My Take: An Ode to Being a Good Student

Photo courtesy of Taylor Derrico

By Taylor Derrico

Throughout my life, I have been asked over and over again what sport I play. When I say I am an equestrian, most people look at me with a blank stare on their faces, and say something like, “Wow that’s great. Doesn’t the horse do all the work?” 

I do the polite thing and nod, trying to avoid an argument I don’t want to become involved in. They don’t know that being an equestrian is not all fun and games. Like a river flowing down a winding, bending path, to be a good rider, you have to constantly adapt and change.

Sure, we are always working on having the proper position—heels down, back arched, and elbows bent—when entering the ring. But, on the other side, we are also working with 1,000-lb+ animals that can very much decide, at any moment, to place you on the cold, hard ground. As equestrians, being a good student is important, whether we are trying to stay safe, learning something new about our sport, or working to improve so that we can take the next step in our riding careers.

I have had multiple trainers over the years, ever since I was six years old and just learning how to properly balance on a horse. When I first learned how to ride, I had frequent doubts and fears. I knew, with the proper instruction, I could get past my anxieties by facing them head-on. One of the best pieces of advice I received from a trainer was to imagine myself in a pitch black room (those were my ‘fear and doubts’) and then pretend there was a bright light shining on me. The idea was that this light could keep my fears away. Ever since then, when I am stuck in a tricky spot, or my horse spooks unexpectedly, I try to imagine myself in this bright light, and I keep moving forward. Once I got past the fear of working with a partner that could, at any point, decide that he or she was simply done participating for the day, I could focus more on the finer aspects of riding: holding the proper position and keeping my horse going at a good pace. 

Photo courtesy of Taylor Derrico

When I began leasing a large pony named Dreamcatcher, my trainer started teaching me how to be competitive at horse shows. Being judged when you walk into a ring is a different skill set, and it can be a lot of pressure for a kid when you are first learning how to show. I had to make sure my heels were down, my shoulders back, and that I did not have a scared look on my face. Also, at this point, I was learning how to jump cross-rails, so finding the right distance to a jump was also something I had to worry about. My trainer at the time made me practice jumping at home a million times, and it worked: I was not as nervous when I went in the ring at shows. Having a trainer that understood what I needed every step of the way was a real confidence-booster for me. This positive experience helped me to realize that I wanted to learn more, become a better rider, and compete more in the future. 

A couple of years later, I had the privilege of owning my own, spunky thoroughbred. Early on in our partnership, we began to focus on jumping higher and putting more complicated courses together. My trainer at the time helped me focus on my approach to the jumps, teaching me how important this can be, compared to what most people assume—the actual jump in front of you and the horse. More importantly, he helped me to improve my lead change after the jump, something I’ve really struggled with in the past. Although this trainer can be a bit of a yeller, I don’t mind. I’ve learned that, sometimes, I need that ‘tough love’ in the ring to really perform at my best. He gave me the confidence to continue competing with my horse, even when I wanted to give up. He knows what the judges are looking for, and the right way to ride the course that’s set up in the ring. I learned and listened to everything he taught me, and it really brought my riding to another level. 

Photo courtesy of Taylor Derrico

Fast forward to the present day and I now have the gift of two trainers at the same time. Although I know this approach doesn’t work for everyone, both have different teaching styles and help me to work on different things. One trainer is trying to build up my confidence on my horse, and the other focuses on more technical aspects—finding consistent distances to higher jumps. I know some people could be confused by this, but I welcome the chance to receive new knowledge about the sport from more than one point of view. 

For me to be a good student, I know I need to listen and learn what each trainer is telling me, changing my position accordingly, or putting more weight down into my heels, etc. I’ve learned the importance of being easy to work with. When a trainer asks me to change something, I always try to adjust what I am doing to the best of my ability. Not only has this helped me adapt to multiple training styles, it’s made me a better student overall. 

Photo © ESI

Free riding my horse is fun, but I really like being challenged by my trainers to learn more and improve myself, and it doesn’t end in the lesson ring. I watch other riders in lessons with my trainers and I study my favorite competitors’ handy hunter or big derby rounds online. Most importantly, I keeping working hard on my own, trying to practice….practice…practice.  It’s all worth it. 

For me, once you experience the indescribable feeling of fearlessly flying through the air on the back of a horse, you’ll never want to go back. Being in the saddle, on the back of a horse, is where I find out who I am, and also, who I wish to become.

Taylor has been riding horses all her life and is an owner of a spunky thoroughbred named Dugan. She founded and rode on the Florida Southern College’s IHSA team and recently graduated with a degree in marine biology. She is working towards a career researching dolphins. Taylor enjoys showing around NY and hopes to continue competing in the future.