Thank You Michigan Eventing

Life was rough growing up eventing in Michigan

I would like to extend a special thanks to The Eventing Association of Michigan for a wonderful time at their annual awards banquet Saturday night.  I started eventing in Michigan and rode in Michigan until I was 12 before I moved to Kentucky for high school.  I returned to the TEAM awards banquet for the first time in 10 years Saturday night and it was wonderful to see so many friends who were such a wonderful part of my early eventing days and continue to be a great influence on me to this day.  TEAM is a great organization that leads a thriving eventing scene in Michigan and I can’t give TEAM enough recognition. 

Saturday night was a celebration of the riders, horses, competitions, and volunteers that together make Michigan eventing.  The only real problem with the night was a 20 minute public speaking interlude by yours truly.  Much to the misfortune of my audience, Saturday night was the first speech I have ever given.  I will say that very few cross-country courses have made me more nervous than I was standing up at the podium before I started speaking.  I spent all day Friday and all day Saturday writing the speech and by the sixth paragraph I went off script and started improvising.  The audience was incredibly generous to laugh at a few jokes, nod at a few points, and clap enthusiastically at the end, if only in a frantic joy that I had stopped speaking.

When TEAM asked me to speak at the banquet I was honored and humbled, and I couldn’t refuse an organization that has given me so much, but at the same time I had no idea what I could possibly speak about that so many people would want to hear about.  I wanted to speak about something meaningful, something beyond my life or Eventing Nation, something that perhaps I wish I had heard when I listened to speeches at the TEAM annual banquets in my childhood.  So I discussed an issue that has been challenging me over the past few years and that I think always will challenge me–how to live in harmony with eventing.

Speeches are meant to be heard, not read, but nonetheless I will publish my notes for the speech–click on the link below to read them.  As I said, I improvised quite a bit once the speech started and my overall tone was dramatically less formal than the written speech suggests.  Linda Cooper, my fantastic childhood coach was kind enough to introduce me with a slideshow of my first years with eventing.  Let’s just say George Morris would not have been impressed with those photos.

Hidden camera footage of the speech:

See you after the jump…

Linda guided me through some of the most important and formative moments of my early riding career and indeed life in general and for that I am deeply fortunate and thankful. I could stand here all night and tell you stories about how Linda’s positive influence helped me to get to where I am and who I am today. I can say the same for many friendly faces around this room as well as Michigan eventing as a whole and it’s a great privilege to express that gratitude.

My public speaking professor in college strongly suggested that I become a writer, presumably, as you can see, so that I would spend as little time speaking publicly as possible. As he put it, it’s harder to put your foot in your mouth with a pen in your hand. I imagined that it would be even harder to put my foot in my mouth with a computer in my lap, but nonetheless I manage to do so with a startling degree of regularity.

One of the few things I did learn from that public speaking class is that the Gettysburg Address is comprised of 268 words so you all will be relieved to hear that I am a strong believer that a good speech is not by definition long. Along those same lines, my father used to take me golfing as a child and he always taught me that if you are playing golf poorly then play fast out of mercy for your fellow competitors, which is why I talk fast and also probably why I ride fast.


We are gathered here tonight to celebrate the achievements of Michigan’s best riders and horses. Ten years ago I sat where you now sit at this very awards banquet. I took home several awards that night, which in retrospect can only be the result of very narrow awards categories. I won an award for being the grand champion of all of Michigan for 12 year old boys with blonde hair and brown eyes who rode a buckskin pony at the novice level. But I did dominate that category.

When I look back on my life since that night I realize that horses have had a huge impact on every twist and turn and decision that my life has taken. My decision to go to Lexington, Kentucky for high school, my decision to attend the University of Virginia for college, the decision to go south each winter to work with Phillip and David, my decision to nearly kill myself falling off at Jersey Fresh, and of course my decision to start Eventing Nation have all been determined by horses. I think it is safe to say that horses have been a large part of every major step my life has taken. The amazing thing is that everyone here can probably say the same and, perhaps more importantly for our purposes here tonight, will be able to say the same 10 years from now.

Eventing is unique among all other sports in the net impact it has on the lives of its participants. To illustrate my point–if you become a professional rider your financial future will be determined almost exclusively by riding, if you are an amateur rider then horses will likely have the second or third largest financial impact on your life behind your career and whether or not you have children. Of course, this impact that I am talking about reaches past the worldly and into the deeper aspects of shaping our personalities and who we are as people.

As an example, consider a situation that I see a lot in the programs I train with. A young rider with a very promising 4* prospect horse has had great success at the 1* and 2* levels, perhaps even the 3* level and they are working with a national coach. If the rider is very lucky, they might have a horse that people consider a “once in a lifetime” horse. They are also of course approaching the age of attending college. The conflict is whether they should pursue their horse’s promising young career or let their riding take at least a small step back and attend college. There is rarely an easy answer to this issue and it’s a question that we will revisit later.

On the other side of the age spectrum, you may have read on Eventing Nation that Dr. Mary Alice Brown passed away earlier this week after 55 consecutive years of eventing. 55 years. What other sport has competitors of 55 years? Mary Alice wasn’t even a professional rider. The crazy thing about eventing is that Mary Alice probably didn’t even hold the active record for eventing.

As we have already seen, we are all products of our environment, and, if you are an eventer, eventing is your environment. Think about what that means for a moment.

I would postulate in one, albeit run-on sentence, that this means that eventing has the power to dramatically affect your life for good or ill and, as a result, few things are more important than making sure that eventing positively influences our lives as much as possible.

It’s clear to me and to Mary Alice’s friends that she lived a long and happy life in harmony with eventing. The life of that young rider who is trying to decide whether to pursue riding full time or go to college depends upon whether or not they figure out the best role for eventing in their life. **I want to talk a little bit about this issue of living in harmony with eventing and then after that I’ll try to talk about something relevant.

So the question that defines our tumultuous relationship with eventing and a good part of our life in general is: how can we live in harmony with eventing?

I have four points that I believe are key to answering this question. I will focus on the first in some detail because it is so important to me, and then move through the second, third, and fourth more briefly.

1. Focus on the process rather than the goals.

We are all too familiar with the negative aspects of riding–the heartbreaks.

In my opinion, the single variable with the highest correlation to happiness as an eventer isn’t success, it isn’t the number of great horses someone owns, it isn’t how popular someone is at the barn–it’s whether that person focuses more on the process of eventing or the goals of eventing.

David O’Connor is an Olympic champion, a Rolex Champion, the USEF President, a team WEG silver medal coach, and the US coach in waiting–perhaps no one has accomplished more goals as a rider, statesman, and coach in the history of US eventing. But I can guarantee you that one very simple principle defines David’s happiness with horses more than all of those achievements. David loves to work with horses.

To illustrate my point, I would guess that if you took David and a number of other riders who love the process of riding, such as his student and a good friend of mine, Lauren Keiffer, Boyd Martin, EN writer Coren Morgan, Visinoaire, and if you put them on a palatial Caribbean island filled with boats and golf courses and roller coasters and everything else that you could imagine along with a small field of horses with a few jumps in it, those people might go try the golf course or roller coaster for a few hours, but they would soon make their way back to the pasture with horses and start riding. Importantly, I don’t think it would matter if they would ever go to another competition. They just love working with horses–they love the process of building a relationship with the horse and for them there doesn’t need to be anything else other than that moment on horseback.

On the other hand, there are riders, and I would include myself in this category, who enjoy pursuing our goals with horses more than the process of riding. Let’s face it, competing and winning is great fun. It doesn’t necessarily need to be a competition goal–it might be a skill goal, a fitness goal for our horses, or mastering a new movement. But we are always striving to make our horses and ourselves better because of the goals in front of us rather than simply enjoying the process of riding each day.

That’s not to say that people whose first focus are the goals can’t enjoy the process or riding or that people who enjoy the process can’t be competitive–far from it. Of course, most of us fall somewhere between the two extremes. We enjoy riding but it’s also important to us that we get to compete on the weekends and other variables such as our friends at the barn are important motivations for riding.

But most people fall towards one or the other and the sooner that you evaluate whether you enjoy the process or the goals more the sooner you will be able to take what I think is the first step towards living in harmony with horses.

Your horse comes in from the field before a lesson with a missing shoe. Your horse suddenly decides to freak out at the judge’s gazebo in the middle of your until then perfect dressage test, your horse develops an abscess just days before your three-day, or your horse goes lame one day before you are supposed to ship out for the Pan American Games and you have to watch the US team win a gold medal without you.

I would say more than any other sport, in eventing our ability to compete and our competition results are determined by factors that are beyond our control. It’s not just that our goals with horses are sometimes ruined, it’s that our goals with horses are sometimes (oftentimes) ruined by factors that are completely our of our control. As a cognitive science major in college, we were taught that that subtle difference makes all the difference.

It wouldn’t be right for me to present such a bleak issue without proposing a simple solution that we can all easily apply in a matter of moments, and indeed I already have. Focus on enjoying the process not just the goals. Our goals in riding are often influenced by things outside of our control but the process of being around horses and riding horses is forever a positive part of eventing. Wherever you are on the aforementioned sliding scale of goals versus process, if you can learn to put a greater emphasis on the process I think you will be a much happier eventer.

Ok–focus on the process over the goals–that’s the first point to living in harmony with eventing and, as promised, we’ll move through the next three much more quickly.

2. Service

In my opinion, eventing is missing a big opportunity right now. We are not making enough of the opportunity for eventing to serve our fellow eventers and our communities as a whole. The United Way for the NFL, the junior golfer initiative for the PGA Tour, these are examples of sports reaching out beyond the confines our their competitions and helping to make better communities and ultimately a better world. Eventing has this opportunity and right now, we are missing that opportunity.

Each and every one of us has an individual opportunity to serve our fellow riders. I thank volunteers as much as I possibly can on Eventing Nation, but I’m embarrassed to say that I can’t remember the last time I volunteered at an event. Last year Denny Emerson was volunteering at the start box at Southern Pines and sent me out on course on both of my horses. I invite you to think of service as much more than just volunteering at an event and look at it as a day to day responsibility to serve your horse, your family, your friends at the barn, and your fellow competitors.

Service is hard to find time for but it’s always rewarding. When we give back to something we invest in it and we feel a sense of pleasure in that selflessness. I would assert that it is impossible to live in harmony without service. Of course, I’m hinting at higher things such as marriage and friendship, but the same principles apply to eventing.

3. Riding is about more than riding.

The third principle about living in harmony with eventing is to understand that riding is about more than riding.

Riding is about building people. One of the great appeals to me about eventing is that it is filled with wonderful people, many of whom I am very fortunate to call friends. Eventing teaches kids a great work ethic, responsibility, toughness, teamwork, and hopefully how to focus on the process and not just the goals, and how to live a life of service. I can’t overstate the value of the lessons that eventing teaches us.

If I had to point to one aspect of eventing where we could get better about building people, I would say that in my opinion, some coaches are too negative with their students. I think that extends well beyond eventing to coaching in general as a profession. We have all seen the coach screaming at their student in the warm up, telling them everything they are doing is wrong.

I think that a lot of this negativity in coaching comes from something called the regression fallacy. At the risk of getting way too nerdy, I’d like to delve a bit into the psychological elements of the regression falacy. In one psychological study that Thomas Gilovich writes about in his book “How We Know What Isn’t So,” researchers took subjects and put them in the role of teacher. They sat them in front of a computer and gave them data points that represented students being late, on time, or early for the start of school. The teachers could “punish” or “reward students” based on a daily performance and then the next day’s late, on time, or early result was shown, and so on. Although the teachers didn’t know it, the fictional student results were completely random, meaning that the teachers’ actions had no influence on the results they were seeing. Nonetheless, at the end of the experiment the teachers were on average punishing the students something like 70% of the time. Recall that since the results were random the students were only late on average 50% of the time. This is explained simply by the principle of the regression fallacy. Punishment looked more effective than rewarding to the teachers because when a student was late they would be more likely to be on time the next day and vice versa–recall that the punish/reward had no impact on the actual results, but it would seem to the teacher like the punishment worked better than the reward.

This all runs contrary to what I think is a body of very compelling psychological evidence that students respond better to positive rather than negative feedback.

My feeling is that the same principles apply to the rider in the role of teacher with the horse and over time we run the risk of becoming negative with our learning and our riding.

On a personal level we need to ask ourselves if we think our current situation–whether that is the barn we ride at, our coach, our friends–is having a positive or negative impact on who we are not just as riders but as people. Some people are natural optimists and others, like me, are natural pessimists. Being more positive in every aspect of riding isn’t always easy but it is crucial to living in harmony with eventing.

My aforementioned public speaking professor in college told me to always let the audience know when I am approaching the end of a speech so that I might revive hope in their souls. So, I’m telling you right now that I am almost finished.

4. Remember where you came from.

My fourth and final suggestion for living in harmony with eventing is to remember where you came from. Remember where you came from because every achievement in your life will be defined by these contexts.

This point is very important to me as I return to Michigan and this awards banquet. I’ll never forget sitting in Applebees one night about ten years ago eating dinner with Linda and the rest of her students and their parents. Linda mentioned a rider who had moved on from Michigan and was then training with a top national coach. Linda said “I think they have forgotten where they came from.” From that moment forward I committed myself to never forgetting the path that has brought me to where I am today. I’m sure I have failed at this goal countless times, but remembering that principle as much as possible has certainly helped me to live more in harmony with eventing.

I think that if when you look back on your life with eventing you can say that you enjoyed the process as well as the goals, that you served your fellow eventers and your horses, that you allowed eventing to have a positive impact on who you are as a person, and that you remembered where you came from along the way that you will be able to truly say you have lived a life in harmony with horses.

I want to thank everyone again for having me here tonight. Congratulations to everyone on a great year of eventing in Michigan.

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