BY JONATHAN PORTOEUS
In 2019, I had the opportunity to participate in the National Finals of the USHJA Emerging Athletes Program (EAP) as a stable manager. I stepped up to the registration desk with polished paddock boots and slight trepidation as I looked at the all faces around me that I didn’t know, in a place I didn’t know.
The week that followed ended up being an enjoyable, meaningful time of new connections, perspectives, and interactions. Sally Ike, at that point the chairman of the EAP committee, stressed her hope and belief that the program would open doors for us, its participants. She wanted us to leave as excellent, ever-learning ambassadors for horses, horse sports, and the program.
Yet if I am being entirely honest, in the years since then I have sometimes been reluctant to share my experience at EAP, or to tell others about the program. That reluctance came out of a feeling that EAP was almost looked down upon by some of the people around me. My peers and colleagues saw it as a ‘cute’ program that didn’t usually do anything remarkable, with participants that weren’t really ‘going to make it’ as riders.
It is a deep shame that I, or anyone else, thought or thinks that way. The opposite is true.
Plenty of people that have taken part in EAP have, or are on their way to ‘making it’ as excellent riders in the sport, such as Jacob Pope or Cathleen Driscoll. But more than that, those feelings misunderstand the real purpose of EAP. They’re blind to the incredible potential of it.
EAP does not in any way guarantee or set out to guarantee a way to the top of the sport as a rider, although it can help. Instead, it provides a base of education and a network of connections that can help anyone that would like a successful career in horse sports at any level, whether as managers, grooms, trainers, home riders, young horse trainers, etc. The list of possibilities is practically endless thanks to the wonderful diversity of horse sports and the many layers that are a part of them.
Countless businesses and farms both in the U.S. and worldwide struggle to find the employees they need to put together a top team. All the time, people complain about a lack of education for young riders, lamenting the loss of so-called barn rats, and shaking their heads in despair as they talk. Many are looking for a solution; take for example Ontario, Canada, where the government recently just invested millions to create a program to train equine industry professionals.
I believe that EAP can be a part of a solution in the U.S. By building off its solid base, and with new investment, promotion, and greater engagement we can make huge steps towards creating a way to the top of the sport for everybody that makes it possible for any rider to be successful. Pathway programs, like EAP, will only be successful if we can support and develop them.
I currently am a groom, taking care of and managing a string of top jumpers. I write this a day after a horse I take care of won an FEI grand prix in Wellington, FL—a great feeling. But it felt even more special because a touch of EAP was there with me: Colleen Reed, who was the stable manager clinician at both of the EAP Regional Clinics I participated in was at the show as an FEI steward. Colleen is just one of the amazing people I have been able to meet through EAP, people such as Joe Fargis, Jim Wofford, Sally Ike, Peter Wylde, and Anne Thornbury. I’m grateful for these important connections.
There are so many careers awaiting people in the horse industry encompassing diverse, engaging, and flexible positions. With EAP we can continue to give people the opportunities and education needed to get those jobs if they would like. With industry-wide engagement we could also help to evolve the industry around us, encouraging constructive and healthy working environments.
Many of you have not been touched firsthand by the USHJA Emerging Athletes Program as I have. But if these ideas excite you, if the prospect of having a helpful, vibrant pathway for equine professionals interests you, if you are tired of complaining about these issues, take action. Talk to people, have discussions, and bounce ideas around. By doing so, you help increase engagement and awareness of the EAP, its importance, and its enormous potential.
Write to the USHJA and tell them that you would like to see increased investment in meaningful education for all facets of the industry through EAP. Encourage people to apply to the program in years to come. Ask alumni about their experiences. Support people you know that are in the program. If you are able, donate to the program, and put pressure on the USHJA to really focus on something as important as these issues are. Talk to foundations, companies, organizations, or individuals about sponsorships. Get all the alphabet stew— USEF, USET, and more broadly USEA, USDF, and beyond— involved and committed to supporting such programs.
Throw away any cynicism you might hold about the future of the industry, and do your part to shape it. Support something that not only promises to help people but the horses and their welfare as well. I firmly believe we have the opportunity to do something incredible.
Jonathan has been blessed to be able to work for some amazing people over the last few years since graduating high school early, for which he is very thankful. He attended regional EAP sessions in 2018 and 2019, the EAP National Finals 2019 as a stable manager, and the 2020 Gold Star East Clinic as a stable manager.