We’re tracking down expert insights into your toughest, horse-related questions. In today’s edition, Missy Clark advises a horse show mom trying to prepare her daughter for a professional riding career on a limited budget. 

Q: My daughter is 14 and aspires to one day ride and train professionally. I want to support her as much as possible and to set her up for success, but I’ve been given mixed advice. Some people have told me a junior career in equitation is a must, others say our budget could stretch further by moving straight into the jumper divisions. What’s your take?

 -Cathy N.

A: Missy Clark, Trainer, North Run

It might not surprise you that I’m going to advocate for equitation, but I think there are good reasons for that.

The basis of equitation in this country is so important; you look at the top riders who have come through the equitation rings—from Kent Farrington to McLain Ward to Lauren Hough to Beezie Madden, you name it—they’ve shown that it’s a proven commodity in the American system.
I’ve spent a lot of time with George [Morris] in my lifetime, and as a kid I worked with him and rode with him. He’s been somebody that I’ve always been very close with and I think he’s been someone who has influenced a lot of the thinking behind the way we ride. His influence filters back to Gordon Wright and de Némethy, and it’s been an evolution over a lot of decades. I think that in this way, actually, the American riding style has influenced the world.
Riders who have an equitation background have an advantage. For example, you watch McLain Ward ride a jump-off, and he is a master at riding line and track and being able to ride a corner in fewer strides. He never looks like he’s out of control or running—I call it “state fair riding!” To me, what McLain gained from coming up through that whole equitation program is so evident when you watch him ride. And that is the reason why I go to that ring, at this point in my career.
Equitation isn’t my main focus as much as the jumper ring, but it is a huge component for my students who are looking to get to that next stage in their riding. I’ve also had riders who rode as juniors with me and have gone on to be amazing hunter riders. I think it really gives you the basics and the tools that you need to go on to ride the best that you can ride, in whatever division that may be.
The skills you develop in equitation also play a role in wider sense. Those kids that are immersed in equitation need to be dedicated. For example, a lot of times, at indoors, you’re up until 1 a.m. or 2 a.m. in the morning riding. You don’t sleep for 24 hours and you know you have to get up in the morning early—5 a.m. is a normal hour for those kids. It really teaches you discipline, and perseverance too.
Unlike the jumper division, there are a lot of disappointments inherent with a judged division like equitation, but that can also be a good thing. Maybe sometimes you’re doing the best you can do and could have been the winner, but the judge sees it differently. There are a lot of components involved in equitation that make you tough, and that can be helpful in a professional career.
Certainly, there are some people who don’t have an equitation background who have gone on to excel, but I think if you don’t do any equitation, then you are at a disadvantage. When you look at the whole group of top riders out there, there’s a majority and there’s a common theme within that majority. They have used that division as a tool to learn.
Because when that junior career is over, things can get hard. I think anything a kid can get their hands on after their equitation years is critical, be it a working student position or assistant training or riding position, etc. The bottom line is there are a lot of good riders but not a lot of opportunities—it’s very hard to break in at the top level.
That said, I think that someone who is interested in pursuing a career in the sport shouldn’t be afraid to do something at the local level for a while when starting their business. A lot of those kids coming out think, ‘Here I am, I’m going to jump in at the top end,’ and that’s actually not how many professionals get started—at least not those from my generation. We started at the bottom, bottom and worked our way up. I think there are ways to do it sometimes. If a kid is super-talented, they might find opportunities at the upper end of it, but I think it’s hard.
What I would tell your daughter is that the key is to keep persevering and to do everything and anything that she can. People notice hard workers and they notice kids who are dedicated and who do a good job. It might not happen right away, but if she sticks to it, no matter what, she can make it in the end.

Missy Clark grew up riding with Chuck Graham, George Morris and Rodney Jenkins, and spent time working for Jimmy Lee before establishing her own training business. For years, she has led the equitation and show jumping ranks as one of the country’s top coaches alongside her husband, John Brennan. The couple owns North Run farm in Warren, Vermont and Wellington, Florida.

-Photo by Erin Gilmore.

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