first day of orientation at George Washington Law School. Before I left early that afternoon to compete in the Great Meadow International CCI4*, I listened to our new dean, the first woman in the school’s history, express excitement about the fact that five hundred of us 1st year law students were actually physically present in the same auditorium. Among us were athletes, veterans, historians, parents, political staffers, healthcare workers, industry professionals, and fresh-faced youngsters straight out of their undergraduate degrees. We came from countries around the world and almost every state in America. We laughed at how excited she seemed, but understood that it had probably been exhausting to lead the law school entirely behind a computer screen for the past year. Her exuberance was contagious, and we all left that auditorium feeling energized. Yes, we were here. We were here.

Now we are in week 4 of classes, and some of that initial exuberance has traded places with fatigue and confusion. Like any transition to an unfamiliar setting, the past few weeks have been a learning curve. I, for one, sort of forgot what it was like to do homework and masses of reading (I guess I have a bad memory, because it’s really only been 18 months since I finished my undergraduate degree). I certainly got physically lost a number of times, despite the fact that all of our classes are in one block of three connected buildings. I was intellectually lost for the first two weeks for sure, but now some concepts (approximately 50%) are starting to make sense. I took forever to pick up my school ID card, so I was at the mercy of other students to swipe me into buildings. I actually haven’t entered the library yet, which might be a good sign that I’m not too stressed out. Alternatively, it could mean that I’m not stressed enough! Who knows, we are all figuring this thing out together.

There’s a guy in my writing seminar class who is working full-time on a political campaign. I haven’t told him this, but the fact that he’s doing that while enrolled in law school full-time encourages me that I’m not crazy to ride three horses at the upper levels of eventing while also enrolled in the same program. But maybe we are both crazy, and by November we will wonder what we were thinking….

To read the rest of Ema’s article, click here to read on Jumper Nation, EN’s sister site.

Horse People Are — and Have to Be — Relentlessly Optimistic

This article was originally published on EN’s sister site, Jumper Nation.

The author in competition. Erin Gilmore/Shannon Brinkman Photography.

Two weeks ago, I rode a couple of young horses at a local dressage show. I was standing around in between tests when I felt a little tap on my shoulder. I turned around, and peering up at me was a little girl who would not have been more than 10 years old. She asked me, “Have you ever gotten a 10?”. I told her that I hadn’t, but that when I got a “9” on a movement (which was rare) I was usually very happy because that’s a great score.

She had her dressage test in hand and showed me the scores the judge had given her on the different movements. There were mostly 7s and a few 8s (which is very good). I told her that she had done very well—probably better than me that day—and this made her smile.

To be honest, I do not really think about getting a “10” in the dressage arena because it is exceedingly rare for a judge to give that perfect score. But what I loved about this girl’s question was that she was clearly optimistic—if 10 is a score that one could achieve, then why not try to achieve it? And she asked me that question that day because she thought that if I could do it, then she could, too.

There are some things in our sport that are exceedingly elusive. Scoring a “10” in dressage; scoring a “100” in a hunter round; jumping clear across all days at an Olympic Games or World Cup Final in show jumping. These tasks are almost literally impossible, so when people achieve them, those watching seem to feel that they are witnessing magic. And they are.

Most of us will never achieve this kind of magical performance, but that doesn’t mean that we cannot try. It may seem crazy for us to even believe that we can come close. This kind of thinking is backed up by scientific research around what psychologists call the “optimism bias.” Basically, studies find that humans in general are more likely to overestimate good things occurring and underestimate bad things occurring to them. In other words, people often have unrealistic expectations. This bias actually connects to a lot of issues—for example, one New Zealand study found that people had very large accumulations of student debt because they were overly optimistic about how much money they would make upon graduation.

The optimism bias can lead to a lot of disappointment when experiences do not go as people had hoped they would. But I believe that the optimism bias—that unrealistic pull—is what makes us keep going in the horse world. Without it, we may have all quit a long time ago!

Every equestrian professional will tell you this hackneyed advice: “there are a few highs, and many lows.” Sometimes there are a whole stretch of lows—a truck breaks, a barn burns down, a horse goes lame, a rider gets injured—and the list never seems to end. But every now and then, things go right and we have reason to believe in success again. We have to be relentlessly optimistic—even if we shouldn’t be. So here’s to that young girl: I hope that you achieve a score of “10” in your lifetime!

Perspective: How Can We Make Cross Country Schooling Safer?

A number of riders have shared with us their opinions about a recently proposed rule change by the USEA concerning the increased number of MERs to move up to Preliminary, Intermediate and AdvancedAs of March 12, this change has been tabled until the 2023 competition season. Ema Klugman, a professional rider and coach and the editor of Jumper Nation, adds her thoughts on cross country schooling to the mix. To read other Perspective pieces on this topic, click here.

Photo courtesy of Ema Klugman.

The proposed rule change requiring more MERs prior to horses and riders moving up to preliminary has spawned a lot of important discussions around safety in our sport. People have brought up a number of ideas around tweaking the proposal, most of which focus on competitions and qualifications. But as anyone who competes in eventing knows, only about 2% (or less) of the time we spend riding our horses is spent at actual competitions. Let’s say we ride 300 days per year; if we do a show per month, we’ll only be competing for a maximum of 24 days per year. The other 276 days we spend practicing.

We should do everything we can to improve safety at competitions. But falls also occur when we are practicing. Probably the most dangerous activity we engage in while practicing is cross country schooling. Most people haul to a facility to school cross country—either a designated schooling course, or a competition course which is open on specific days following a competition. There are usually rules in place—requirements to sign a release, wear a cross country vest, and an approved helmet—at these venues, but there are a number of ways that we can make cross country schooling safer. Here is a (non-exhaustive) list of ideas:

  • Have colored numbers on every jump to specify their level. For example, a prelim jump could have a green number (the specific number wouldn’t mean anything, but the color would). This would help people know which jumps are which level. Sometimes people mistakenly attempt jumps that are much harder than they appear.
  • Have organizers check footing around jumps and remove them (or place flags in front of them) if there are safety concerns. They should also check for footing irregularities in the water jump (I once had a horse fall while cross country schooling when jumping into water because of a dip in the ground on landing).
  • Absolutely require cross country vests for schooling—even at one’s own property. (More on this below.)
  • Require an ICP instructor to accompany juniors and amateur riders when schooling, or develop a system to have ICP instructors oversee schooling for everyone for the entire “schooling day.” The latter model could work well for events which have open schooling days a few days after competition. Part of each rider’s schooling fee could go to an instructor (or maybe two, if the venue is large) who could oversee schooling.
  • Emphasize rider responsibility. Riders need to be aware of their own and their horse’s limitations. It is tempting to try to jump every jump on a property if you’ve just paid $60 to school there, but that is rarely a good idea. Riders need to make smart decisions, particularly when the conditions are not favorable (i.e. muddy ground or very hot weather).

Supervising a schooling session.

I see photos and videos all the time on social media of people — even top professionals, who should be setting examples for everyone else — schooling cross country fences without a cross country vest. You may think you look cool in your t-shirt, but you don’t. I liken it to the discussion around helmets — people used to say it was an inconvenience to wear a hard-hat, or too hot, or some other stupid reason — but now those arguments are rarely accepted. Everyone is expected to wear a helmet. Wearing a XC vest is not difficult, just like wearing a helmet isn’t.

Cross country schooling is a very important part of horse and rider education. There will always be risk involved with jumping solid obstacles on varied terrain. Riders often practice for a move-up by trying out new or bigger combinations while schooling, which is a crucial part of preparing to debut at the next level. So of course there will be some mishaps. Horses and riders will make mistakes. But having safety equipment, good footing, appropriately labeled jumps, and coaches present reduces these risks. Cross country schooling venues should standardize these procedures to keep horses and riders safe.

The Fork Farm and Stables is For Sale: Take a Look Around

As an eventer, I always regarded The Fork as a top-class facility where the best event riders would compete at the spring event. Though it hasn’t run at that facility for a number of years, the farm itself still exists and is just as beautiful. This property is about as nice as you can get.

A beautiful sunrise at The Fork. Photo by Mollie Staretorp.

Here’s the description:

The Fork Farm is an exceptional sporting property and working farm located one-hour east of Charlotte, NC. The 1,460± acre farm is a very private landholding that sits at the end of a state-maintained road. It is flanked by the Rocky and Pee Dee Rivers, which join at the southern tip of the property to create the eponymous “Fork”.

A tribute to classic European field sport estates, The Fork’s multiple land uses and best-in-class components overlap effortlessly. No single pursuit defines the farm, although among the standouts are world-class equestrian facilities, highly productive quail and waterfowl programs, and multiple sporting clay and shooting courses. The quality of the operations and flexible land uses are a testament to the management and planning of the current ownership. In addition to its enviable sporting reputation, the farm has been routinely recognized for its outstanding conservation efforts. Extensive improvements are spread throughout the farm, including a main house, guest lodge, farm buildings, and phenomenal stable. The Fork proves the sum is greater than any one of its parts and represents a real estate offering of the highest caliber.

The Facts:

  • 1,460± acres
  • 12,100± square foot, 15-stall stable with numerous amenities
  • Extensive equestrian improvements, including 4 outdoor riding arenas (2 with all-weather footing) and cross-country course
  • Exceptional hunting and wildlife, including intensively managed upland habitat, timber, shallow water impoundments, and dove field.
  • Two 14-station sporting clay courses, five-stand course, 65-foot tower, and accompanying gun lodge
  • 1.9 miles of Pee Dee River frontage
  • 1.4 miles of Rocky River frontage
  • Main house with connected three-bedroom guest cottage
  • The Fork Lodge, a nine-bedroom guest lodge
  • The Carriage House, a two-bedroom guest cottage
  • Miles of trails and farm roads
  • Farm office, kennels, and multiple farm buildings, including a 6,000± square foot heated building
  • One-hour east of Charlotte

This property is listed for $20,000,000. To view the full listing, click here.