The ‘Secret’ of Champion Riders

Talent, instruction, the right attitude—even with all these, you may not reach the top level without this “secret” of champion riders.

What does it take to become a champion-level rider? To reach the highest rung of your equestrian sport or activity? Talent helps, but it’s actually not the most important thing overall. Smart practice strategies also help, as does learning under the best teachers and maintaining the right attitude. These are all required, but they can’t necessarily boost you to your highest potential.

Sarah Dawson and Shine Smarter competing in the fence work of the 2015 Snaffle Bit Futurity. Photo by Primo Morales courtesy of NRCHA

What can? It’s something pretty unglamorous, I’m afraid: hard work. And by that I mean…really hard work. I know this because I’ve interviewed a lot of top riders and trainers over the years, and I continue to be astounded when I hear just exactly how hard they do work.

Take Sarah Dawson, for example. I wrote about this cow-horse phenom from Texas in the March 2017 issue’s “Trainers on the Rise.” She’d marked the highest fence-work score at the 2016 National Reined Cow Horse Association Snaffle Bit Futurity, placing sixth in the open division. The year before, she’d won the futurity’s limited division and the reserve championship of the intermediate—in her first outing at the event.

When I asked for her success strategy, she replied simply, “How hard we both work at it,” referring to herself and her husband, Chris Dawson. Describing their schedule as practically “24/7,” she said you just have to keep pushing all the time.

“You don’t start out at the top,” said the horsewoman, who put in six years apprenticing before striking out on her own. “You’re going to lose a lot more than you win, which can play with your mind. But you just have to keep going, working hard, moving forward.”

That formula is still paying off for Sarah. At this year’s NRCHA Futurity—held in Fort Worth, Texas, earlier this month–she won the Hackamore Classic Open championship and again made the futurity’s open-division finals.

Erin Taormino and Plain Wright in the herd work of the 2015 Snaffle Bit Futurity. Photo by Primo Morales courtesy of NRCHA

Another reined cow horse talent who works incredibly hard is Erin Taormino, the young trainer I wrote about after she won the NRCHA Futurity open-division reserve championship in 2015.

“It’s what gets you to where you want to be,” she affirmed, adding that at the Kansas ranch where she trains, summers are sweltering. “So my husband and I start at 1 or 2 in the morning and try to get everything worked before it gets hot.” And in the winter? “We start around 7 a.m. and keep going until we’re finished.”

Makes for long, long days…but great results.

I could go on and on, but here are just two more thoughts on hard work from two other super-hard workers:

• “It takes blood, sweat, and tears, and thousands of hours spent in the arena before you reach your riding objective.” …Barrel racer Fallon Taylor, writing with Nichole Chirico in the feature “Best Advice for Any Rider” in the November 2017 issue of Horse&Rider, out now.

• “My experience with Saddie taught me how to manage long hours, hard work, and determination—in order to make a dream come true.” …Amateur exhibitor Kelly Lears, who trained her home-raised mare up to a Pinto World championship and told us about it in “The Little Horse That Could.”

So if you’re looking for that “something extra” to boost you to the top of your game, just keep working at it.

Really, really hard.  

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