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Five Years On: The Impact of the New Modified Level in Eventing

Katie Malensek & Lion’s Share compete — and win — at Modified. Photo by Lisa Madren.

‘Modified’ was first introduced by the USEA in 2017, and that year, there were just 28 starters at the level — but five years on, has it developed and fulfilled its intended purpose? It would appear so: in 2022, there were 1555 starters at the Modified level across the United States, according to data from the USEA. This sharp increase in numbers is likely due to the investments that eventing venues have made in cross country courses so that they can hold Modified divisions, as well as the realization from riders that the Modified level is educational, challenging, and highly useful because it is less challenging than Preliminary.

I admit that I was skeptical of the Modified level when it was first introduced. Why did we need a level in between Training and Preliminary? Shouldn’t riders and horses be able to make the jump up to Preliminary without a level in between? 

A few years later, I have completely changed my mind. I have ridden three different horses at the Modified level, mostly for brief periods of time (one or two events) as they were making their way up the levels. Introducing them to a higher level through the half-step between Training and Preliminary was educational and encouraging for both me and them, and each of these horses was able to get their feet wet jumping bigger jumps and slightly more technical courses without having their eyes pop out of their heads moving up directly to Preliminary from Training level. Where a Prelim cross country question may have been a big table on a bending four-stride line to a brush corner, the Modified equivalent would be a smaller, ramped table on a softer, bending six stride line to a corner. The Modified variation would be kinder and with a broader margin for error, while still testing the same concepts. The confidence that the runs at the Modified level gave my horses was wonderful, and it also informed me of the areas of weakness I had to work on before introducing them to Preliminary. 

The jump from Training to Preliminary is widely regarded as one of the biggest move-ups in our sport, because the technicality and size of the jumps increase considerably at Preliminary. Horses and riders who can successfully navigate Training level may find themselves thrown in the deep end when they attempt Preliminary. It’s impossible to know for sure, but it may be that the introduction of the Modified level has made cross country safer overall. Pairs that would have moved up to Preliminary instead try their hand at the Modified level first. If that proved challenging enough for them, they may stay at the Modified level. 

The Modified level has had the impact of reducing the overall number of both Training and Preliminary starters across the country. The data confirms this. According to the USEA, the Modified Level currently makes up 5.1% of national HT starters (BN-A). For comparison, Advanced makes up 1.0% of the national HT starters, Intermediate makes up 4.4% of national HT starters, Preliminary makes up 12.5% of national HT starters, and Training makes up 22.9% of national HT starters.  

Rewinding back to 2016, before the Modified level was introduced, at year end Advanced made up 1.1% of national HT starters, Intermediate made up 4.8% of national starters, Preliminary made up 15.8% of national HT starters, and Training made up 27.3% of national HT starters. 

The difference in the number of Preliminary starters (15.8% to 12.5%) and Training level starters (27.3% to 22.9%) from 2016 to 2022 suggests that some of those Preliminary and Training level starters were displaced by the Modified level starters. In other words, people who would have been going Preliminary and Training were going Modified instead. Overall, this is probably a good thing. Pairs that may not have had the skills to do Preliminary but wanted something more challenging than Training level benefitted from the Modified level. 

Fiona Hazel and Menue Rendezvous. Photo courtesy of Joan Davis/Flatlandsfoto.

One issue with introducing a new level is that it takes time for venues to invest in the infrastructure to cater to that level. Not every venue has Modified level events on offer. Area II, where I’m based, has a plethora of Modified events compared to other areas — but still, fewer than half of the venues in Area II offer the level. The expenses associated with procuring a new set of cross country jumps for a Modified course are not small– and while it’s true that some Modified courses share jumps with Training and Preliminary courses, venues must still make an investment in many new jumps to hold divisions at the Modified level. 

It’s difficult for venues to spend tens of thousands of dollars on new jumps if they don’t have the assurance that their investment will pay off in the form of enough entries at the Modified level. But organizers should be encouraged by what the data is saying about the popularity of the Modified level. If you build it, they will enter. The number of Modified level starters has increased considerably year over year. There were 28 Modified starters in 2017, 321 in 2018, 564 in 2019, 791 in 2020, 1410 in 2021, and 1555 in 2022. So although the initial investment may be large, over time the corresponding increase in entries should prove to pay off that investment. 

Another benefit of the Modified level is that it prepares horses and riders for FEI competition, especially with the introduction of the one-star level at international competitions. There were almost 60 entries in the CCI1*-L division at the November Tryon International Three-Day Event, with entrants ranging from teenagers and amateurs entering their first FEI event to established professionals giving their younger horses FEI experience. A few years ago, there was no CCI1* level at all, anywhere in the world — or at least not at this height. The FEI levels began at the 2* level, which was originally named the 1* level, but is equivalent to the national Preliminary level. Now the 1* level is well-subscribed and popular — largely because it’s more accessible for juniors and amateurs and creates a positive, tangible goal that’s realistic for many more competitors. 

Overall, the introduction of the Modified level to U.S. Eventing has been met with support, and it appears to have many benefits. I’ll continue to use it to help my young horses move up the levels confidently and to introduce my students to the upper levels in an educational way. I encourage other event riders to do the same, and eventing venues to hold the Modified level. 

Thanks to the USEA for providing the data for this article.  

 

How It Started and Where It’s Going: Catching Up with Ride iQ Founders Jessa & McKinsey Lux

Photo by Sally Spickard.

Jessa, 32, and Kinsey Lux, 28, are sisters. They grew up in Minnesota but spent most of their high school years in Ocala, FL riding and being coached by Kyle and Jennifer Carter; Kinsey even transferred to an online high school to live next door to the Carters. Jessa and Kinsey both competed to the 2* level before going to college, which marked a big transition: they sold their horses and pursued careers unrelated to equestrian sports. Jessa landed in Denver and Kinsey in New York City.

Kinsey worked for five years at Blackstone, a large hedge fund in New York City, on a real estate trading desk. Jessa was most recently the Community Manager for a digital design agency in Denver, and prior to that was a Marketing Director at a commercial real estate company for five years, and a website designer for a tech company.

In January of 2021, when the Covid-19 pandemic turned the world on its head, Jessa and Kinsey scratched an itch — the itch to discover a business opportunity within equestrian sports. Their experience working in the business world drove home an understanding that the best business ideas do two things: address consumers’ needs and add value to consumers’ lives.

They knew from experience where shortcomings existed in riders’ experiences, but they needed to hear from others to understand where to focus. So they talked with countless riders, the vast majority of whom they didn’t know. They’d have one phone conversation and end the call by asking who they should talk to next. A lot of “shortcomings” surfaced through those discussions, but the ones they felt most excited to address were the shortcomings that exist around independent riding.

One of the shortcomings of riding alone is that it can be hard to feel motivated and make progress. Whether you’re mindlessly riding in circles or finding yourself frustrated by something you don’t know how to solve, there’s definite room for improvement in independent riding. I find this to be true myself: my horses always go better when I am riding them in a lesson, whether it’s on the flat or over fences.

According to Jessa and Kinsey, people ride alone 80% of the time; some riders are lucky to work with an in-person coach once a week, and some once a month or even less frequently. Riding lessons are expensive, time-consuming, and often require travel to a coach’s facility. Jessa and Kinsey identified the lack of quality, consistent coaching as a major issue for many riders.

Their conviction was that riders were ready for this status quo to be disrupted.

How to address the opportunity came quickly after that: people need quality guidance while they ride and they need to be able to afford it as often as they want. These are simply boxes that FaceTime lessons and educational videos can’t simultaneously check. Jessa and Kinsey decided that the best way to address these needs was with on-demand audio lessons taught by top coaches. Like Nike Run Club for runners or Headspace for meditators, this solution allows riders to get guidance while performing an activity.

From here, the plan for what is now known as Ride iQ formed: to create a lesson, they would have a coach record themselves while riding a horse. The coach would explain what they were doing while riding (i.e. “to create bend around this circle, I am closing my inside leg at the girth and keeping my outside rein steady, while keeping my eyes up and looking around the circle”). This audio file would then be uploaded to an app, where Ride iQ subscribers could click “play” as they started riding their own horse and follow the patterns and directions of the coaches. The idea was simple, and they hoped that it would work.

At this point, Jessa and Kinsey called the Carters out of the blue. Having been students of the Carters growing up, Jessa and Kinsey knew they wanted Jen and Kyle to be on their team as they worked on building this business. Jessa and Kinsey went to Florida, where Kyle, Jennifer, Leslie Law, and Jon Holling were the first coaches to record lessons so the concept could be tested.

Fortunately, Jessa and Kinsey’s initial discovery calls had left them with lots of contacts who were willing to help at this stage, and 50 of those people (all ages, locations, disciplines, and levels) agreed to be official test riders. Jessa and Kinsey sent the beta version of the app and lessons to this group, and over the course of eight months they adjusted the product according to feedback, built an app, and recruited more coaches across both eventing and dressage.

Ride iQ was founded on the principles of loving the horse, and that better-educated riders make better horse people. Photo by Sally Spickard.

It was in the early summer of 2021 that Jessa and Kinsey approached me and asked me to be a coach on their app. I was intrigued; this sounded like one of the exciting ideas that my smartest friends in undergrad would have come up with for a startup. I was also struggling, as all of us were, to create a new normal in the pandemic. I jumped at the opportunity to record lessons for them. I have done recordings on all of my horses, from my 5* partner Bendigo to my young horses.

Ride iQ officially launched on August 17, 2021. Although test riders were enjoying and frequently using the app up to this point, there was much to learn during the earliest days after launch.

Were riders ready to embrace a new way of doing things? Would they embrace a brand-new concept and the use of technology in day-to-day rides? After launch, all the signs pointed to “yes!” — the equestrian market was eager to adopt a tool that made riding alone better. Ride iQ exceeded its first month’s membership goals within the first few days, and the Ride iQ community has continued to surpass expectations over the past 16 months.

Since its inception, Ride iQ:

  • Grew to 19 top coaches across eventing, dressage, Pony Club, sports psychology, and groundwork
    • In 2023, Ride iQ will have coaching teams in other countries including the UK and Australia (official announcements coming soon!)
  • Has members in 50 states and 40 countries; members span a wide range of disciplines, levels, and ages.
  • Established official partnerships with USEA, USPC, and RRP
  • Hosted a virtual anniversary party on Zoom with lots of members in attendance from all over – including plenty of members tuning in from horseback as you might imagine!
  • Won Denver Startup Week’s pitch competition, the largest free entrepreneurship event in the world open to companies in all industries
  • Hosted 70+ live events (one every week without a miss!) with guest experts including U.S. team veterinarian Dr. Lisa Cassinella, equine nutritionist Dr. Katie Young, World Championships ground jury member Peter Gray, and many others
  • Launched the In Stride podcast, hosted by Sinead Halpin Maynard. In Stride has had over 40 episodes and guests have included top riders (such as David O’Connor, Liz Halliday Sharp, and Will Coleman) and professionals in other areas (like sports psychologist Dr. Jenny Susser and freedom-based training advocate Elsa Sinclair).

But the most important highlight, Jess and Kinsey tell me, is that they continue to hear from members every day about how Ride iQ has positively impacted their riding, their relationship with their horse, their enjoyment of the sport, and their connection to others.

The impact piece is incredibly important to the Ride iQ coaches, too — it’s special to them that Ride iQ is a way they can help a lot more people. Members made a year end video for them at the close of 2022 to express their gratitude.

Some things to look forward to in 2023 for Ride iQ include:

  • Taking on new coaches from around the world and new disciplines
  • A new in-app and website experience, just launched on January 5
  • Growing their team (if you’re looking for an awesome job within equestrian sports, send them a note at [email protected])
  • Continuing to release lessons and programs to support members in everything they do
  • Participating in an elite 13-week accelerator for emerging companies, Techstars, beginning on January 9th

How can you try out Ride iQ? The best and easiest way is to download the app in the app store on iPhone or Android and start a two-week free trial. You can cancel anytime and still have access for the full two weeks, and you can have access to all 400+ lessons. The other perk of starting the free trial is getting full access to membership perks beyond the lessons: you will be invited to join the private Facebook group with members and coaches, be invited to a live Ask An Expert event every week, and get access to all of Ride iQ’s exclusive podcasts (like Hack Chats and Conversations with Coaches).

Alternatively, those interested in Ride iQ can search “Ride iQ, A Preview” on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or any podcast platform – there, you can choose from a handful of full-length lessons plus a couple of examples of full-length Ride iQ podcast episodes.

Go Ride iQ. Go Eventing.

Preparing for Cross Country Like Preparing for an Exam

Practicing for high-pressure competition starts with the fundamentals of preparation. Photo by Shelby Allen.

For the first two weeks of December, I was taking my final exams of the semester in law school. The timing works out well in the fall semester because the exams are in early December, so there’s no chance of a horse show distracting me.

Even though I wasn’t horse-showing during those weeks, I couldn’t help but thinking about how exam preparation is similar to cross country preparation. In law school, the final exam in a class generally counts for 100% of your grade in that class. You are responsible for digesting all of the material, lectures, and cases over a four-month period, and then you have to sit down for two or three hours one day and write essays to demonstrate that you’ve mastered it.

It’s broadly terrifying.

Horse shows are the same way. No one sees the day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month training. The judge doesn’t know that it took you six months to persuade your horse to go on the bit in the canter departure or three years to figure out how not to be crooked on the centerline.

All they see is the finished product, and you have five minutes in the ring to show off your training. In the case of cross country, you have a few minutes on the course to put your training to the test. Does your horse have the balance required to navigate terrain questions? Do you have the adjustability to bring her back for a technical combination? Does she understand skinny and corner fences? All of those questions and more are what the course designer asks of you — and they are the test of whether your training was on point.

On an exam, the professor cannot possibly cover all of the material that you’ve learned over the course of three months. We study hundreds of cases in these classes; asking about all of them would be impossible in a three-hour exam.

In the same way, the course designer cannot put every conceivable question she wants to put on a cross country course. She can cover the main bases for the level — at intermediate, for instance, a drop into water, a couple of corners and skinnies, and some terrain and adjustability questions — but she cannot possibly throw the whole book at you.

So how do you prepare for a big exam? Do you try to guess what the professor is going to ask, and focus on those areas? Or do you study as though any one topic could be the main essay question, going in-depth everywhere in the hopes that you can be an expert on every conceivable question the professor might ask? I do a little bit of both.

I try to cover all of the major topics so that I am prepared for anything. If you try to guess what the professor is going to ask and guess wrong, you could be very unhappy on exam day. However, it does pay off to think about what the questions could be, given what the professor tends to emphasize in class and the connections that have come up again and again during the semester.

How often do you replicate “high pressure” in your practice? Photo courtesy of Ema Klugman.

So, how do you prepare for a cross-country test? Do you guess what the course designer is going to put on the course and focus on that, or do you try to comprehensively cover everything so that you will be prepared for whatever ends up being on the course?

Again, it’s probably a case of doing a little bit of both. As a long-term approach, the latter idea is best because you want your horse to understand cross country inside and out, no matter who the course designer is. But if you are preparing for an event where you know there will be a hard coffin, or a sunken road, it is probably smart to school those types of questions in the weeks leading up to that event, especially if they are unusual or relatively new to your horse.

It’s not a bad thing to study strategically, but in the end, you need to be able to have the tools to conquer anything the course designer throws at you. That means that the basics are a priority, and all of the themes of cross-country riding that any good designer tests are key: balance, adjustability, turning ability, and accuracy.

The analogy applies another way: when you prepare for an exam, you have to flex your muscles in a way that resembles the test itself. I have made the mistake of reading and re-reading study materials for hours on end but never actually taking a practice exam. I might have all of the right ideas in my head, but if I cannot produce them in a time-pressured setting, they are useless.

The same can be said for cross country. We can school the questions all we want, but if we don’t practice in a time-pressured, adrenaline-filled way every once in a while to prepare for the show, we may not be able to produce the best results in competition.

For example, if you always jump corners from a slow, controlled canter and give your horse walk breaks after each combination you practice during a cross-country school, you aren’t replicating what you are going to face in the actual competition. You and your horse have to know the feeling of being a bit on the muscle, or a bit tired when it comes to the end of the course, and still make it work.

That’s not to say that there’s no time for slow, methodical cross country training — of course there is. But if all we do is re-read the cases and never take a practice exam, the feeling of sitting down for the test (or heading out of the start box) can be totally foreign.

The cross country test of eventing is unique. Although we know the dressage test in advance, and we know the basic range of possibilities that will be tested in the show jumping in advance, we don’t really know what the cross country course will throw at us. Thus, the preparation for this phase is crucial.

Studying different kinds of courses and the trends of course designing can help, but in the end being well-rounded in all of the subject matter will produce the best and most consistent results. (That, and going to class, of course!)

Research is a Good Thing: On the Virginia Tech Helmet Lab Study

Allison Springer was the first five-star rider to don a helmet in the first phase of eventing competition. Leslie Threlkeld Photo.

This editorial was co-written by Ema Klugman and Elena Perea, MD.

We have come a long way in the last several years in terms of helmet safety in our sport. In 2010, Allison Springer rode in a helmet in her dressage test at the Kentucky Three-Day Event — the first-ever rider to ditch her top hat in the first phase at that event. Less than 15 years later, the helmet has become not just the norm but the rule.

While it is wonderful that we rarely see an event rider on a horse without a helmet now, we can go above just wearing any helmet —- we can try to wear the most protective, best fitting headgear we can.

In December of 2022, Virginia Tech released the results of its study on equestrian helmets. The VTHL ratings reflect “impact tests” the lab used to “evaluate a helmet’s ability to reduce linear and rotational acceleration of the head from a range of head impacts a rider might experience”. Virginia Tech publishes ratings for a range of different sport helmets, including football, hockey, and whitewater rafting; this research has, as a result, influenced the landscape of helmet safety in each of those sports.

It’s important for us as equestrians to protect our heads. We each only get one of them, and we are bound to fall off at some point and hit our heads! The results of the Virginia Tech helmet study were not what some riders or companies were expecting, particularly when helmets that had gotten top ratings in another study conducted in 2021 by Swedish insurance group Folksam were ranked much lower in this study. More expensive helmets did not necessarily perform better in the VT study; indeed, the #2 ranked helmet costs less than $100. Manufacturers defended their products, and there were a whole range of different reactions from riders online.

We need to remember that we need this data, because research is a good thing. Preventing catastrophic brain injuries is a good thing; protecting against the more common concussion is also a good thing. Really, the most surprising thing about this study was not necessarily its results, but the fact that it has taken so long for independent research to be done on the efficacy of equestrian helmets.

It wasn’t so long ago top hats were still the norm for event riders. As of 2021, head protection is compulsory in eventing competition. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

It’s a realization that sparks a larger question: do equestrian consumers buy research-backed products? How much independent research is out there for equestrian products, especially for those we depend on to keep us safe?

This is not to say that there are no standards. The ASTM/SEI standards, which apply to North American helmet companies, have been in place for decades with respect to equestrian helmets. However, those standards act as a floor for safety focused on catastrophic injury such as skull fracture -— once the product has met those standards, suppliers do not necessarily have an incentive to make their helmets safer. Research requires funding, and while some helmet manufacturers have dedicated Research and Development arms, not all have the resources (and, yes, in some cases the gumption) to dive into the improvement cycle. An independent rating system creates competition among suppliers and pushes all of them to produce the safest helmets possible, and could also lead to stronger funding for further development.

I spoke with Elena Perea, MD, an amateur eventer guest writer for Eventing Nation, about this issue. She has emphasized that, in general, we have a lack of data backing up our products in equestrian sports. Lola B. Chambless, MD, who has consulted with USEF and the FEI, wrote to us in an email that there is a similar problem in air vests:

“Equestrian air vests were designed to reduce injury during a fall from horse, and these products may have undergone internal testing during their design phase. However, to my knowledge, no company producing this equipment has made public any data that shows that they actually reduce injury frequency or severity in any way. Even more worryingly, no data has been produced to show that they do not actually INCREASE the risk of injury. No independent product testing has been performed or published, and unlike conventional body protectors and helmets, there are no safety standard in place to ensure this equipment is working as marketed.

While it might seem reasonable to wear an air vest with the mindset that ‘it can’t hurt and it might help’, this unfortunately isn’t true. Many safety interventions have failed because of unintended consequences the designers did not foresee. As an expert in the biomechanics of the brain and spine, I can hypothesize several ways that deployment of an air vest could potentially worsen a neurologic injury. Performing studies to clarify this issue is absolutely feasible, but doing so would require that equestrians demand this evidence to support the use of air vests before they make a purchase. Riders deserve the same investment in their safety equipment that is seen in much larger sports like football or cycling, but we will have to hold our product manufacturers to a high standard if we expect results.”

What can data like this do? First, it encourages companies to create better products. The primary investigator from the helmet study, Dr. Barry Miller, gave an hour-long lecture on YouTube in which he pointed out that when Virginia Tech released the initial football helmet test results, there was only one helmet that got a 5 star rating. However, in reaction to those results, football helmet manufacturers improved their products. Now, every football helmet on the market has a 5 star rating. Similarly, Dr. Miller anticipates that these equestrian helmet ratings will drive a rapid improvement in helmet quality in the horse world.

There have certainly been some defensive reactions to this data from helmet manufacturers. For instance, MIPS, which is not a helmet manufacturer but rather a provider of the MIPS safety system to several different manufacturers, released a statement following the results noting “room for improvement” on some aspects of the test and Virginia Tech’s rating methods. Charles Owen criticized the study because it “focuses on just one potential cause of concussion”. To some extent, defensiveness and criticism is expected: every company wants to protect their products and their processes. And to be certain: further advancement in the research itself means these tests should continue with future iterations. Meanwhile, other companies have also been receptive to the VT study and have welcomed the innovation that its results will surely drive.

No one envies the job of a helmet manufacturer. There are umpteen different ways that a rider can fall off of a horse, get rolled on, get kicked in the head, or sustain a head injury in some other way. Designing a helmet that will protect riders in all of those situations is undoubtedly difficult, and it’s important to note that not every helmet will fit every head — a good fit should still rank on your criteria list.

Despite these challenges, we as an industry should, similarly to our counterparts in other sports, welcome and encourage independent research that tests the efficacy of our safety equipment. The Virginia Tech Helmet Lab will be performing research on body protectors in the coming years, which will hopefully inform improved development in that area as well. Research drives innovation, which in turn drives evolution. We should demand (and push to fund) more of it.

Know Your Helmet Research!

There are several resources available to help you conduct your own consumer research for the best helmet. While each study conducted may result in varying conclusions, each research effort helps us to better understand what makes a safe piece of equipment and how it should function. The following link list reflects information, opinions, and analysis on the topic of helmet research from a variety of viewpoints.

[Virginia Tech Expands Helmet Ratings to Equestrian]
[Virginia Tech Reveals Research Behind Upcoming STAR Ratings]
[Virginia Tech Helmet Ratings]
[MIPS Welcomes VA Tech Helmet Ratings, Warns Tests May Fall Short]
[Folksam Test of 12 Riding Helmets]
[MIPS Protection System Equestrian Helmets – Facebook Group]
[Folksam’s Test of Equestrian Helmets Shows Major Differences]
[Ride EquiSafe: Virginia Tech Helmet Study Initial Results]
[Ride EquiSafe: Virginia Tech Helmet Study, Part 2: The Aftermath]
[Ride EquiSafe: Where Do We Go From Here?]

Taking Risks and Showing Up: The Incredible Story of Young Rider and Cancer Survivor Jordan Riske

Jordan Riske celebrates more than a few achievements at Tryon International. Photo by Shannon Brinkman Photography.

Upon winning the CCIY3*-L championship last month at Tryon, Jordan Riske had perhaps the biggest smile on her face of any winner that weekend. The 20-year-old who hails from Manchester, MI had conquered not only her and her horse’s first 3*-L competition, but also a severe form of cancer.

This time last year, Jordan was undergoing chemotherapy and unable to ride.

The story begins in the spring of 2021, when Jordan was training in Aiken, preparing for the upcoming season. It was then that she noticed a swollen lymph node in her neck, and soon found another one next to her throat that seemed to be growing. Jordan’s farrier, Dawn Rammage, also a nurse who works on an infusion floor for cancer patients, recommended that she get it checked out.

A biopsy revealed cancer cells, but the doctors could not determine the source of the cancer. Jordan subsequently underwent multiple CT scans, PET scans, and an MRI, which showed nodules on her lungs and behind her nose. It was Nasopharyngeal cancer, which is not at all common in her age bracket. The cancer tends to affect elderly men who smoke heavily, but somehow, Jordan had gotten it.

“It would have spread to my lungs next, and that was pretty terrifying because they said it was not really curable if it spread to my lungs,” Jordan explained.

The doctors instructed her to start treatment as soon as she could. But there was one thing she wanted to do before starting treatment: she wanted to run a 3* with her longtime partner, Redemption Song. That she did, finishing just outside of the top ten at the Hagyard Midsouth 3*-S in October of 2021.

Jordan Riske and Redemption Song. Photo by JJ Sillman.

Then it was time to tackle the cancer. “Before I started my treatments, I reached out to Jess Halliday, and she gave me really good advice,” Jordan said. The much-loved late Jess Halliday, known for her advocacy apparel line Buck Off Cancer, passed away from colon cancer in October 2021. “I didn’t know Jess, but I had heard her podcast on Major League Eventing.” Ever-generous, Jess spoke with Jordan about the challenges of cancer treatments and how hard it is to spend time on the sidelines.

“I can’t let this define me.” Jordan told herself this, and that she would get through the cancer treatments. She and her family kept positive attitudes throughout the process. She did three rounds of chemotherapy, had one month off, and then seven more weeks of chemo and radiation. These weeks were intense: the treatments happened five days per week, for seven weeks straight. This started before Christmas of 2021 and continued through the spring of 2022.

“I would just think about the hospital and get sick,” Jordan explained. She developed association sickness, particularly because of the manner in which the treatments were done. Because the cancer was behind her nose, she had to lie on a table and wear a mask that was bolted to the table through which the radiation was administered. “It really made me have a good mental game, to stay strong through that.”

She said that she felt okay physically, but the treatments made her exhausted. “By the end of the treatments, I could hardly do anything I was so weak.” She spent the majority of her time resting.

There was another challenge to undergoing such intense cancer treatments: Jordan could not ride. Her friend Kristen Rozycki agreed to take Redemption Song (known in the barn as “Breezy”), on for a while down in Aiken to keep her going. “I had never been away from this horse for longer than a week,” she explains.

The mask Jordan wore during her treatments.

Indeed, Jordan’s whole life had been consumed with horses. “I grew up helping out with beginner lessons and my mother’s horse camps,” she explains. She and her mother, Amy Riske, buy young horses and train them up the levels, which is how she ended up with Breezy. They also have a small breeding program, with several thoroughbred mares and a warmblood stallion. She has also been awarded her traditional A rating from Huron Valley Pony Club in the Great Lakes Region. Thus, a disease that pulled her away from the horse world was difficult.

Jordan finished treatments on March 11, 2022. “My birthday was March 14, so that was an amazing birthday present.” Soon after that, she went down to Aiken to pick up Breezy from Kristen. She recalls having a jumping lesson and feeling like she could get right back into action. Her doctor approved, but he was surprised that she had so much energy so soon after the treatments.

Jordan and Breezy competed at River Glen in the Intermediate/Prelim six weeks after her final cancer treatment. She then groomed for her coach, Robin, at the Lexington 4*-S at the end of April.

In May, Jordan went in for another PET scan, from which there were still some found to be spots of cancer evident, but in August she had a clean PET scan. She was cancer-free and is now in remission. She’ll continue to have scans done regularly, given the increased risk of recurrence.

Still, Jordan is not slowing down. If anything, she seems to be putting down the accelerator. Having recently finished her Associate’s degree in Business Administration at Washtenaw Community College, she is hoping to transfer next spring to Eastern Michigan University. Alongside her studies, she works for 4* rider Robin Walker, who spends the winters in Ocala. She is also hoping to move up to the Advanced level next year with Redemption Song.

Jordan Riske and Redemption Song. Photo by Shannon Brinkman Photography.

“She absolutely loves her job, she will jump the moon for me,” Jordan smiles as she describes her now-3* horse whom she purchased for $1800 in Indiana when she herself was only 14 years old. “She was the first horse that I bought myself,” she explains, adding that they have had a few bumps along the way, including a broken splint bone and an old injury to the SI ligament. It seems that both of them are fighters.

At Tryon, Jordan and Breezy came out on top of the young rider 3* division, and her combined team of Areas V and VIII also won the team competition.

If you had told her a year ago that she would have produced such a great result in Tryon, Jordan would have smiled humbly, but I think that she would have believed you. She’s the kind that has the self-belief to make it happen.

The “Quiet Eye” and Mental Performance

Could a quiet focus be the key to sporting success? Photo by Tilly Berendt.

“I’ve won most of my matches – probably all of my grand slams – because of what’s upstairs, not anything else,” Serena Williams told Sports Illustrated in 2015. Regulating emotions, staying calm, and maintaining focus are essential skills for athletes. Recent research into the “quiet eye” phenomenon shows that this mental performance may be connected to an athlete’s eyes and vision.

You may have seen it if you’ve set jumps for a rider in the warm-up area — the look in a person’s eye in the last few strides before a fence. Up close, you can see it: there is a quietness, an extreme focus, that occurs. This look in the eye is one that seems incapable of being distracted. You might also see it in the moments before a rider slips their reins to jump into a water jump, or before they come down to a final halt on the centerline. The look is one of extraordinary focus and stillness.

Scientists call this phenomenon the “quiet eye.” The ability to focus intensely, but also calmly, has been shown to occur in conjunction with this particular “look.” It is likely what gives Serena Williams and other top athletes their edge.

As David Robson writes in an article for BBC Future, the “quiet eye” phenomenon is correlated with a “sensation of effortless concentration, in which your mind is clear of everything except the task at hand.” Kinesiologist Joan Vickers has studied the quiet eye by hooking up athletes to a device that tracks their eye movements. Her finding is simple: better athletes tend to focus longer on a particular point. For example, with golfers, she found that the better players had a longer and steadier gaze on the ball just before, and then during, their strike. Less experienced golfers, on the other hand, shifted their focus between different areas.

So what is happening during this moment of the “quiet eye”? Crucially, in the most stressful part of a game, the athlete is slowing down their mental processes, rather than speeding them up. Researchers have also found that in this moment, athletes have lower heart rates. This seems to suggest that the quiet eye repels distraction and calms the athlete during the critical moment.

Have you ever lost focus during a dressage test? Felt stressed during a show jumping round? Struggled to stay calm and focused during a cross country round? (I have.) The idea of maintaining focus by honing in on a particular point makes a lot of sense for riders as well as other types of athletes. Instead of getting distracted and flicking our eyes between lots of different things in the arena, we are likely better served by focusing on one thing, whether it be the letter toward which we are riding as we trot across the diagonal, or the line on which we are trying to stay as we navigate a combination of jumps. Instructors often encourage riders to look where they are going, but the idea of looking, and really seeing, sometimes eludes us. That focused vision provides not only clarity of direction, but also focus.

Can you teach the “quiet eye,” or is it innate? Research suggests that the skill can be learned. The same researcher, Vickers, tried to train the quiet eye into a group of university basketball players. She attached them to eye-tracking devices so that they had heightened awareness of their eye movements as they practiced free throws, and over the next two seasons, their performance improved by 22 percent. Their free throw average after going through the study exceeded that of the NBA average. The control group, who had not undergone the quiet eye training, only improved by 8 percent. While most athletes probably do not have access to eye-tracking devices, being aware of eye movements and practicing control of the gaze can, it seems, lead to improved performance.

Riding is a physical sport, but it is unique in that the primary athlete is not the human. The horse is the one doing the dressage movements, galloping the distance, and jumping the jumps. The rider is orchestrating, balancing, signaling, improving, and helping the horse, but the horse is ultimately the one moving his feet and making the task at hand happen. In such a physical sport, it is easy to focus on the physical aspects: the fitness, the scope, the agility, the suppleness. But just as many sports commentators still focus on physical rather than mental strength of athletes, as riders we also tend to overlook the mental side of things. The mental capacity to focus, to improve a performance that is not going to plan, and to stay calm in moments of extreme anxiety is what may matter most.

The research finding that expert athletes actually slow down their thinking at the crucial moment in competition is instructive. I sometimes come out of the show arena thinking “that course happened to me.” Rather than a feeling of my own riding and plan executing the course, I feel as though the course was just happening and the jumps were coming so quickly that I was doing triage. This feeling is probably a result of my brain (and likely my horse’s brain) moving too quickly. We all do it; we all succumb to stress. But knowing that there is scientific research behind the idea of athletes slowing down their mental processes in these stressful moments shows that ability to slow down really is something we should all strive to achieve.

Uniquely, in our sport, there are two athletes. So do horses have the “quiet eye” as well? It may not be backed by scientific research, but anyone who has watched a top horse study its jumps in the final strides of their approach might agree that there is some aspect of a quiet eye phenomenon occurring in the equine athlete as well. It may be what we have customarily called the “look of eagles,” but in fact, it could be an amazing athlete honing their focus.

Canadian Young Riders in Full Force at Young Rider Championships in Tryon

Canada’s young riders are out in force in Tryon – and making a serious impression as they tackle the competition. Photo by Ema Klugman.

It’s Friday morning, and a roar goes up from the spectator section in the Tryon main stadium. You would have thought a well-known four-star rider was finishing their dressage test, but no — it’s more likely to be a young rider in the 1* division with a full cheering squad. That’s the magic of team competitions like the Young Rider Championship this week: the riders are here not in an individual capacity, but rather as part of a team unit. And their enthusiasm is boundless.

I spoke with several members of the Canadian teams competing here this week to get their perspective on the competition, the venue, and their journey to get here. Canada is fielding an impressive three teams: an Ontario/Quebec team (competing in the 1 star), an Alberta team (also in the 1 star), and a combined “Team Canada” team (from various locations in Canada, competing in the 2 star).

For most of these riders, this is their first team competition and their first FEI event. More than anything, this weekend is a learning experience for them. They come from different backgrounds and ride all different breeds of horses, many of whom are self-made. For example, I talked with Emma McHugh, an 18-year-old who started riding when she was eight. She first learned about eventing in 2018, and four years later she has two horses in the 1* division here. Both of her horses are thoroughbreds. Lincoln Park and Ricochet are her partners this weekend, the latter of which she got straight off the track just three years ago. She drove two days to get here, and she is studying business in school.

“There’s a big difference compared to the shows at home,” Emma explains. “We liked the jog, and it’s fun having the team experience. It’s also exciting to be here and see the higher levels go.” The Young Rider Championships this year and last year have been integrated with the larger competition at the Tryon Three-Day Event, which also features a 4*-L and 4*-S. The advantage of having the young riders compete in a larger competition is that they can watch lots of upper level riders compete.

Kendal Lehari, chef d’equipe of the Ontario team and co-chair, with Nikki McLellan, of the Ontario under-25 program, won the North American Young Rider Championships in 2006, the final year that it was a long-format event. She now competes for Team Canada, including in Nations Cup events. As she reflected, it used to be three disciplines (dressage, show jumping, and eventing) at the same show, so young riders could watch other young riders competing in the other disciplines. Now, it is siloed, which makes it a different experience for the riders. Young Rider Championships also used to be in the summer (typically in July), but it seems as though it will continue to be in the fall going forward. I asked the riders about this, and they said that it had advantages and disadvantages. The pros were that the later date meant that they had the year to get qualified, but the cons were that the fall event tends to be during or right before exams for those in school.

“There have been big improvements this year versus last year — there is separate scoring for the young riders, separate jogs, and separate events, like a dinner exclusively for young riders, which allowed them to get to know each other,” Kendal explains. The organization around the young riders has helped them really feel like they are at a championship.

“It’s a lot of hours but it’s worth it,” said Megane Sauve, 20, who is competing in the 2* division and also works full-time for Jessica Phoenix in Toronto. She started riding at 13, and her thoroughbred, Nuance, was her very first horse. She got her when she was four years old and trained her up in eventing, and they are now at their first FEI event. Tryon has been different from anything she’s ever done, she explains: “the team ambience is really fun to have. Every day we are together, cheering for each other.”

Coming from Canada, many of these young riders had long journeys to get here. “My GPS said 18 hours but it took about 22 hours,” laughs Cassandre Leblanc, 21, who made the trip from Quebec. Cassandre became a working student for Holly Jacks-Smithers at 18 years old, which is where she got hooked on eventing. She is riding a homebred ¾ TB, ¼ Percheron named Riffel. As she explained, the horse’s mother was saved from a slaughterhouse, so he was not necessarily destined for international eventing. She developed a bond with him because he stopped eating his food, so she would sit in his field and hand-feed him. Eventually, she started riding him, and they are now competing at the two-star level.

“It’s exciting for the sport in Canada to have so many riders qualified and competing,” Cassandre underscores, noting that the U25 program in Canada was just revived as well.

Her team is currently in gold medal position, “and we would like to stay there!” she says with a smile.

Kyle Carter has been an instrumental part of the Canadian Young Riders program – but the riders have shown equal dedication in making their way to his base for training. Photo by Ema Klugman.

Many of the young riders competing here this weekend are in school, so they have had to balance their studies with a lot of travel and taking time off to compete. Their schedules have required real dedication. For example, the Alberta team did a training camp with their team coach, Kyle Carter, in Florida before coming to Tryon. “It took 5 days to get there!” they said, but noted that the experience was invaluable. The Alberta team also emphasized that they did plenty of fundraising to get here, including through silent auctions and a clinic with Peter Gray.

As one of the riders told me, “being able to come here and see all the incredible riders and the incredible facility has been amazing.” Another said, “I just liked riding in the big ring!”. Indeed, for these young riders, learning about jogs, ring familiarization, and all that goes into a successful three-day event is a good experience, not only for them but for their horses as well. Thank you to Tryon and the Dutta Corp for providing this experience for these young riders, and good luck, Canada!

Team scores can be found here.

Meet Hayley Frielick, the U.S.-Based Kiwi Eventer Heading for the Maryland 5 Star

Hayley Frielick and Dunedin Black Watch. Photo by snapshotaustralia.

In July, 29 year-old New Zealander Hayley Frielick bought a one-way ticket to the United States. She traveled across the world from Australia with two horses to base herself in America, quitting her job as an analyst for a bank before the move. She is currently based at Dom and Jimmie Schramm’s farm in Pennsylvania. With her Australian thoroughbred Dunedin Black Watch, she will compete at the upcoming Maryland 5 Star.

Hayley’s parents are from South Africa, and she was born in America but competes for New Zealand. She grew up in Australia but also spent several years living in Scotland, so she is no stranger to moving around the globe. She has competed at the Adelaide 5 Star, but Maryland will be her first 5 star outside of the southern hemisphere.

I met Hayley ten years ago during a brief working student stint I did with Australian eventer Jade Findlay. I was just a kid and I admired how she rode and the way she trained her horses. Fast forward to 2022, and she has come to America to train and campaign her horses. The motivations for the move, she told me, were both necessity and a hunger to improve.

“Really, we were just looking for dry land!” Hayley jokes, describing what pushed her to relocate halfway around the globe. Over the last couple of years, New South Wales, where Hayley lived in Australia, has suffered from severe flooding. Farms have been under water for days at a time, and several events have had to cancel.

Photo by Britt Grovenor Photography.

Hayley has wanted to compete at a foreign five-star for a few years, and after missing out on the chance to run Kentucky two years ago because of COVID, she was hungry to get to a big overseas event. The last straw was the fact that the Adelaide 5 star was announced to not be occurring this year, and has moved from its initial date in November to next April.

In June, Hayley looked into the possibility of coming to America. The problem was that there was a scarcity of flights. “I tried to book flights for my horses, and the agent I spoke with told me that they could leave on a flight in two weeks, but after that, he wasn’t sure when the next flights would be.” It was much earlier than she had planned, but Hayley did not want to miss out on a chance to move, so she put her horses on that flight.

“The journey was crazy. The horses flew from Melbourne to Hanoi to Doha to Luxembourg, and then finally to Chicago.” Luckily, they had ample time to recover once reaching the States, and Hayley joined them in July. She brought over Dunedin Black Watch (aka “Nelson”) and a five year-old homebred called Dunedin My Goodness, who is related to her former five-star horses My Happiness and Class Action LP.

Hayley and co-owner Katie Robertson found “Nelson” in the Australian outback. “He was actually part of a 2-for-1 deal,” Hayley laughs. “We went out there to look at another horse, and Katie said, actually, I really like that black one, let’s get him too.” Taking that chance paid off, and now the horse is headed to his first 5 star.

Since arriving, she has run the horse at the Great Meadow and Unionville CCI-short events to prepare for Maryland. Maryland will be his first five-star. “The track should really suit him,” Hayley explains, noting that having a full thoroughbred should be an advantage at the hilly venue. “He has the biggest heart, and he’s quick,” she notes, adding that she is really excited to have the opportunity to compete another horse at five-star.

“I’m not sure what my longer-term plan is,” Hayley admits, adding that it will depend a bit on how Maryland goes. “Right now, we are focusing on Maryland, and after that we will figure everything else out.” She hopes to go to Florida for the winter months, and may aim for Kentucky in the spring. “I am a U.S. citizen, because I was born here, so that gives me a lot of flexibility,” Hayley points out.

She has the option of staying here in the long-term, which she says she is seriously considering. She is open for business, and enjoys teaching both locally and doing clinics. “There are so many opportunities in America,” she adds, “so I am hoping to have a crack at it.”

What Impact Has the Compulsory Retirement Rule Had on U.S. Eventing? A Look at One Year of Data

Photo by Shannon Brinkman Photography.

On June 1, 2021, the USEA instituted a new policy: at training level and above, a competitor who has 20 or more jump faults in the show jumping phase of an event must compulsorily retire. If you scrolled down the results of an event during the past year, every now and then you may have seen a ‘CR’ next to the final result of a competitor. Those letters describe that situation. The full rule and an explanation of its intent, as published in an April 2021 announcement, is as follows:

EV150 Penalties 

During a round, penalties are incurred for:

20 show jump penalties – Compulsory Retirement

COMPULSORY RETIREMENT

A competitor incurs 20 or more jump penalties in show jumping at the Training level or higher. Enforced at the end of the round unless the competitor retires or is eliminated.

Rule Change Intent: This rule is being presented to reduce risk in the sport of eventing. The reasoning has been that in reviewing the incidence of poor riding at competitions, the performance records of those riders that have died in schooling situations, data from EquiRatings, and other indicators, the USEA Cross-Country Safety Subcommittee views it as important to highlight that poor show jumping performance should result in retirement. They believe this should be equally applied regardless of whether show jumping or cross-country occur first in the schedule of the competition. British Eventing instituted this rule for similar reasons and it would be an additional measure to lessen risk in the sport. Compulsory Retirement (CR) designation was chosen to distinguish the penalty from fall of horse (Mandatory Retirement, MR) for tracking purposes.

Thanks to the USEA providing it, we have access to data about how often, and at which level, these CRs have been occurring. We also have access to data about how often horses and riders have more than 20 jumping penalties in FEI eventing. At FEI events, there is no CR rule. A horse can have five rails, six rails, or eight rails and still be permitted to run cross country. Thus, it provides an interesting comparison to the USEA system. The data is summarized below:

US Eventing
Comp Results with Final Score of CR or
FEI Divisions with SJ Jump Pen 20+
June 1, 2021 to June 1, 2022
All Results              CR or SJ=20+         
Level                  Count Count %
CCI5-L 103 7 6.80%
CCI4-L 110 2 1.82%
CCI3-L 195 5 2.56%
CCI2-L 298 10 3.36%
CCI4-S 433 1.39%
CCI3-S 581 17 2.93%
CCI2-S 550 13 2.36%
CCI1-L 69 5 7.25%
CCI1-S 57 2 3.51%
       
A 348 10 2.87%
AI 113 1 0.88%
I 1426 39 2.73%
IP 105 4 3.81%
P3D 2 0 0.00%
P 4207 58 1.38%
M3D 5 0 0.00%
M 1583 16 1.01%
MT 105 3 2.86%
PT 231 14 6.06%
T3D 91 0 0.00%
T 7728 92 1.19%

There are four main takeaways from the data:

  1. The incidence rate of CRs is very small, at any USEA level. Varying between 0.00% and 6.06%, this means that in a typical division of, for example, 16 horses and riders, there is likely to be on average at most one compulsory retirement. In other words this rule is not affecting many horses and riders. 
  2. The USEA incidence rate of CRs is highest at the IP and PT levels.
  3. The USEA incidence rate of CRs varies by level, and there is a slight trend in the traditional levels (i.e. non-hybrid divisions, so excluding the IP/PT/MT divisions) upward as the levels of difficulty increase (i.e. bigger jumps at the higher levels do tend to correlate with more CRs).
  4.  The incidence rate of would-be CRs at FEI levels is higher (averaging 3.55%) than the actual CRs (averaging 1.90%) at national levels. The highest would-be CRs at FEI are at the CCI1-L and CCI5-L levels. (Would-be CRs are those FEI rounds with more than 20 jumping penalties.)

The purpose of compulsory retirements (‘CRs’) is to reduce risk in the sport. While there are so many factors that can contribute to dangerous falls, the USEA determined that high incidence of refusals and rails in the show jumping phase correlate with cross country falls. Accordingly, they instituted a blanket retirement rule for horses and riders with more than 20 jumping penalties at a show.

This is a ‘per se’ rule, meaning that it is a generalized rule applied without consideration for specific circumstances. The rule is simple and objective. There is no judge who reviews your equitation or your horse’s jumping form or your ability to see a distance. There is just the blanket per se rule: 20 penalties or more, and you have a CR. There are advantages and disadvantages to a per se rule.

Is a horse that can jump with fewer than five rails safer on cross country? Photo by Shelby Allen.

On the one hand, it is transparent and objective. There is no sense that subjectivity is creeping into the enforcement of the rule. Furthermore, there is no responsibility on TDs or judges to pull aside a competitor who has had five fences down in show jumping and explain to them why they shouldn’t run cross country. The rule does it for them.

On the other hand, it may be over- or under-inclusive. In the former instance, it may capture too many horses and riders who have an uncharacteristic round and tap a few rails but would still be safe out on cross country. I know a couple of horses that are careless in show jumping but have perfect cross-country records. These horses would suffer from the rule, and for them it seems to be unfair.

But a blanket rule can be under-inclusive — that is, it may also capture too few horses and riders in the sense that perhaps five rails (20 penalties) is too high of a threshold. Four rails is a lot of rails as well—and there is an argument that some of those horses, if they are jumping poorly, should not be allowed to run cross country.

It is worth noting that in the sport of straight show jumping, you rarely see riders having five fences down, and if they do, they usually retire during the round and save their horse for another day or another class. They may realize the horse is over-faced by the size of the jumps or the atmosphere of the ring. Or they may realize that they have the wrong equipment or tack for the rideability they need in the ring.

Whatever it may be, you see show jumpers retiring more often than event riders in the show jumping ring. Perhaps this is because they only have one phase, but still, a rider should be applauded for making a good choice and admitting that today is not their or their horse’s day.

More data is required to know the effect of the CR rule on safety— for example, since the rule was enacted, have there been fewer cross country falls on average?

It is impossible to do a randomized control trial with a sport like ours, but the comparison of USEA data and FEI data may offer some answers as to whether the CR rule is really reducing risk. This would inform our ability to hypothesize about “what might have happened” in terms of accidents had the riders who got CRs in the past year been allowed to continue to cross country, which is the essence of determining whether the CR rule is doing its job.

Photo by Shelby Allen.

Finally, the CR rule may be working in a different way, which we may not see in the data: some people may have been less likely to enter an event if they suspected that they may have five or more rails. This is a deterrence effect. Events are incredibly expensive, so entering and traveling to one is made less attractive if riders think there is a high chance that they will get a CR in show jumping and thus will not be allowed to run cross country.

While we do not know how behavior has changed, exactly, it is possible that these riders either stopped eventing that particular horse or chose to run the horse at a lower level, at which their chance of succeeding in the show jumping was higher.

The purpose of the CR rule — to reduce risk in the sport of eventing — is laudable. It should be everyone’s goal to reduce risk, and there are many ways to do that. Rider responsibility, good coaching, good course design, appropriate MER requirements, proper safety equipment, and MIM technology on cross country fences are all part of the equation.

Whether the CR rule is helping to reduce risk is difficult to measure because it is partly the Robert Frost problem, which means it involves considering the road not taken. But this rule may have saved lives by prohibiting certain rider and horse pairs from going cross country. This rule may have encouraged riders to work on their show jumping, including their position and technique. This rule may have improved horsemanship. This rule may have made riders and coaches realize that a horse may be suited to a lower level, even though they had hopes and dreams that it would succeed at a higher level.

All of the effects are impossible to know, and some are only ascertainable from anecdotal evidence. The CR rule’s purpose to reduce risk deserves further analysis, but on the whole, its benefits seem to outweigh its drawbacks. What do you think of the CR rule? Is it good or bad for our sport?

Writer’s note: I am not a data whiz, and I am in law school partly because I probably was not the most naturally gifted mathematician as a child. I analyzed this data using basic average and range functions in Excel, but I would welcome any readers’ input on the data and further analysis of it. Thank you for reading!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

¡Vamos a Pratoni! Highlighting Mexican Event Rider Daniela Moguel

Daniela Moguel and Cecilia. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

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

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

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

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

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

Daniela Moguel and Cecelia. Photo by Shannon Brinkman Photography.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Should Eventing Have a 5*-Short Level?

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

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

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

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

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

What about having a 5*S?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ema Klugman and Bronte Beach. Photo by Abby Powell.

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Tilly Berendt.

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

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

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

On Learning: The Application of Knowledge

Photo courtesy of Ella Groner.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Explaining the water jump. Photo by Ema Klugman.

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

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

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

Studying the coffin. Photo by Ema Klugman.

Here are a few memorable quotes from his course walks:

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

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

“Your feeling is what’s most important.”

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

“Keeping your line is the most important thing.”

“No monkey riding!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Christina Aharoni.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arielle Aharoni and Dutch Times. Photo by Shannon Brinkman.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arielle Aharoni and Dutch Times. Photo by Shelby Allen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Abby Powell.

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

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

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

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

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

Bromont Rising participant Abby Dubrawski getting ready for dressage.

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

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

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

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

Beautiful Bromont. Photo by Abby Powell.

Peppered in these explanations were some riding tips, including:

“Always think of two legs to two reins.”

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

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

“Look where you are going!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some other soundbites from Cara during the workshop included:

“Short ends are for repairing and preparing.”

“I love brave riding in the dressage ring.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does Remote Coaching Work?

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

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

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

In fact, it does not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Acronyms for Amateur Riders

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

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

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

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

WBWOZC – wearing breeches while on zoom calls

WAHSMSE – why are horse show mornings so early?

EHBRTC – explaining “horse-back riding” to colleagues

CFMHITD – can’t find my horse in the dark

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

SWAFHS – skipping work altogether for a horse show

NMC – need more coffee

NMI – need more ibuprofen

NFH – need fewer horses

SNSFTAW – should not shop for tack at work

SAMMOMH – spending all of my money on my horse

IUTBYAB – I used to be young and brave

ETHHITO – excuse the helmet hair in the office

HWTMHPOMD – having way too many horse pictures on my desk

TLSKAW – trying to live-stream Kentucky at work

PFVAHS – planning family vacations around horse shows

MHIMR – my horse is my refuge.

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

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

Ema Klugman and Bendigo. Photo by Abby Powell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Growing Trend of Expensive Young Rider Horses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ema Klugman and Bendigo. Photo by Abby Powell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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