I was reading through some COTH forums the other day, and for whatever reason a topic that kept coming up to the top of the list was beginner riders wanting to go Grand Prix. I think I saw 3-4 different posts about that- either from novice riders asking for advice on how to achieve that, or more experienced riders wondering if the desire to go big-time is a phenomenon in other sports as well (the consensus is yes, lots of people like to dream big no matter the sport).
I obviously scrolled through all of them hoping to glean some useful information to make it to the big leagues. There was definitely some great advice on putting in the hard work, setting incremental achievable goals, finding a good network to work with, etc. And it was heartening to see people giving realistic but positive advice- we all start somewhere, and it’s great to have ambitious goals no matter what level you’re currently at! But I realized- if I had gotten that advice a few years ago, it would not have resonated as much. Not because I’d want to ignore it, but because I didn’t have the experience to understand and internalize it.
So I’m going to address my post to the 2015 version of Olivia, who hadn’t competed in 10 years, had rarely (if ever) jumped over 2’6″, but knew she wanted to do big things. Here’s a few things I didn’t know I didn’t know.
- Moving up in jump height is not as simple as “improve my eq and be brave enough.” It is only that to a certain point. After that, there are other factors. Having the right horse who can handle the height (and providing adequate care to said horse so they can comfortably do the job), creating a fitness plan for you AND the horse to be strong enough, being able to feel when you have the perfect canter to jump from, developing a consistent eye to the fences, learning how to handle the “drop” as the arc of the jump changes. Heels down and eyes up can take you far, but you need other skills too. I had no idea what those skills were, let alone how to attain them.
- Holes in flatwork will show up in jumping. I treated my flatwork as a warmup for the jumping, and was happy to rush through it. It was only when I started taking this more seriously and working on real brokeness on the flat that our abilities over fences truly grew. Watch the dressage riders- they’re onto something.
- You get what you pay for. Just because something is expensive doesn’t mean it’s good, and just because it’s cheap doesn’t mean it’s bad- but pretty often the more expensive piece of equipment is more expensive for a reason. It’s worth paying for quality. That being said, there’s no need to break the bank on the most expensive trendy brands. There’s a middle ground of reasonably priced, good quality gear.
- Know what’s important to you, and cling tenaciously to that. I used to want to move up in jump height, and was willing to ride anything to make that happen. Now I know that my biggest priority is safety. I still hope to continue moving up the levels, but I will only do so on a horse that I can feel safe riding. If it turns out that I can’t handle the blood of a horse at that level, then I will not ride at that level. Simple as that. Safety trumps moving up.
- Don’t underestimate the power of a really great trainer. I knew that I liked my lessons with my trainer and got great value out of them, but in the years since I have gotten SO MUCH more out of our relationship than one hour a week in lessons. She has worked with me to set achievable but ambitious goals, helped me lay out a plan financially to pay the bills that come along with pursuing those goals, introduced me to a network of horsewomen, talked extensively about the greater industry as a whole, lent her perspective as an R judge, and shared advice that I’ve even applied to my life outside of riding. A good trainer won’t just teach you how to ride well, they will help forge a path for whatever it is you want to do with that improved riding.
- Be ready to obsess. Obsess about your tack, about your equipment, about your schedule, about your fitness, about your finances. Getting better takes time, and if you want it to happen faster you have to be willing to obsess. A lesson every week is great. Two is better. Two lessons plus a pro ride for your horse is even better than that. Obsess over finding the right tack, and then let it be. Until you need to change it, and then obsess over figuring out the right change. Create ever-more-elaborate financial tracking tools, because this sport ain’t cheap and improving doesn’t just take time, it takes money. Obsessively track your progress to ID the problems you didn’t know you had, and then obsess about fixing them. Obsess about your horse’s conditioning and soundness, because he’s the ticket to all of this.
- Be ready to sacrifice. That time and money you want to invest in this sport will inevitably be taken away from other things. It is possible to have it all, but it depends on how you define “having it all.” I thought I would be that flawless girl with a thriving career, glowing social life, steadily moving up the ranks at shows, and well rested. Turns out I get to pick 2.
The last and biggest one: someday, you’ll know all this, and you’ll start to know what you don’t know. Stay humble, ask questions, show up. There’s no guarantee that you’ll achieve every goal you thought you had, but that knowledge will open doors and help you understand what goals you truly want to set.
Tell me: what did you not know you didn’t know? What advice would you give your younger self on pursuing your dreams?