Can You Only Win at the Highest Levels by Doing Things the Rest of Our Community Finds Unpalatable?

BY Piper Klemm

Whatever your personal thoughts on this weekend’s social media fiasco, the problem is clear: 

What a group of people knows (thinks?) it takes to win at the highest level of our sport is unacceptable to much of our community. 

You might say, “Our kids are soft,” “In my day,” whatever you want, but a huge quantity of people do not find how the students were talked to acceptable. 

You might say, “It was hyperbole,” “It wasn’t meant to be aggressive horsemanship,” but a huge quantity of people do not find how the horses were discussed or treated acceptable. 

You might say, “No one else knows how to train for the Olympics,” and that is very true, but a huge quantity of people do not care for the Olympics if the Olympics don’t align with their values first. 

You might see US Equestrian as your organization and they gave the keys to the brand to those trying to win medals above all else. 

You might see this as a generational issue, which it is. The sport is not what it was a generation ago in any sense. Daily life in 2024 has little in common with daily life in 1994. People hearing your criticism was limited to those who could walk up to you and tell you, not those who could literally incept your sleeping consciousness as you checked your alarm clock in the middle of the night. 

You might see this as an expertise issue, which it is. Some people with little expertise have seen our sport only with a palatable coating applied—one that smooths over the reality of what is necessary to ride safely and successfully. Others with more expertise may assume damaging practices from long in their past are still necessary, when the state of the arts has legitimately improved. Both groups need to elevate, but I want you to think seriously about whether the “old school” methodology leaves horses and riders in less dangerous situations.  

From these generational and expertise differences, it’s easy to look at this and say, “We don’t know what the standards are.” Events of this weekend have shown us that the average equestrian doesn’t know what is currently perceived as “standard practice.” But it’s equally true that the average equestrian is not an expert trainer.

When is the end worth the means? When does a challenging lesson make a horse better or go too far? When does a challenging lesson make a rider better or go too far? This is really what we’re all debating. It is a very real discussion that needs to be had with every horse, every lesson, and every experience.

Those who are natural at this have a “feel” for teaching. Those who develop their feel become excellent and sought-out teachers and horse trainers; they develop intuition and study their data from earlier in their career to make better and better decisions from thousands of mistakes and millions of data points. Those who have less feel can still learn, study, and become good teachers and horse trainers. 

Great trainers make mistakes. Everyone I know has tried something they were sure was the right decision for the horse that has massively backfired, and inexperience can have the same outcome as malice. People are tired, do too much, and think they can handle it, which easily leads to mistakes. 

We have to differentiate well-intentioned mistakes from unethical behavior driven by actual greed, malice, and incompetence. It’s a tall order. I want to believe in everyone, to see the best in everyone. For me personally, there are plenty of cases where this has been a mistake. But it is also how I have met my greatest friends and have had the most fulfilling relationships. It’s a complicated process and we either miss out on a lot or get hurt a lot. 

This is to say, riders in all disciplines are capable of things that are uncomfortable for the masses. Jumper people do things that would make anyone avert eye contact. The hunter people, if you are to believe Mary Knowlton’s discussion at the USHJA convention, can’t keep their horses up on four feet. I think we can all agree that we don’t want to come back to life as someone’s disappointing equitation horse. Beyond our own house, do we think other disciplines are more abusive than those we actively participate in?  

Is everyone bad? Of course not. But everyone is present when bad things happen and yet the bad things don’t seem to stop. Everyone, including me, sees things that make them super uncomfortable at horse shows routinely and doesn’t act. Many people, including me, have reported and continue to report many, many issues (to stewards, judges, management, USHJA, and USEF) to see nothing of consequence happen. We want a clean sport. We want a fair sport. It is tough to make the argument that we have either of those points. 

We wanted a real sport. We wanted an audience. We wanted people wealthy enough to buy any horse. We have it. It didn’t go exactly as planned. Those joining our sport apparently wanted to ride their own horses, rather than spending money on horses to be ridden by professionals. The extreme financial gap weighs heavily on all involved.  

In spite of those challenges, I believe that we can do it: We can uphold the social contract. We can act in a way that reflects our ability, our values, and all of our love of horses. I believe we can think before we act and discuss matters with people we care about and not encourage mass hysteria and hyperbole online.

We can say that we like some things about someone and not other things. We can respect certain programs’ roles in various locations in the pipeline. We can say that adults can choose what pedagogy they get the most out of and choose with their feet and their dollars. If a rider finds value in any clinic, is it our place to denigrate their experience? We can say, “Good for her, but not for me.” We can say, “Good for that horse, but not for my horse.” We can be nuanced, inquisitive, and deliberate. 

So, today and everyday, step up yourself in this sport. Behave in a way that needs no explanation. It’s not your coach’s job to motivate you. It’s not anyone’s else’s job to want this, to do the work for you. Lift up everyone around you with your example. Think from your horse’s perspective. Push yourself to achieve the level which would be beneficial to your horse. Outwork everyone as far as the eye can see.

Commit to owning your mistake as a coach, mentor, and friend. Commit to the decisions you made years ago and do right by those horses who did not benefit from your own learning process. Make the millions of mistakes you need to make in order to be a good person and a good horseperson. Own them. Learn from them. Congratulate others doing what you believe in. Be part of their tailwind. Use your voice to lift instead of denigrate. 

And if you want to truly and wholly be the best in the game, figure out how to learn to ride from all personalities and perspectives. To clinic with people who are appropriate to where you are. To level yourself up every single day. And to be open to the people who make up in expertise what they lack in tact. Who make up for in time what they lack in pedagogy. Be open to anywhere your next lesson might come down the pipeline. 

Can you only win at the highest levels by doing things the rest of our community finds unpalatable? I don’t know. Go win and prove to the rest of us that it’s possible.

If you do actually make it to the end, please show us that you’ve read this article by not commenting on social media about this article. Please spend your time and energy teaching, investing in, empowering, and mentoring the next generation to achieve great things—whether that’s through making riding opportunities, books for them to reach, good and old horses for them to learn on, or however you best serve them. Use your energy for good. Please call someone you think might be lonely or invite someone to a meal, to coffee, or to the barn. Let us all exit the internet rage echo chamber and give back to our communities.

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