If You Want to Ride Better, Study Your Craft

Athletux rider John Michael Durr is aiming for his first CCI4* at Rolex Kentucky this spring with Esprit de la Danse, an 11-year-old Canadian Sport Horse mare owned by Ruth Bley. He and his wife, Eventing 25 rider Kimmy Steinbuch, run Durr Eventing in Castro Valley, California. Be sure to follow them on Facebook here.

John Michael Durr and Esprit de la Danse at Galway Downs 2014. Photo by Jenni Autry.

John Michael Durr and Esprit de la Danse at Galway Downs 2014. Photo by Jenni Autry.

When you stop and think about our sport, the truth of the matter is that we spend four days to compete no more than 20 minutes at a competition. This is something we hear about a lot as West Coast eventers. Out on the West Coast, we primarily compete at destination events regardless of level, and, as a result, competitors spend four days at any given venue.

For those of us riding numerous horses, down time may be more limited, however, for the majority of riders, there is still time to use or waste depending on your outlook. This time at events certainly creates a very unique sense of community, which has even been regarded by some to have similarities to a traveling circus, where the tents pop up in each town and we train wild animals.

Some of this is true, I will say, and while this circus allows for the development of wonderful friendships and a great deal of fun, it is also an opportunity for vast amounts of education and studying of our craft.

Rather than spending the bulk of your extra time at a destination event socializing, I believe riders at all levels can benefit from using that time to study our sport. Regardless of what sport you enjoy, studying your craft is how you get, better no matter your age or skill level.

As part of the crazy life of horses, I was able to spend some time talking to Major League Baseball starting pitcher Matt Cain of the San Francisco Giants, who is married to a student of mine. His approach to his profession is similar to the way I believe we need to approach our sport to achieve success and always improve.

To me it does not matter what sport you’re in; if you want to become an elite rider at your level, you need to take any opportunity to learn. That can mean learning from an athlete at the top of the sport or even your successful peers, and if you’re willing to ask questions and always seek new information, you will never stop improving.

In baseball, a starting pitcher will only start every fifth day — this means they sit every other day and most likely will not step onto the field, which creates a huge amount of down time. The day I was talking to Matt was one of his off days, and I asked him how he uses this time.

John Michael Durr and Esprit de le Danse. Photo by Jenni Autry.

John Michael Durr and Esprit de le Danse. Photo by Jenni Autry.

While this was a rare day away from the field, he is typically stuck in the dugout sitting. His answer made it clear to me why his career has led him to starting games in the World Series and achieving countless titles. After first answering that he enjoys “cheerleading,” he went on to explain how he uses that time to “study.”

He watches other pitchers’ techniques, the mechanics of different batters and the way the game is played.  He is an incredible example that even one of the very best at their craft can always improve.

So how does this apply to us at events? Every time the upper levels are running at an event, I see huge crowds of riders and other fans enjoying the thrill of our sport, cheering on their favorite riders. However, the upper levels are only a small number of horses when you compare them to the down time created by a destination event, when a rider is only riding and caring for one or two horses.

Is the real learning opportunity only in watching a Buck Davidson or Tamie Smith lay it down and get it done around the Advanced? The average eventer is working to be the best they can be at their level, and for most people, their goals stand within the middle levels of the sport on horses that probably don’t operate the same way as Shamwari.

So what can we do to take advantage of during our time at events? With my students, I encourage them to watch the levels above and below them. I first tell them to identify riders of similar proportions to them — height, weight and approximate age. These are the riders they can learn from.

Learning doesn’t just come by watching someone who is having a great ride. Learning can also come from watching combinations that may struggle and identifying what went wrong. I believe you must identify your own weaknesses to get better. Another great way to do this while also contributing to the sport is by fence judging at the level you want to watch.

Top-level riders should study their craft too, whether it is watching the way others teach to improve upon their coaching abilities or watching how others achieve success through their training and competition tactics. As riders, we need to keep an open mind, and, most importantly, we need to look to those around us and study our craft whenever possible to continue improving for our country, our sport and ourselves.