The Perennial Debate: Talent Versus Work Ethic

There are those with so much innate riding talent “it would make the angels weep”, but if they are shirkers instead of workers, usually that talent goes to waste. Others with little talent struggle relentlessly for years, yet never achieve their dreams. So it`s pretty obvious that neither talent alone or work ethic alone are sufficient to propel a person to the top echelons of their chosen field.

But if I had to choose one—a supremely gifted rider with a modest work ethic, or a fanatically hard worker, possessed of moderate talent, I`d bet on the worker. Thomas Edison said that “genius is 1 per cent inspiration, 99 per cent perspiration.” Workers create talent, through relentless practice, where talent didn`t formerly exist.  Hang around any barn, and watch. There are those who could hustle, and get in another horse or two before lunch, but who have an amazing ability to stall around. They head off for leisurely lunch hours, that turn into two hours, and when the day is done, the hustler back at the barn has ridden six or seven horses to the two or three of the leisure lover.

Now multiply that out by a month, a year, a decade, and the hard worker is well on the way to that ten thousand hours postulated by Malcolm Gladwell in “Outliers” as the magical entry requirement to huge success.

When I wrote the book “How Good Riders Get Good”, and Sandra Cooke interviewed 24 of the world`s best riders and drivers, I actually expected that “hard work” would be an integral piece of what they thought had enabled them to “get good” But it wasn`t an integral piece, it was the biggest piece. There are thousands and thousands of riders who weekly spend $50.00 and more for riding lessons, to, presumably, either “get good”, or at least get better, but not many of them have bothered to work hard enough to actually read what those great riders had to say.

It`s not just my book they haven`t read, it`s any book about riding—–I`d say it`s the intellectual STUDY of riding that so many avoid. There is physical laziness, but there is also intellectual laziness, and either one is a dream wrecker.

Many barn owners will tell the same sad tale. They tell the riders at their barn that if they will help out, especially on weekends, that they can ride extra horses. Now very often, these riders will look you right in the eye and passionately declare “how much I want it!” But given the choice of working off extra riding hours, or doing something else, most barn owners know the choice they make.

Hard work is hard. It`s often unpleasant. It`s tiring physically and mentally and emotionally. There`s just that one thing, though. It so often pays off. In the fifty years I`ve taught riding, it`s almost always been the relentless workers (who also had talent) who are the ones that got it done. Which leads to this final point—

If someone really has passion, then working toward that passion may not really be work at all. It`s just what they want to do anyway, and how lucky for them is that?

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Fandom Rules The Horse World

There must be something buried in the human psyche that craves an object of blind devotion, else why would there be fans of anything? Think about it. A ten year old boy, normal in many respects, is blindly obsessed with, say, the New York Yankees baseball team, and the New England Patriots football franchise. Now this kid never has, and probably never will, met an actual Patriot or Yankee. But if you want to start an argument that has no end, say something demeaning about either team, and you will hear a vast litany of reasons why these two teams, and these alone, are transcendantly superior to all others.

Political parties, religions, nationalities, hobbies, brands of cars, all have their champions and their detractors, and often there isn`t much logic or analytical thinking, or empirical evidence upon which those obsessions have been based.

It`s no different in the large world of horses. Try telling a devotee of some particular breed that some other breed is better, and you are right there arguing with that ten year old about the relative merits of the Yankees versus the Red Sox, with no hope of either party convincing the other in ten thousand years. You may be a fanatically obsessed dressage rider, but you`l be highly unlikely to ever convince a barrel racer to switch disciplines.

Most of the horse breeds and the horse disciplines have entire sub cultures surrounding them, with associations, magazines, websites, blogs, registries, and competitive venues in interlocking webs of support. Once you have decided to become—- Pick One: a show jumper, an eventer, a trail rider, riding—-Pick One: a thoroughbred, a Morgan, a Paint, there is an entire network created and designed to make you feel comfortable and part of something special and larger and more important than yourself.

There are enormous gulfs separating these segments of the equestrian world. Arabian lovers will not be found at an Appaloosa show, nor reiners at the Grand Prix of Aachen. Drivers drive, steeplechase jockeys steeplechase, western riders ride in saddles with saddle horns, race horse people live at the racetrack, and on and on it goes. There are a few areas of commonality, like the quest for veterinary advances, or the need for good hay, or trailers, but basically, there`s little to bind the disparate elements together.

The main problem with blind devotion to anything is that it`s blind, and tends to rule out all kinds of opportunities that are available to those with vision. Here`s just one example. Take a young event rider. Let her spend a few years developing her eventing base. Then let her spend a year in Germany working at a dressage training center. Then let her gallop timber horses for an entire year for Jonathan Sheppard. Then she should spend a year with Valarie Kanavy riding endurance horses. The next year she`s back in Europe with a grand prix jumper stable.

Now send her back into eventing, and if she isn`t wildly more proficient than when she left four years earlier, she must have spent those opportunities in a drug induced coma.

Now nobody I know has done that “total immersion thing” to the extent of my hypothetical example, but there are pieces of that puzzle available to those who are enterprising enough to seek them out. Basically, it`s a big, diverse world out there, and if you allow your fandom mindset to limit you, you can bet you`ll be surpassed by those more open minded. Hey, we know you`re basically whacked, just as most of us can admit that we are similarly “out there”. Don`t worry. You can crawl back to the secure little nest of the Patriots and the Yankees, and live there happily ever after, but maybe just try some other brands of ice cream before you eat just maple walnut for the rest of your life!

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Will They Catch That Critical Break?

I`ve been working with a talented group of twenty something year old event riders who have so many of the requisite qualities to become very good indeed. But they lack one big piece of the puzzle. Do any of you remember from “Star Wars” when Han Solo`s Millenium Falcon made “the jump into hyperspace”, that pedal to the metal blastoff that took the ship from the realm of the ordinary into an almost ethereal state?

This “jump into hyperspace” seems a perfect analogy for the really good but struggling rider who catches the break of attracting the attention, and the subsequent sponsorship, of someone who can afford to buy the kinds of horses that can blast that rider into a new plane of existence. Think Kim Severson BEFORE Winsome Adante, or for that matter, AFTER Winsome Adante, compared to WITH Winsome Adante.

The riders I teach aren`t from families who can scour the globe for those elite horses, who have huge farms, personal trainers, none of that. They work hard for what they get, and, because it`s hard and slow, they measure out their small triumphs in coffee spoons rather than in silver buckets. None is a charming boy with the requisite beaming smile or foreign accent. They may not understand networking, or working a crowd. They don`t have “champions” to pave their way.

The eventing world is full of these good, talented, driven, hard working, brave riders, as are the other various disciplines, but the stern reality is that catching that break can seem very random, and elusive.

The question that they must ask themselves in their reflective moments is how long can they keep grinding away when there`s nothing on the horizon that looks much like land in sight. If they keep plugging, there`s no assurance that they will get access to wonderful horses, but if they quit plugging, it`s a virtual guarantee that they won`t. So what to do, and how long to do it?

The biggest key is becoming very, very good, so good that they win consistently on whatever they sit on. And learning to be friendly to everybody. Nobody wants to sponsor even a talented grouch. But it`s still pretty random, and I sometimes think back to the Le Goff and De Nemethy USET days when the Team could talent search and dole out elite horse to those identified as having elite potential. But those days are gone, and sponsors these days don`t sponsor “The Team”, they sponsor a rider who is trying to make “the Team.”

So what should they do? No magic answers from me, just a personal thought. Try and try to become the best rider in America. Sit the trot until you and the horse become one entity. See your distances. Be tough and brave and fit, and turn yourself into such an elite and athletic rider that you force yourselves onto the radar screens of those you need to reach. MAKE them want to help you, because you are just that good.

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