When I was young, my mother often told me that she wanted my sister and I to learn lifetime sports, activities we could enjoy far into our adult years. So we took tennis, golf and skiing lessons, but the only sport that’s really stuck with me is horseback riding. Horses became a passion, and I’ve pursued the sport as a junior rider, as an adult rider and now as a professional.
My experience of riding as a lifetime sport is a concept that I try to pass on to the junior riders, as well as the younger and older adult riders, whom we teach. When they get frustrated with their riding, I tell them one or both of two things:
First, I tell them that horses teach you something every day you’re around them, if you’re paying attention. Most often it’s something small, even something so tiny that you barely notice it. And on some days it’s huge, a real breakthrough. Either way, every day is an education, if you’re watching and listening.
Second, I tell them that the great thing, and the frustrating thing, about riding is that you never reach the pinnacle of training or performance. You never become “the perfect rider.” I can assure you that our great riders, in whichever discipline you choose, do not think that they’ve reached the summit of the mountain, that they’re as good as they can be. Even more than we mortals, they see things about their riding and training that could always be better.
Riding and training horses is like climbing a mountain whose peak is always in the clouds above you. And, if you’re serious and passionate, you’re forever climbing toward that peak.
Over the last 30 years, I’ve known or worked with numerous junior riders who stopped competing or quit riding completely at 17 or 18, either because they thought they’d achieved everything they could or because they became frustrated by what they hadn’t achieved before an artificial deadline they’d imposed on themselves. Often they felt as if they’d failed compared to peers or friends, which I consider an improper comparison. When you’re training and competing horses, so many factors come in to play that it’s not useful or fair to compare yourself to anyone else.
Our American culture has developed a belief that sport success belongs to the young, that be the time you’re 30 your athletic career is over and you may as well enjoy the couch. I think that derives largely from the giant sports of football, baseball and basketball, where, certainly, the strength and durability of youth are paramount. But it also comes from Olympic sports like gymnastics and swimming, where 18 is usually over the hill.
Despite my mother’s insistence on learning lifetime skills, at 18 I too thought my riding time was over. My agreement with my parents was that I’d sell my horse to go to college so I could concentrate on my education and my career. And, maybe, someday I’d come back to it. Well, that lasted about two weeks, before I couldn’t stand not riding and I started looking for horses to ride and people to teach. And then I bought a horse in the middle of my senior year and took him with me to my new job, on the editorial staff of The Chronicle of the Horse. I kept a horse or three throughout my 24 years there, competing in eventing (through the intermediate level), steeplechasing (winning six or seven races) and endurance riding throughout that time.
And then, when I was 46, my wife, Heather, and I moved to California to establish our training stable. So now, at 53, I ride more than I ever have in my life.
I’m also riding better than I ever have in my life—this year I’ll be competing four horses at the beginner novice through intermediate levels, and I’m hoping that two of those (each of whom we bred) will take me even higher.
Although people tell me that I’m in excellent shape for my “advanced” age, I like to think that I’m evidence that, in riding, you really can get to the point where years of experience do outweigh the bravery, strength and quickness of youth. I believe that I have a clearer view of the mountain’s peak than I ever have before, and now I’m enjoying every day’s climb even more than I ever have.
I hope you’ve all had a happy holiday season, and I wish you the best with your horses in the new year