Can We Fix The Missing Link For Competitive U.S. Equestrian Teams’

Americans in the English-riding disciplines have long pondered a chain of questions that goes something like this:

Why aren?t we consistently competitive internationally, especially at the Olympics’ Because we don’t have depth is the answer. Why don’t we have depth’ Because we don’t have the horses. Why don’t we have the horses’ Because we import them. Why do we import them’ Because you can’t get them here. Why not’ This question usually yields two answers: Because we aren?t breeding the horses here, or because we don’t have the riders to produce them.

Having been around this game for the last couple of decades, at every level including the top, I know that neither of those last two answers is correct. We are absolutely breeding top-quality horses here, and we absolutely have riders who can produce them at every level.

The problem we have is that we have no system to allow horses and riders to come together at appropriate times, other than by pure luck. And luck eventually, and inevitably, runs out.

The problem begins at the bottom, with the starting of young horses. In other countries, this is an honored and lucrative profession, which receives appropriate compensation, in both financial and emotional capitol.

In the U.S., starting youngsters is considered the wheelhouse of crazy kids or anyone not talented enough to actually train competing horses. And, like most stereotypes, there is a kernel of truth in it: Because the average young-horse owner isn?t willing to pay the true cost for the challenging and sometimes dangerous work of starting babies, those who do attempt to make their living this way are met with such poor treatment by the equine public that it soon becomes clear almost ANY job in the horse world is better than that one. So the people with talent move on, and the people who are left over tend to fulfill the stereotype.

that’s not to say there aren?t good horse starters in this country?but they’re likely to be too expensive for most owner?s tastes or use Western tack (against which some folks in English sports have an irrational prejudice). And those two factors mean that we have a whole lot of gorgeous, talented but unstarted 5-year-olds in this country who have five-digit price tags. When for that money someone can go to Europe and get a horse who’s a year younger, who’s jumping courses and has shown, it isn?t hard to figure why importing is so popular.

I could go on for another 10,000 words about this issue, (mostly because I’ve lived it), but the problem then continues as we move up the ladder.

In most European countries there are many levels of trainers. There are those who are teachers of riders, those who start babes, those who produce them to the mid to top levels, and those who then compete them internationally at the elite levels.? All of these folks have a role to play, all are appropriately compensated, and all are rewarded. In this country, though, trainers have to devote a lot of time trying to be all things to all people, and that diverts their time resources and potentially competitive horses away from the end goals. People who haven’t jumped higher than 18 inches want to take lessons with elite riders or have their babies backed by team riders, and those riders often have to do it because there isn?t enough money in simply riding upper-level horses.

Years ago I remember a Very Big Name Trainer telling me that a certain Very Big Name Rider wasn?t going to do well at an upcoming Very Big Competition because they had been doing a lot of teaching and training and, thus, weren?t going to be sharp enough. At the time, I didn’t understand what they meant, but as time has gone on, I see what he was saying?top riders in other countries only ride horses, so they can concentrate on their training and performance with their competitive horses. They don’t teach 10 lessons a day, they aren?t gone every weekend that they aren?t competing to teach clinics, and they aren?t backing babies or riding marginal horses.

Part of the problem with that model in the U.S. is that our riders have to make a living, and they can’t do that by riding a handful of elite horses. Another, more thorny problem is that in this country support for riders comes from the masses?masses who want to be able to schedule a lesson with their idols. Even an advanced-level rider in England would have a hard time getting a lesson with William Fox-Pitt. But our team riders?people like Phillip Dutton and Buck Davidson?have to teach a lot of lower-level riders just to make ends meet.

There is no easy answer in a country that is as enormous, individualized and complex as ours. Organizing a system such as exists in Europe may not be possible, and it goes without saying it takes a lot of money?money that may simply never exist for our sports in this country.

But, we do have the horses, we do have the riders, and despite evidence to the contrary (Honey Boo Boo, I’m looking at you) we are not a nation of morons. So why haven’t we figured out how to make this work’ We need a great organizer to swoop in and figure out how to re-layer our cake.

Martha Stewart has horses, right’

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