Our columnist wants riders to take the time to put in the work—not just hope a big sponsor comes along to save the day.
A few weeks ago I was attending the High Performance Dressage Committee meeting at the U.S. Equestrian Federation convention in Lexington, Ky. While at the meeting, it struck me that I had known most of the people on the committee for at least 10 years and some closer to 20 years.
Later that evening at the USEF welcome dinner, I was sitting with Anne Gribbons (Technical Advisor) and Gil Merrick (former Director of Dressage), and again it struck me how many years I had known most of the people in the room.
We started talking about it, and in one way it’s nice because we’ve all become like family (sometimes a bit dysfunctional). On the other hand, it was disturbing because we don’t have a lot of new blood coming up. We spent most of the evening discussing why that is. If we look at the top 12 Grand Prix riders in the country, most of them have been around for a long time with only a couple of newcomers. Obviously experience counts for a lot in dressage, but I think the main reason we don’t see a lot of newcomers becoming really successful is a change in work ethic and a lack of patience and persistence on the part of many of the younger riders.
Paying Your Dues
Over the past 10 years I’ve had young riders come up to me and ask me how I got sponsors. My answer was that I never had a sponsor, but I had partnerships. I think we have a lot of very talented young riders, but I get the feeling they think they only have a chance to make it if they have a sponsor buy them a great horse. I never believed that was true. I believe if you work very hard, have high integrity and appreciate your opportunities without feeling entitled you will get your chance.
Most of our very successful trainers/riders were in some sort of apprenticeship for a long time before going off on their own. They gained a lot of experience riding many different horses and had a mentor to guide them. They also didn’t have the pressure of owning their own business—a situation many of today’s high performance riders find themselves in.
When we look at the U.S. dressage team from the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, for some it may seem like many of them are newcomers, but this is not true. They’ve paid their dues for a long time.
In 1992 when I was on the Olympic Team in Barcelona (on a $10,000 horse that I trained), Katherine Bateson-Chandler was working as a groom for Robert Dover, who was also on the team. She worked her way up to assistant, and for the past 18 years she has been paying her dues with blood, sweat and tears. She is one of the nicest people you will ever meet (that helps in getting a sponsor). She does have a great sponsor now in Jane Forbes Clark, but she has truly earned it.
Jane Forbes Clark was Robert Dover’s former sponsor, and I’m sure she was impressed with Katherine’s ability as well as her work ethic, commitment and love for the horses.
I met Tina Konyot when I was training in Germany at Herbert Rehbein’s in 1991 and 1992. She spent years in Germany learning from this master and has spent the past 19 years working very hard training one horse after the other. She’s been close to making the team with several other horses without having a sponsor. Tina is a fifth generation animal trainer, and her dad laid the foundation of true horsemanship. Tina started out training very difficult horses that no one else could handle and eventually turned them around and sold them for a profit. Tina has trained and owns her WEG horse Calecto V.
Todd Flettrich won gold at the 1991 North American Young Riders Championships on a horse owned by his trainer, Jessica Ransehousen. He was also a working student for several other trainers before becoming a professional. His WEG horse, Otto, is owned by Margaret Duprey.
Steffen Peters has successfully brought horse after horse to the Grand Prix level and, even though he has a wonderful sponsor in Akiko Yamazaki, he is a very hard worker and constantly gives back to the sport. Before he moved to the United States, he went through the Bereiter education in Germany. Courtney King-Dye worked with and for Lendon Gray for many years before making the Olympic Team in Hong Kong.
Another example of great work ethic, commitment and drive is Anne Gribbons. She’s trained many horses to Grand Prix from scratch, as well as working her way up the ladder to become an FEI O-level judge, which is no easy feat. She is now a very successful Technical Advisor for the U.S. team. All of these examples of success in their field enjoy the everyday process of training, not just the reward of receiving ribbons.
Give In Order To Receive
As for myself, I still ride four to five horses a day and get on my first horse every morning at 7:30 a.m. unless I am off judging or giving a clinic somewhere. I feel so incredibly lucky to be able to make a living at what I love.
My biggest dilemma is that I love all three aspects (riding, judging and teaching), and sometimes I have trouble deciding between them. What a great dilemma to have.
A few weeks ago I got two new horses from Canada in training. One horse (Aria) had been trained to Intermediaire I and knew changes down to two-tempis. The owner wanted me to work on all the Grand Prix movements including the one-tempis. On Valentines Day Aria did her first set of 15 ones, and I got it videotaped. I sent an email to the owners wishing them a Happy Valentines Day and attached a clip of their horse doing the one-tempis. It made the owners very happy, but it was also very fun and gratifying for me. Those types of things keep me going, not the ribbons.