I’ve just returned to Europe after spending a few weeks in the U.S. coaching the MARS Bromont Rising grant recipients at Galway Downs, one of my last stops of a full year traveling the world coaching riders and helping develop horses. I get much out of helping each and every rider, and getting to see the development of young riders and their programs is something I love about what I do.
MARS Bromont Rising is a wonderful program made possible thanks to the efforts of many, and I’d like to take a moment to thank each and every person involved with creating and growing it. So much effort goes into putting on these events, with little thanks, yet these are opportunities you cannot put a value on to help these young riders bridge the gap and help our sport grow at the same time.
For this column, I was asked to share my thoughts on what is necessary to build for success in the future. As I spend much of my time these days with many different students, all over the world, I’ve had a chance to see the inner workings of every type of program. Combining this perspective with my experience as a rider, I’ve spent much time honing my philosophy of “what it takes” to find success in the sport.
“The future” is what we like to talk about the most. I think it’s the nature of the ambition we all possess. The future holds promise of what we have the potential to achieve. So of course we want to develop horses and riders for this future – the one that has medals and championships and titles waiting.
However, what we have to be willing to do for this future is make sure we are doing what must be done now. And this means more than riding, and more than riding for better scores and better results.
Preparedness now means producing riders – horsemen – who are effective and who can think or make decisions on their own. These must be riders who take their education seriously, and who put the wellbeing of their horse above all other choices.
After all, it is not enough to simply pursue higher marks. The higher goal should be to enable our horses to run and jump at speed, and to stay sound, happy, and healthy doing so.
This ability comes from good preparation of the body and the mind. Horse wellbeing informs all of our decisions, and it is our responsibility to educate ourselves so that we can prioritize this both at home and in competition.
So how do we make sure our next generation of riders has the tools they need to accomplish this and to make “the future” brighter?
Programs like Bromont Rising, the USEF and USEA’s Developing Rider Programs, Australia’s Next GEN squads, and in Germany the Stiftung Deutscher Spitzensport-supported mentorship program and county squads in each district are very valuable, particularly if students are willing to take them on in an immersive way. It’s encouraging to see more countries taking the development of talent seriously, and putting funding behind these efforts.
“Education” goes beyond riding instruction, too. At this Bromont Rising workshop, participating riders took part in several seminars. There was a seminar led by Jim Wildasin on attracting owners and sponsorship. World Championships judge Peter Gray and Olympic judge Marilyn Payne conducted a seminar on ringsmanship and dressage skills. In future workshops, I would propose adding seminars on horse management – how to plan your season, how to structure your fitness program, etc. – and proper aftercare to really complete the cycle of looking at the big picture.
Preparedness gives riders independence. I like my students to not be dependent on me. I like to give them the tools they need, and if they like me to be there I am happy to do that, but there are enough times and days that they’re on their own. At that point, my teaching needs to be good enough that they can apply it themselves, then pass it on to others.
That’s how I see my job. I don’t see my job as making my students utterly dependent on me. But sometimes, this does happen – and in this way we are not empowering riders to be successful on their own.
As riders – younger or older, amateur or professional – we must work to understand our horses and our sport to the best of our ability. This means taking full advantage of opportunities to learn from those who have experienced the sport for many years. It means working to be a better rider for the benefit of your horse, above all. It means being prepared and independent in your thinking.
Preparedness is also self-awareness. What could you use some extra practice on? Could you benefit from studying books or videos? I often advise my students to add some dressage and show jumping competitions to their schedules, as this helps provide experience without additional pressure. What is that “little extra” you could add to your knowledge? Rid yourself of the idea that you will eventually “get there”. The reality is, in this sport we are all always learning.
It’s important I emphasize that preparedness and the resulting independence is important not only for better results. It is important from the standpoint, also and most significantly, of safety and the longevity of our sport.
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The bottom line is this: we are all here for the same reason. We all want good sport, happy, healthy horses, and we want to see good riding. And if you look at the really big picture, if we aren’t careful we are not going to have a sport. We are already in danger of losing our sport at the Olympics, so we need to be seeing what we want.
As educators, we have a responsibility to make sure we are continuing to learn ourselves. I would also invite the home trainers to participate alongside their students in the workshops, because this can only help create a stronger system at home. They are or were all riders as well, so there is benefit for all. For example, the Centerline workshop put on by Peter Gray and Marilyn Payne I found to be useful for even myself as a coach, and I think home trainers should be eager to pick up some new tips from these workshops to improve their own craft.
In the U.S., educators have the option to gain certification through the USEA [the USEA’s Instructor Certification Program offers several levels of accreditation for eligible trainers], and I think programs like this are invaluable. Because we all need to be, at the end of the day, speaking the same language. How else are we to create consistency?
In order to become a professional instructor in Germany, one must undergo a rigorous training curriculum that includes riding application, theory, and business management, to name only a few areas of focus. Students must pass exams and become certified. It is this system and educational structure that have ensured our success as a country in every major equestrian discipline. This is not an accident, it’s a big picture.
This goes back to our accountability as riders, and as educators of riders. Focusing attention on instilling the right skills and knowledge in every rider and on encouraging riders to be confident in their decision-making will not only grow the number of competitive riders available for team selection, it will create a safer environment for all of us.
A rider who has the right knowledge and skills, combined with real competition experience, will be the best prepared to make the right decision in a split second when things go wrong. A rider who is confident in his or her decision making, which is the result of empowered education, and in the relationship with the horse will be better prepared, physically and mentally, to perform well under pressure.
Our sport will always be changing, so it is our responsibility to put the most important things first – happy horses, good riding, good sport – and be willing to continue our personal education.
I was very happy to see the studiousness with which many of the bright young Bromont Rising riders took to the sessions at Galway Downs and feel our sport has a wonderful future ahead as long as we remember what matters the most. Thank you to MARS Equestrian, Robert Kellerhouse, Peter Gray, Mark Hart, and all individuals and supporters who helped to make this program possible.