I can remember being 16 years old, and feeling the tears streaming down my face.

I can remember walking off of the cross country course with my head hanging down, and my pelvis tipped forward, as waves of tears wracked my body.

And as we walked past the fields full of horses that lined the cross country course at Erie Hunt & Saddle Club, one took off running, and with it, my horse flew sideways.

Rat race 1

Eventing at EHSC, 2002

And in a rage of temper, I picked up the reins and began spurring my horse in rage. I had finally snapped.  I had finally lost it.

I had been told that in order to test for my C-3 in the United States Pony Club, that I had to complete a recognized event at training level.  On my own horse.  Because unlike many of the neighboring pony clubs in the tri-state area, there were no 3* horses sitting around Meadville, Pennsylvania that I could borrow or lease.  No upper level riders were offering their own mounts, and therefore I was stuck with Levi.

Levi was an amazing horse.  We were competently competing at Second Level in dressage, and up to the Horse 2 level in jumpers (roughly 3’6).  And when the fences on XC were solid, he had zero hesitation.  But when anything involved water, Levi froze.

Rat Race 6.jpg

The best horse.

So for a solid year we fought.  We would go into dressage and throw down a sub 30 score.  We would go double clean in stadium. And then we would leave the start box on XC and gallop the first 10 fences out of a beautiful opening stride.  And then as we cruised to the water, I would feel his body tense.  And a stop, and another stop, and then an outright knock-down drag-out fight.

Followed by me walking the fence line back to the trailers with my head hanging low.

And this was always followed by one discussion after the next. With my trainer.  With my parents.  Sometimes even with my priest.

I didn’t have the option of leasing another horse to make the move up.  I didn’t have the funds to buy a second horse, nonetheless board another.  And I refused to sell the horse I owned. And loved.

So I burned out. 

And I stopped competing. 

For eight years I rerouted.  I went and worked as a wrangler at a ranch in Wyoming. I hung up my Charles Owen and bought a Stetson.  I covered my Crosby and bought a Billy Cook.  And for the longest time, I just tried to remember why it was I loved this game.

Kennedy 2

Cowgirl Up

It took years, but I came to the realization that I loved one thing, and one thing only:  The Horses.  Not the shows.  Not the ribbons.  Not the certificates, or the trophies.

I loved the grooming, the hacking, the tacking up, and the cooling down.  The feeling of early morning mist as it brushed my face as I galloped through the Big Horns on a horse that I trusted – that I loved. The cadenced rhythm of hooves as they agily maneuvered over the rocks and brush, and the heavy breathing of a horse who loved his job.

It took years of exactly that for me to find my balance again.  For me to want to compete again.  For me to find the fire again.

And I sit here, now at the age of 31, and I watch the next generation go through the same thing.

Only in this modern day and age, it appears that the horses aren’t kept.  And the riders don’t reroute.  They simply burn out and become ashes of the fierce competitors and beautiful riders that they once were.

Most of these talented kids are on the rat race known as Young Riders, and their horses become byproducts of the race. And as a horse seller myself, it becomes both a selling point and a fear.

We take these young horses and get them going to beginner novice, or maybe novice.  We make sure that they are amateur friendly for a capable teenager in a good program, and then we sell them off into the beautiful unknown. And for the first few years it is all rainbows and butterflies.  The move ups, the ribbons, the smiles.

My Facebook feed is full of these teenagers – both boys and girls.  They have just purchased their first “real” horse at the age of 13.  And from 14-15, we see nothing but gushing posts and love for their new acquisitions.  Ribbons at their first novice – for both horse and rider, and successful shout outs to loved ones and friends.

And then they get the hunger.  They start craving that 1*, and they realize their timeline.  If they are going novice at 14, then they need to be going training at 15.  Because they need to be going preliminary at 16, and aiming for that 1* qualifying ride at 17.

The timelines are set, and the rat race begins.

And then we stop seeing the happy posts.  They are replaced with pictures of icing legs and bandages applied.  Horses who were happily packing around novice are suddenly shutting down at training level, and instead of moving backwards, we see more pushing, and more kicking.

Nixon 19

Less posts like this

This usually lasts for about one season, before we see the horse advertised as for sale.  With holes in a record, and a distaste for the “upper levels.” And the teenager has one of two avenues = they either have the funds and the connections to buy or lease that “been there, done that” horse, or they quit.

I have seen too many of them quit. I have seen too many of them become remnants of their once vibrant selves.  And yet it doesn’t seem to stop the next wave from doing the same thing.

And then I go watch the competition at Young Riders, and think to myself – these aren’t always the best riders. The rat race doesn’t weed out the weak, it weeds out the unlucky.  The poor.  The small town rider like me who didn’t have access to the older advanced horse.  The young girl who’s parents thought that $5,000 was a LOT to spend on a horse. And the girl who loved her first horse too much to sell him and obtain another.

And that doesn’t always take away from the riders who make it.  Who get there.  A large portion of them deserve every ounce of that reward.  Of those ribbons. Of that reputation.

But not making it doesn’t  make the other riders any less.  It doesn’t make them any weaker, and it isn’t a predictor of future success.

As long as you don’t let that single failure define you.

And that is what I have seen happening.

Riders who are quitting.  Horses being tossed to the side. The future members of our sport running away from it, instead of embracing it.

Young kids who should be enjoying the moments with their horses instead of resenting the failures that they are pushing the horses towards. And kids being the key words.  Fifteen and sixteen year olds who are defining their futures based on a riding competition. Kids who should still be jumping on bareback and going on adventurous trail rides with their barn mates.

Bridleless 5

Kids should be having fun, doing kid things.

And I was one of them.  Granted it wasn’t Young Riders that broke me, it was my own rat race through the level of the United States Pony Club. But I burned out.  I faded.  And it took a long time for me to find joy in the sport again.

Rat Race 3

Finding joy in the sport again. Ten years later. Photo by XPress Photos.

And I don’t know the solution.

I don’t want Young Rider’s to be eliminated, because I think that the riders who achieve victory within the program deserve the praise and accolades that they have obtained.

I do think that the ages need to change. I don’t think that at the age of 19 you should suddenly be forced to do a 2* to consider yourself a worthy rider, and I do think that 14 years of age is quite young to be considered a competent enough rider to gallop around a 1* track. Just as Pony Club has increased their age limit, the Young Rider Organization needs to as well.

I don’t think that selectors should be able to choose the teams, and I think that the politics need to be removed. It should be a points system, and an average of the scores obtained at the qualifying events.  We have discussed this at length for our Olympic teams, and I think the same needs to be considered for these teams.

And I think that it shouldn’t be considered a make or break scenario for this younger generation of our equestrian sport. These kids need to see the bigger picture.

Our sport is one of the few that doesn’t have an age limit. We just witnessed a 61 year old Mark Todd cruise around yet another olympic course, when his olympic career began over 30 years prior.

And we see the entry list at Rolex filled with both USPC ‘A’ graduates and USPC flunk outs. We see Olympians get eliminated, and riders who have never been selected to represent our country place.  We see Young Rider gold medallists, and others who never made the team.

And more importantly, look past Rolex.  Looking past the Olympics.  Looking past the podiums and the pedestals, you have riders like me.

Adults who might never run a 4*.  Hell – who might never run a 1*.  But who love this sport just the same.  Riders like me who got stuck on a rat race, burned out, and somehow regrouped. Who found their foothold in another destiny, in another avenue.

I might never be a world champion rider, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be a world class horseman.  A title that no one can deny you.  A skill set that only you and yourself alone can achieve.

Because that is the greatest victory to obtain. Not the gold medal.  Not the asterisk next to your name.

Pride is great, and accolades are awesome.  But strength is better.  And having the strength to overcome the rat race and still become an avid horsewoman or horseman is the true highest achievement.


For the love of the horse. Photo by Melissa Bauer-Herzog



26 Comments on “The Rat Race

  1. This is so true. I never had the opportunity to show at any upper levels at all. But here I am as an adult ammy, working my butt off just to ride and learn and have fun and maybe compete a little – just because I love it.

  2. The love of horses, horsemanship, respect for the training process, small steps forward, joy come see from the day to day. Thank you for your wonderful blog. I’m off to the barn now….

  3. Beautifully said. This probably happens in all disciplines. In the Saddlebred world we see fewer and fewer opportunities for those who are just beginning, or can’t buy the $50,000 and up horse to compete and have fun. Not everyone can or will be a World Championship rider or afford a World Championship horse and so they finally leave. Instead of embracing those people the give up and turn away from the Saddlebred world. It’s a shame because eventually it could end with the complete demise of the business itself.

  4. I completely agree about pony club how many kids are given upper level horses to test on as it happens a lot where I live. I wasn’t lucky enough to get a loaned horse so I had to train my own OTTB for my all my ratings, D1-B TRAD. One thing I don’t agree on is having to complete a recognized event at training before testing for C3. I was never made or told at read anywhere on the national web site that I had to complete a recognized ISEA event in order to test. I worked really hard all by myself and my trainer ( not in pony club or within the region) to obtain my C3 TRAD and B TRAD. I know the struggle and with big PC and eventing, it’s really hard for the poor kid to move up in the sport and to be given horses.

    • Unfortunately it’s up to the DC’s discretion of which pony club members are able to attend ratings, especially at the national level–and the training level requirement was one of our DC’s requirements. I agree it isn’t normal–but I didn’t realize it wasn’t normal until I was removed from the club and older!

  5. I think a big issue for many (like myself) is finances. I cringe to think how many GOID/GREAT riders we never see or hear of. It costs so much to show that non wealthy familues cannot afford to go through the levels. To show often times itshundreds of dollars just in MBERSHIP fees that are required to show. FOR EXAMPLE: to get your bronze award for dressage…. You have to pay membership to USDF, USEF o
    Horse passports etc. I realize these organizations need money to survive, but the reality of the costs to show for the average kid or adult is astronomical (and lets face it…. Being rich does not mean you are a good/great rider). Unfortunately sponsorships and club grants tend to go to the people who.likely need it the least!!

    • “Unfortunately sponsorships and club grants tend to go to the people who likely need it the least!!” This is so true. It’s unfortunate that most sponsors don’t pick up until you are running prelim, but many good riders can’t afford to show enough to make it to prelim. When two USEA shows per year is all you can manage it takes so very long to get the show experience to move up. And then when you loose or retire a horse and have to start from scratch because you can only afford a greenie with talent… I’m glad to have read this article because I’ve recently been struggling myself with sticking with it all. I love my horse and I love this sport. But right now I’m a recent college grad looking to go back to school for a higher degree mostly because I’m torn between riding leisurely and letting my wonderful horse who loves his job grow old without fulfilling his potential (or anywhere near it) and actually having a job (working enough hours) to pay for this sport. There are simply not enough hours in the day and it’s hard to not feel like I’m letting down myself (and those dreams I had of upper levels) and my horse, and feeling like I’m letting myself down is the worst feeling of all. Maybe one day we can make showing a little more affordable and have a sponsorship program for dedicated riders who are being held back due to finances rather than a lack of ability.

  6. Great read! I have to sit back and remember what it is I really want out of this sport. To learn, to enjoy, to continue to love… my horse. Thank you!

  7. Pingback: FOR THE LOVE OF……. – Thoroughbred life after

  8. Great read. I have had the opportunity to see both sides, being a young teenager with less “availability” to an adult helping the children who need the chance. I have been fortunate enough to be blessed with an amazing horse that has taught and helped a few very deserving and wonderful kids, and a few that have the ability to move “up” and on to a “better” horse. The beauty of this magnificent creature is his ability to become a perfectly adequate, capable upper level horse for a humble teen, and a complete challenge to the more fortunate teen that could “move-on”. Thankfully, he cannot be bought or sold, only cherished and given a job beyond the value of the moon. I truly believe God has a way of working things out…. in one way or another.

  9. Thank you so much for writing the truth! I’ve been riding since I was 9 and have always felt excluded from competition, but when I would try I would always be disappointed with the color ribbon. It’s taken me a while to see the frustrating politics behind show team but I don’t regret never joining. I’m so glad there’s someone like me who just LOVES there horse more than anything. I’m glad I’m not alone ❤

  10. This is such a great read! I’ve been very lucky and competed in national team trials (not US) for juniors with three of the most amazing home-produced horses, all bought for under $5000 (one for $1400) but with such amazing characters and intelligence that any physical disadvantages didn’t prevent them from getting to that level. Even so, I could never do well enough against the other kids because they don’t have jaw-dropping paces or weren’t super careful show jumpers and when I made mistakes it really showed. This chipped away at me for years until during a really rough patch in my last year, I finally snapped to the point where I said I wouldn’t ride anymore because I wasn’t talented. I thought getting on to the team was the only thing that mattered. My dad asked me why I ride and I told him I did it because I wanted to be the best, I wanted to win. He then said, “I think you ride because you love your horses”. I don’t think I’ll ever forget it, because I think it was the only thing that stopped me quitting there and then. I no longer really care how I place, he reminded me that that’s not what eventing’s about for me, it’s about the connections I form with my horses and getting the best out of them as individuals. Sadly that’s not a common frame of mind among juniors.

  11. Well said, Carleigh. I’ve shared it on every author and veterinary FB page I have. Thanks for putting it all down. Much appreciated. xx Elizabeth Thompson DVM, writing as Lizzi Tremayne 🙂

  12. Boy, does this really bring back memories. I was a USPC mom of a daughter who was a member from age 8 to 18, exit rating C1, taken on my 14.2 hand appaloosa grade mare, who is now 32. My daughter is also now 32, a veterinarian, wife, mother and owner of a 16.3 hand TB/ Dutch cross who really could have gotten her to the A. But, it didn’t work that way at the time, and there was some heartbreak there that was so sad in some ways. There were 3 TBs. The first was kind, but didn’t jump properly, although she was a great foxhunting horse. The second was too much horse at such a young age for a 13 year old, and the third one had poor feet. He could jump, but she ended up getting him late in high school, and didn’t have the time to bring him up to that level. He went with her to college, and then vet school and lived a few more years after she began working. However, the best one is the current one. We didn’t have the money for a better horse. They were all untrained projects. I saw most of the other kids burn out, too. I think she and one other still ride. However, it was the non-competitive foxhunting that kept her in. She never really liked trailriding, like I do, although we did it a lot. To all the kids, though, it really is the horses and the friends that kept her riding. My husband, now retired, babysits her little boy at the barn while she rides a couple days a week. It keeps a person sane, and she rides better now than she did then. I wish all these children’ssports weren’t so ridiculously competitive, unrealistic and expensive. It seems the kids have to wait until adulthood to learn to enjoy it all again. It shouldn’t be that way.

  13. I totally agree. For the love of the horse is the best way to approach being involved with horses. Whenever I can, I encourage the love of the horse and the greatness of their generosity horses give us. Horses as a business seems to destroy the love for awhile. Miss the days when a horse owner could share the horse without worrying about being sued for the ever possible accidents that can occur with riding and handling these magnificent beings. I am such a horse addict that I had to stop showing so I could again just enjoy my horses.

  14. As someone who has never been able to afford my own horse, this is really insightful. I often dreamed of competing the horse i loaned but they were too old/ had various health issues. So instead, i trick trained and hacked out during the weekends. I wonder what my life would’ve been like if i competed more at a young age. Now i’m at university i’m hoping to make the teams next year, i wonder if i will lose the passion i have for the sport?
    Very interesting read

  15. Pingback: One Horse from the Rat Race | Karen Hisata

  16. As a om who just purchased her 14yo daughter her first “serious horse”, I say, “HERE! HERE!” I encourage her to use the horse to improve her riding and become a better rider and a better horsewoman, attentive to the care and needs of her horse. But I also hope to be be able to nurture her to just love the horse nad love the process. Enjoy her horse outside the ring just being a girl on a horse. Anything less would be a bit hollow and i will feel I have nt done my part and she will have missed out on something very rare and special.

  17. Hi Carleigh.
    In response to The Rat Race, it did bring some tears to my eyes and a lump in my throat. I’m nearing 50 and returned to riding in November 2016 after a 34yr absence. I promised myself that I would get back on ‘one last time’ to see if I still ‘had it’.

    As a kid I only ever dreamt of going to the Olympics as a dressage rider. It didn’t work out and I quit my riding job , my one and only horse got sold and I never rode again. I was only 16.

    Now I’m back to discovering my love for horses and whilst I don’t own a horse (yet!) I have a coach who is supportive who let’s me ride some terrific horses.

    It’s never to late – as long as you don’t stop believing and dreaming.

  18. Inspiring!!! I was dealing with a sort of burn out period after a working student program that was clearly not well thought out. It ended badly and I was taken advantage of, never received the lessons promised, but I did get to ride some pretty crazy horses…

  19. Interesting post with a great deal of truth. I remember hopping onto my horse bareback and riding around and falling off and laughing. All that was about a thousand years ago. I am still riding and still love looking after my horse and just hanging out with him. I also compete ( in dressage) and enjoy it but I am 68 and I am no longer looking for approval or acceptance. I just enjoy the challenge and it keeps me young! I think it is hard for young people to be put through this grind of competition that you describe.

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