Given the ups and downs of 2020, how are you planning your 2021 competition season?
I’ve been lucky enough to be a professional event rider for the past 25 years of my life. At the beginning of each season, I have a wonderful game plan for each horse: which events I’m going to run and which sequence of events will bring me to my ultimate goal.
Usually I plan this out for each horse in six-month blocks. To be quite honest, in the past 20 years it’s been very unusual to have any horse’s path go as planned. Sometimes a horse is injured, events are canceled, footing isn’t ideal or fitness work or training sessions have conflicted with the game plan. Sadly, I’ve also been injured and unable to train the horses how I want to.
I think to be successful, you need the ability to be adaptable: have the ability to change your game plan, roll with the punches, all while trying to head toward that original goal.
In hindsight, 2020 has been a year like none other. For me personally, at the beginning of the year I had dreams of Kentucky, Badminton, the Olympic Games … and then the pandemic hit and all that went out the window. I went through a couple of surgeries that blocked me from riding again and again. Somehow, by the end of the year, I’ve managed to get the majority of horses to their final events, at Hagyard in Kentucky, Galway Downs in California, and Tryon, North Carolina.
Obviously, this year many events have been canceled. I’ve had to have some fill-in riders, but I’ve always at the back of my mind been trying to steer this squadron of horses on a similar path to what we’d planned at the beginning of the year.
I have to admit, coming into 2021 will be the first year I come up with my six-month game plan where I’m expecting the unexpected. I think for the first time in my career, I’m quite aware that nothing will go to plan. Events will be canceled, travel could potentially be banned and our business and income will most likely be unpredictable. I suppose anyone reading this will be in a similar boat, and we all need to have this ability to roll with the punches and come to terms with the fact that our lifestyles might have to change, but we’re fortunate in our sport that it’s an outdoor sport and has more chance of surviving than an indoor contact sport. Life as we know it will definitely be different in 2021.
How has your business changed this year?
I think it’s important to celebrate this new way of doing things. Professionally and personally, we all actually have a new opportunity. There are parts of your life that will be better than pre-pandemic. I think I’m spending a lot more time with the family and finding time to train the horses without a lot of distractions that get in the way. I’m also riding fewer horses at the competitions and feel more focused and dialed-in and not so frantic every weekend.
For me, 2021 will start off like every year in America as our team relocates to Stable View in Aiken, South Carolina, and we’ll spend the month of January gently preparing for the competitions and building fitness. I have an awesome crew that works for me: I love being around fit, inspired young athletes who are chasing their dreams like I was years ago. We’re lucky to be at top facilities and surrounded by high-end horses and riders, blacksmiths and grooms. It could be worse.
We had a very interesting meeting with our accountants the other day, and being professional horse trainers, we have a number of small avenues of income that all contribute to the big number that we must repay the bank every month. Before I get into that, I’ll never forget in March/April this year, I was in a slight moment of internal panic when the pandemic hit, and I turned on the news and everyone was horrified about how life might change. Nine months later, it’s interesting to reflect on the year.
Our competition attendance has been way down and obviously in regard to this, the small portions of income we usually make coaching at events, our grooms’ fees, prize money and the bit of shipping money we make traveling to events is minimal compared to what it usually is.
Both Silva and I have been able to teach and coach more than usual this year. A lot of the riders we work with have taken advantage of the lull in competitions to focus on their training, and we’ve done more clinics than usual around the country. As of yet we’re very fortunate that we haven’t had too many horses depart our program. The dressage and eventing owners are awesome people and in it for the long haul, understanding that the process takes years and years of training, with competitions along the way.
A few of our sponsors have pulled back a little bit, which obviously can be expected considering their sales are significantly down. Funny enough, horse sales and people looking to purchase a new horse are higher: I think people have the time to go look for a new horse, which has been a surprising development to me.
My advice to any other professional out there is to work as hard as you can and make the most of every opportunity, because you’re not sure where the next opportunity will come along. It’s not the time to ease up: A lot of people are sitting back and putting their feet up, but this is a good time to improve yourself and your business and come out blazing in 2021.