I’m someone who’s always respected age. With age, I surmise, comes experience and wisdom, especially regarding horse training. In my mind, young trainers often offer more attitude than information. And while those youthful bodies and no-fear attitudes may propel them to the top of equine sports, as a journalist, I’d much rather interview the crusty old cowboy than the newest hotshot.
With that in mind, I’m also a strong believer that, as horsemen and -women, we can learn a little something from everyone. Just because someone is young, it doesn’t mean I’m not going to listen to what they have to say. It just means I’m going to be a little skeptical until I see results.
So, when Natalie agreed to come into town to put on a benefit dressage clinic, I figured I’d at least learn something in my lesson. After all, she has an impressive resumé, which includes experience competing at the biggest dressage show in the nation and riding with some of the top Olympic-level coaches in the world. That fact in itself is impressive by any standard.
Right about now, I need to let you in on a small tidbit that’s important to this story. I’ve actually known Nat for most of the 20 years she’s spent on earth. I distinctly remember boosting Little Miss Nat over the back of my childhood pony and taking her for lead-line rides around our neighborhood. As Nat’s babysitter, I fixed her peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and tucked her snug into bed many, many times. I even taught her how to ride a two-wheeler. In my mind, Natalie is still a little girl.
And, for the most part, today Nat is a typical 20-year-old. She has an awkward smile, fidgets with her hair when she’s nervous, and travels with an iPod. If you ask her about school, she’ll roll her eyes and tell you that college is a pain-especially since it takes away from her saddle time. She’s at that pivotal and stressful point of trying to decide what to do with the rest of her life.
All of that changes when she steps into the arena. As one clinic observer mentioned, Natalie is nothing but authority once her foot hits the sand. When she’s working with horses and riders, Natalie knows exactly who she is and what she’s doing.
I found that out myself as I pushed my wobbly gelding into a trot for our young trainer’s initial inspection. No longer knee-high to a toadstool, Natalie stood as a looming figure in the center of our 20-meter circle. Her directions were clear, her critiques valid, and her demands-well, they were demanding.
Jack and I were just one of many horse-and-rider pairs pushed to perform at the upper end of our abilities that weekend. Natalie expected us to work hard, and we all tried to accommodate her. After our lesson finished, I quickly signed up for two more rides. So did several other riders.
For two days, from sun up to sun down, I stood at the arena rail watching Nat coach riders of all levels and ages-from Baby Boomers to Generation Y. Natalie donated her time to give walk-trot lessons to special-needs kids, and then switched gears to press riders with decades of experience through upper-level dressage movements.
Part of me felt the pride of an older sister as I realized just how far Natalie had advanced in her training since I, myself, had headed off to college and ventured into the adult world. I mean, living 400 miles away, I’d followed her riding career from a distance, but I didn’t really know until I actually saw her in action.
Over the weekend, it occurred to me that knowledge isn’t necessarily about how many years you’ve worked with horses but, rather, how well you’ve invested those years. We can get to a certain point in our horsemanship skills and keep doing the same thing over and over again-it’s easy to get comfortable with our methods. Or, we can continually seek experts and information to better our skills with each and every horse we ride.
Natalie, with the support of a loving family, has invested wisely in her training. And, partly, it’s her youthful enthusiasm for horsemanship that makes her such a good instructor, as well as an impressive competitor. Even after spending hours in the arena giving clinics, Nat holed up in my guest bedroom poring over my library of horse-related books. She’s a constant student.
In our subsequent clinics, Natalie has taught me a lot about dressage, but the most important lesson she’s taught me is to keep learning and challenging myself. I now know that being a great rider isn’t necessarily about age-it’s about education.