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Q&A: How has the path changed for ambitious young riders without the budget to pursue the top sport?

The path to a high-level, professional riding career in the hunter/jumper industry has changed SO much in the last 20 years.

Today, the cost of horses, shows, and full-training/care has soared higher than anyone could have imagined.

As a trainer, supporting the needs of talented and ambitious young riders requires a lot of creativity when it comes to the finances required—let alone the time and energy you would naturally be giving any student. When it comes to finding a suitable mount, the days of purchasing an off-the-track thoroughbred project are long gone. The days of “grabbing one from Europe” on a shoestring budget are also a thing of the past.

It depends on your discipline, but as a trainer, your expectations for the level you believe a kid is capable of reaching plays a big role. In essence, it dictates whether or not you are willing to invest the time and resources to makeup—and therefore carry—a young and/or green animal that will take time but could ultimately help that kid to succeed in their dreams.

In this day and age, I feel the American system, on the whole, needs to be savvier about how we provide opportunities to talented kids with average means. We need to start thinking outside the box! Let’s talk about the highest level and who have been our U.S. Olympic team mainstays: Kent Farrington, Beezie Madden, McLain Ward, Laura Kraut, Anne Kursinski, Margie Goldstein-Engle, Leslie Howard—just to name a few.

Do we think they would be where they are now if they didn’t have the help of their own trainers? Do we think they are doing the same for the next generation, and if so, to what extent? Is it even possible for them to do the same for the next generation if they wanted to? It goes without saying that it will leave a huge hole for Team USA after these riders are no longer able to compete (some have stepped back from the top level already).

Given the rising costs of the sport, the riders who can afford to compete at the top—and purchase/carry the multiple top horses required to keep them there—are the ones we have to choose from when it comes to moving forward for Team USA. But how many other kids, potentially with even greater talent and drive, are being overlooked because of their lack of means?

As a trainer, I don’t feel the financial requirements of the sport are going to go backwards; it’s not going become less expensive. But I do feel we need to provide top trainers with an actual pathway for bringing along young, ambitious riders with ability when they find them. Maybe it involves reaching more owners who are willing to back the next generation. Maybe Team USA needs to change or expand its grant and scholarship programs to help young riders sooner, so a greater number of hopefuls can afford to ride and train under those at the top.

As a trainer, I feel very stuck at times. The sport has become so financially prohibitive that just bringing along a young horse to possibly give a student an opportunity at the top levels feels impossible. That’s a hard position to be in when you find a kid that is driven and hardworking, and I know in my heart it’s 100% the right thing to do for them. It’s also a very sad conclusion to have to reach about our sport.

As a judge, I see how the financial demands of this industry promote a spirit of selfishness. There are so many owners that pay for multiple top horses to go in the ring under one rider/trainer, when perhaps those horses could be split among multiple talented individuals, providing many more with opportunities.

For the lucky few who do get the rides, how many are actively giving back to the next generation? And I’m not  just talking about the kids of the wealthy clients who fund them. I’m not just talking about letting them help out at the farm in exchange for the occasional lesson. I’m talking about real, extended coaching, including in the show ring.

Personally, when I’m judging, I would love to see a greater variety of talented riders in my ring. Not only the juniors, but aspiring young professionals who are getting new opportunities on good horses. Honestly, as a judge, it sometimes gets boring watching the same established riders competing time and time again. I’d like to see more opportunities for new talent to take center stage.

In fact, there are so many top-riding junior kids that I’ve judged—and who I think are great riders—that seem to disappear after a certain point. Certainly, many of them go on to other careers, but why don’t we see more of them sticking around to ride in the professional ring? Is it an actual choice they are making, or is it because there are no opportunities there for our sport to develop and support young professional riders? It certainly would make it more fun to watch!

And finally, putting on my ‘mother’s hat’—and this one is dear to my heart, as I have a very hard-working kid in the industry who is now an adult—I have tried so many times to figure out a viable next step for my daughter to continue in this industry. No matter where I turn, every time, she eventually hits that financial glass ceiling which stops the forward movement of her career.

I think if a kid has the capability, and is trusted to ride horses for people that have been to the Olympics many, many, times, but still can’t get her foot in the door, then our sport is doing something wrong. If you are told a million times as a mother that your kid is “great,” and, “one of the best,” and she’s still struggling for a foothold, then those people are either B.S.-ing you, or there really is no pathway if you aren’t funding it yourself.

As a mom, I tell my kid to just keep working hard, and hopefully it’ll all work out. But I’m not so sure anymore. Despite how many people I ask, or how creative I try to be, I’ve never received a truthful answer about how to fix this specific problem. Unless I am willing (and able) to open the wallet quite wide, there’s no “next rung” for my kid to climb toward.

Frankly, it’s disheartening. In so many other sports, you are allowed to become great because you are great. But I’m not sure in this day and age if that’s still the case in equestrian. Twenty years ago, you may have had a chance if you were a very good rider who was willing to do the work. Now, I think it doesn’t matter how much talent or try you have: You also have to have wealth to be great.

That’s a sad conclusion to reach, and if I’m off base, then I’m happy to be wrong. I’d love to hear from a top rider or two from this generation that couldn’t have financially done it on their own, but against the odds, made it, and would be willing to share their story truthfully. If it comes down to a lack of ability, that’s one thing. But the common refrain in this sport is that there’s always a pathway to the top if your kid is willing to work for it.

As a mother who has made it my life’s work to find out what that pathway is—and is still struggling for an answer—those words ring hollow to me.

Dana Hart Callanan is a successful hunter, jumper and equitation coach, an ‘R’ judge, and a sales broker. In this column, she answers common questions about A level sport. Send your questions to news@horsenetwork.com for consideration in a future column.

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