By Gillian Trimbee
Is it in the way our bodies are put together? Perhaps. Every sport has an ideal body type. Boxers have long arms for reach, and smaller torso’s so there is less to hit. Ballerinas are petite, and have looser joints for ideal flexibility. Swimmers have massive natural lung capacity, are generally long limbed and they tend to have a clearly defined triangular torso.
Is it the program we are in? Perhaps. Top athletes work hard to take advantage of their body types for their sport, by doing unique workouts to develop muscles a certain way, specific stretches and tailored nutrition plans. Boxers must work on intense cardio, some muscle building and core. They eat very clean. Ballerinas try not to develop overly tight, bunchy muscle and instead work to build lean muscle. They of course stretch tirelessly to increase their flexibility, while eating typically low carb diets. Swimmers weight train, build quick-fire larger muscles, and eat 6,000 calories a day of high fat, high protein foods to keep the mass on. At least, my dad assures me of this last fact, as he was a professional swimmer himself once. He has not lost his taste for such foods since he was a pro swimmer, and it does show a little bit, but alas, I too know the siren call of a chocolate milkshake and fries, so I cannot judge.
Is it our attitude that defines our talent?
Michael Jordan, arguably one of the most successful basketball players of all time, failed tirelessly. In his words, he’s “missed more than 9,000 shots in (his) career, lost almost 300 games, and 26 times, (he) was trusted to make the winning shot… and missed.” He’s failed over and over in life, and this is why he feels he succeeds. Oh, and he’s only 5’11 in a sport where the average height is a whopping 6’7. Mind you, he did eventually catch up, height wise, but my point is he ignored the fact that the odds seemed to be stacked against him.
So, enough about boxing and basketball. We are horsey folk here! What is in equestrian talent? Isn’t that the question (and please, don’t say money, or I will reach through the internet stab you in the eye with a fork). Equestrian sport is truly very interesting when you begin to analyze our top competitors. We’ve seen tall, long limbed riders take home Olympic gold right next to small, petite and strong riders… of BOTH genders. So, add those variables to the mix to a sport that involves sitting, where men and women also have different angles to their pelvis. We’ve seen swimmer body types, boxer body types, little dancer body types and everything in between. I personally very proudly sport the body type of slightly less furry hobbit with short T-rex arms, a long torso, and little ”stumpy” legs as my boyfriend calls them. (I have stabbed him with a fork before)
So, how do people of such varying body types manage to succeed, all in the same sport? Simple; our equally diverse equine partners fill in the gap! 16h Hickstead, may he rest in peace, needed a smaller rider like 5’8 Eric Lamaze. If you’ve never been to Spruce Meadows and seen the life size monument of one of show jumping’s best, I can assure you that Hickstead’s greatness came in a truly tiny package compared to the average show jumping horse. On the other side of the spectrum is Big Ben, piloted by a taller 6ft Ian Millar. Big Ben did indeed live up to his name, standing at an incredible 17.3h. Both pairs have made history, and are undeniably two of the best teams to ever grace show jumping sport (I might be biased as a Canadian) Our sport is the only in the world where men and women can compete against each other, which tells you that though it is highly physical, there are other elements to this that drive our heroes through incredibly technical and demanding feats.
Speaking of Spruce Meadows and Hickstead monuments, I was there last week taking in some world class show jumping, sipping wine and stuffing my face with deep fried macaroni and cheese balls (don’t judge, they were worth every calorie-laden bite). I was strolling through the crowds, pleased to have schmoozed my way into one of the business events they host at that gorgeous facility, when I overheard someone who was clearly a fellow equestrian explaining bits of the sport to someone who was very clearly NOT an equestrian. I remember smiling to myself, all too familiar with the formula of such a conversation; yes, the horses like jumping, and yes they are warmbloods, that horse refused because he was spooking, spooking is when a horse balks at something they see… alas, we’ve all been there, patiently explaining our passion to the uninitiated, all while secretly enjoying the rare opportunity to wax poetic about anything horses to someone who will listen.
So, while I was sipping my wine and enjoying sinful treats, I listened in to this familiar conversation, and something my fellow horse person said had me nearly spitting out said wine and treats (which would have been a travesty of wasted tastiness) “That rider is only here because they have money. They bought that horse fully trained; they didn’t really work for it. I am talented enough that I could be there myself, if I only had the money” I can assure you, I did not spear this person with my fork, but it was a near thing.
What a jaded, unfortunate viewpoint! We’ve identified that it is not body type that makes a rider talented. This logically means that the other two sides of the equation – program and mindset – are what enable one to get to the international rings. Is money what replaces body type in this confusing equation to success?
Sure, we need it to pay for our horses, show fees, equipment, transport, and coaching. I will agree that money is an engine that drives the equestrian industry. But that is not the same as the engine that drives the individuals themselves at the top of the sport. The riders. Beezie Madden, Richard Spooner, Eric Lamaze, MacLain Ward, Scott Brash – to name a few of my heroes – did not all grow up rolling around in piles of sweet sweet cash. Sure, some of these individuals came up with varying degrees of financial support, but I know for a fact that several of our best did not, in fact, sleep on piles of money. So, what do they all have in common? If one would take a moment to study them, study their lives through the open lens afforded to us by social media, the answer is quite clear, and embarrassingly simple. It’s work ethic. Grit. Resiliency. I don’t care how wealthy you are, learning to ride like they do does not happen overnight. I find it incredibly ironic how violently we oppose people who think riding is not a sport, and in the next breath jealously express frustration that if we had money, we could be there too. This is hypocritical as complaining that the fellow over there has a six pack when you are dining upon mac and cheese balls… oh. Well you get the point. Damn you devilishly tasty mac and cheese balls…
Yes, I used to think that top rider could so easily be me… if only life’s lottery had graced me with loads of unearned cash. Like many “crazy horse girls”, I had dreams of competing in the international ring, and taking home the top prize in front of my adoring fans. This might have been influenced by the Saddle Club, a series every 90’s horse girl will be familiar with, but I digress.
There is a reason this dream did not happen. That reason, quite frankly, is 100% on me. No, it was not money, and it was not that my arms and legs are really short to ride – it was because I didn’t want it enough. And I am actually quite okay with that. When I look at the sacrifices one has to make to get there, I still don’t want it enough now and I certainly didn’t when the window of opportunity presented itself. When I took a good hard look at the lifestyle of a top show jumper, I had to ask myself – what would I be willing to give up? Would I be willing to move somewhere else, become a working student, work 14 hour days, and live like a nomad most of the year, travelling from show to show? Would I be willing to give up having a normal relationship, steady friends, and other interests?
We all know the answer to that. I am also extremely pleased I chose the path that I did. And hear the words I used there – CHOSE. If I had wanted to get there, I would have had to be willing to burn my boats. I would have had to give up everything else that I held dear (mac n cheese balls!), in pursuit of my lofty horsey dreams. Yes, money DOES still matter. But I didn’t need to have it myself, and neither do you. If you grind, work tirelessly, take risks, study your craft like your life depends on it, study how to obtain sponsors and investors, someone will mentor you – they won’t be able to help it.
They will see too much of themselves in you.
Believe it or not, the pool of talent that is willing to sacrifice that much is incredibly small, and for good reason. It’s a tough job!
What makes talent in an equestrian? It’s not your body, and it’s not money. Sure, money is a fast track, but at the end of the day, talent will tell, and it is not made up of dolla bills y’all. It’s made up of blood, sweat, broken bones, concussions, and many, MANY tears. All without many of the comforts we take for granted. What an amazing sport, that you can make it to the top with whatever body you are born with. Your only limitation, quite frankly, is yourself.
Rio is coming up. Let’s support our athletes, and cheers to them for giving up everything they do, so we can swill wine and watch them fling themselves over insane obstacles for our amusement. (Or Passage, if that’s your thing).