I can remember moving to Lexington, KY a decade ago and thinking: “Now. Now is when I finally learn to ride.”

I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania and dabbled in a variety of disciplines and industries. From 4-H to Pony Club, Western Pleasure to Pleasure Driving, and Morgan Horses to Quarter Horses, we did it all.

My trainer was an amazing woman. With a depth of knowledge in a variety of things, she was never short sighted or slight in her instruction, and at the end of the day, horsemanship was her primary goal.

Whether we were in a jump saddle or western, our horses understood our aids. Whether we were jumping an oxer or running a barrel pattern, our horses were supple. And whether we were aiming for a western pleasure championship or our A in Pony Club, our equine care was the same.

Her name was Rose Watt, and in retrospect, she was amazing. But at the age of 22, the black 4 plank of the Bluegrass was calling. I thought that if I moved to The Mecca, I would become one of the greats simply through osmosis. These trainers were all highly successful with accolades adorning their websites and sponsors lining their trailers. I thought that with the big names and the fancy barns came better lessons; that the dollars spent equated the knowledge gained in a linear fashion.

I was wrong.

I quickly realized in lesson after lesson with these big names just how amazing Rose was as a trainer, and just how little the last name of your trainer really meant. No one in Lexington knew Rose’s name, but they were impressed with my base of riding. I quickly, and justly, switched routes. I found one or two trainers that reminded me of Rose—more concerned with the quality of riding than the ribbons—and I carried on.

Reconnecting with Rose at the 2010 WEG.

Fast forward a decade, to this past weekend, where I drove away from a clinic thinking this exact principle.

A few months ago my friend Courtney returned from a week in Aiken and asked for a girl’s night. She ordered a drink, sat down next to me and raved about her trip. Her horse had been fabulous, the weather had been perfect, and she had ridden with a new trainer who had, quite simply, “got her.”

Her name was Lillian Heard, and Courtney was hooked.

Lillian is a 4* rider with numerous horses running at that level, but perhaps without the cult following that we see with some of her peers. I knew little about her, but knew I could trust Courtney.

Lillian Heard and Share Option at Rolex Kentucky 2016.

Courtney knew I had a difficult horse similar to hers. She demanded that I take a lesson with Lillian in the future because she knew that Lillian would “get me” and knew that I would obtain vast knowledge and homework from just a few lessons over a weekend. I agreed, and Courtney quickly began to roll the wheels…and within weeks she had a clinic set up on a shoestring budget.

Friends offered their farms, Courtney offered her house, and the bells and whistles of a fancy clinic were replaced with smiles and helping hands. A nice variety of riders attended, from starter to preliminary, young and old, male and female. But what united us all was the smile on our faces at the end.

Lexington is unique in that it attracts big names to come do clinics simply by the sheer amount of eventers per capita. Most are riders standing on the podiums at the Olympics, and because of that, they cost more than what most of us make in a week…or a month. And while it might be on your bucket list to ride with that person, or maybe you simply thought that the $500 spent was worth the selfie you were able to take, I have personally backed away from those clinics because my childhood taught me that the money spent doesn’t always equate the knowledge gained.

Lillian and Courtney. Photo by JJ Sillman

Lillian proved to be an amazing clinician, and worth a hundred times the modest amount that I spent on the weekend for two horses. Just like my childhood instructor, I gained more this weekend than I bargained for.

She had my training level horse in a frame he had never found. She had my beginner novice baby jumping lines he had never seen. And all of these things were taught with careful consideration, lots of praise, and a big smile. Even the auditors (aka friends and family who grabbed a folding chair and a bottle of water) were enthralled. It was an amazing clinic with an amazing horsewoman.

Photo by JJ Sillman

Cost doesn’t equate return. Olympic medals doesn’t guarantee high-level instruction. And a fancy farm is a fancy farm, but your horse will still learn to jump whether the standards cost $200 or were made of old bourbon barrels.

Signing autographs for the next generation. Photo by JJ Sillman

The knowledge gained over the weekend with Lillian vastly outweighed the price paid, and that is exactly the math I like to see while computing my budget for things like this. Because if I have learned anything in life, at least in regards to my life with horses, it’s that high price doesn’t always equal high talent; and a good instructor is worth their weight in gold—not dollars.

About the Author

Carleigh Fedorka holds a Ph.D. in Veterinary Science from the University of Kentucky’s Gluck Equine Research Center. A Pennsylvania native, she moved to Kentucky after graduating from St. Lawrence University and has worked closely in all aspects of the thoroughbred industry. She spends her free time eventing as well as training, selling and rehoming OTTBs. Read more about her horse life at her blog, A Yankee in Paris.