There are all types of professionals in the horse world, and each one possesses an importance and a joy in what they do. Someone must hook the kids with pony parties, someone must teach them how to post the trot, someone must breed the horse they ride…you get the idea.
When I decided not to “Go Pro,” for me it was a decision over whether or not to train and compete at the top levels of the sport. While there are many paths in the horse profession, that is simply where my interests and decisions led me.
I was 21 years old and had just finished a working student position with Jim Graham. In that year, Trance and I went from our first novice to two successful long format CCI*s. Every event along that tight and steep path went well, so in that moment I was not looking at this decision from a very realistic place, but rather from a whirlwind year where the effort I put in yielded the rewards I was hoping for and more. Nevertheless, I decided to walk away from the working student position and return to college. I knew then I never wanted to go pro.
At that stage in my life I watched the top riders around me and noticed some major trends.
The first is that, while we admire them on their top mounts, they spend the majority of their day on horses that…well…are on a good day lacking talent, and on a bad day dangerous. When you ride professionally, your owners are everything. I saw amazing riders being forced to ride Snuffy around a prelim because the owner bred him and loved him so much. For the rider, this owner pays your bills or perhaps owns your top mount. You need your owners to live. But ironically, the closest you come to death is being pressured to ride untalented or unwilling horses around levels they have no place being.
I knew I would only ever ride a horse around the upper levels that I felt safe on and that loved his job. I did not want to fix someone’s expensive intermediate horse that has all the talent in the world but doesn’t want to play the game. I didn’t want to be forced to make due with the horse I had, if I realized he was not meant for this. That horse’s hesitation could kill me. Really. And if you look at the major injuries to a lot of our top riders in the past few years (or for all time), you will notice they happen at home on other horses, or at prelim on horses they are trying to carry around so they can hopefully sell with a price tag acceptable to their owners. I have cared for those horses, I have seen the rider’s angst over having to ride them to pay the bills, and I had zero interest.
Second, there is no long-term plan, there is no break, and there is nothing more relentless. I love training day to day as much as anyone, and I always put in my time and hours whether it is rain or shine. That is not what I am talking about. I mean that when you look at being a professional rider, you are entering a world that operates on a four-year cycle (Olympic cycle, WEG cycle), and you have to spend every day wondering desperately how you can get to the next big competition. You have something to judge yourself by each day, and it is whether you are on that short list. There never comes a day in a rider’s mind where he or she thinks, “Oh great, I can take a breath and spend a few years having a family.” Or, “It’s OK my horses are all off right now, I will have a good string next year.”
In general riders live in a sense of panic. Panic when the horses are going well (Is it being recognized? When will they break?), panic when they are going poorly (Is it my fault? Will I lose my owners and students?), and—if they make it through a life of riding—panic when they are older and realize there is no retirement plan. The thing about riding is that you have to always ride to pay the bills. When you stop producing wins, the students and owners move on to the next rising star, and your mortgage is still due.
I think many of the young riders who idolize the big stars of today would be shocked if they understood the pressures of their daily lives. Even the biggest names struggle to make truck payments or have to let go of certain dreams. Many sell their top horse to a wealthy young rider in the hopes they can get a more mediocre horse to the world stage. And when they hit their 50s, so many are without a partner and without any funds. While they might go around teaching clinics to pay the bills, eventually the attendance wanes, and the hard truth is that the majority didn’t get into this sport and give it their life to teach clinics. They did it to sail at 570 meters per minute down the hill at Rolex Kentucky to the ditch and wall, and this alternate life is all too often a poor substitute.
Once you are in the world long enough, the illusions disappear. I still loved the sport with my very being, and I still wanted to ride at the top level, but I didn’t want to do it as a professional. I wanted to continue to love eventing; I didn’t want to resent it. Many have told me, “I wish I had made time for kids. I wish I had spent more time on my marriage. I wish….” That’s the other side of success, and it comes with a dose of constant struggle.
As an adult, I have other perspectives that have reinforced rather than challenged my decision to remain an amateur. More than half of my best friends are professional riders, and it has been interesting to watch our lives unfold over the past decade. The first thing is the utter relief I have that being an amateur and competing at the upper levels is more than possible.
I own my own business (a tutoring company) that I started five years ago. It gives me perspective. I spend the mornings at the barn, getting in my two-three horses a day to ride, and then I shower and go to work in the afternoon/evenings. It makes for long days, but I like the versatility.
When my horses are lame, my life continues. I spend more time with family and friends, and drink more wine and sleep because I don’t feel the same pressures as a professional rider. When I get to an event and realize something feels off, I scratch. And I don’t have to justify my decision to anyone.
Odds are that as an amateur you won’t make it to the Olympics or WEG. But remember when Amy Tryon made it? She was a full-time fire fighter. But the real catch is that I have realized how much I don’t have to make a team to feel my life is fulfilled, which was the only thing that I thought mattered when I was 20. Since I returned to school I got my master’s at Georgetown in history, and I studied genocide specifically. Such a topic forced me to realize that there is more to life than the ring. Inside the ring, there is a life, but it is not all life. I have a husband, and we will have kids eventually, and I hope to continue to train and compete at the upper levels.
There are many happy and successful professionals who are doing it all beautifully, and they will be happy when the time comes for them to focus more on teaching than riding. There are the David O’Connors, the Jimmy Woffords and the Denny Emersons. The Chronicle’s Lauren Sprieser, a personal friend of mine, has an admirable balance to her life. Being a professional can work, but it is work, and a balanced life is more the exception than the rule.
There are a million paths to happiness in life, and in horses, and each one is personal. For me, there were competing interests, and I followed those other passions and have finally struck a balance between them and riding. For all the friends who do ride professionally, I admire their talent and dedication, and I know they would’ve never been happy doing anything else. There is more than one road to the upper levels, and the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. Find what is important to you, and the rest will sort itself out.
One of the Chronicle's newest bloggers, Kristin Carpenter juggles her riding with running her own company, Linder Educational Coaching, running the shows and events at Morningside Training Farm in The Plains, Va., and riding her two horses, In A Trance and Lizzie. She grew up in Louisiana and bought "Trance," a green off-the-track Thoroughbred, as a teenager. Together, they ended up competing at the North American Junior and Young Riders Championships and the Bromont CCI**. She's now bringing another OTTB, Lizzie, up through the ranks.