In Defense of the Lower Levels

Riding isn’t necessarily all about competing, nor is it all about moving up the levels.  Sometimes, you may need more practice before you can move up.  Sometimes, it’s about safety, or a confidence issue, or your horse’s ability.  Or, you may choose to remain at the lower levels on purpose — and there is nothing wrong with that!  This piece originally appeared on our sister site, Eventing Nation, and was written by Michelle Wadley.

The other day after I finished hosing my pony off after a particularly sweaty ride, I had an interesting conversation with the woman who owns the barn where I board my horse. We were discussing the current state of eventing and going to shows and wearing masks…you know, the usual eventing conversation. The topic turned to adult amateurs and competing at the lower levels, particularly how much more technical and demanding the Novice division cross country courses have become over the past few years.

Now. Anyone who knows me at all would probably say that I am a big weenie. I’m a blogger. I love to write (and ride). So it has been well documented. And yes, admittedly I can be a bit of a weenie. When the fences start moving upward, the pterodactyls in my stomach and the wimpiness in my always over-analyzing adult ammy brain tend to take over just a bit. OK, sometimes more than a bit. And in my defense I do have a pretty nasty accident in my past that left me with what my husband likes to call my bionic right arm, but that accident was well in my past. And it has absolutely nothing to do with my current, fabulous, superstar of a pony Syd who almost never takes a wrong step and always takes care of me even when I am all but closing my eyes and saying a Hail Mary over a fence.

And here’s where I have to take a moment to sing the praises of my heart horse; I promise this is a relevant digression. Syd could literally have gone anywhere and done anything. On more than one occasion I have been offered quite a lot of money to sell him. And in my mind he’s perfect and worth every penny I’ve been offered. He’s also my horse of a lifetime best friend, and I wouldn’t sell him for all the money in the world.

Syd free jumping a few (cough cough) years back. Photo by Michelle Wadley.

But I do wonder sometimes what he could have accomplished if he had not have been stuck with lower level adult amateur me. That’s a question that will never be answered, and as the years have passed, I have finally begun to be okay with that. And here’s why: As super talented as Syd is, he is also quite literally the perfect match for me. We trail ride; we hack out; we face fears together; he isn’t spooky; he saves my arse! I never have to wonder about whether or not he is going to refuse a fence he’s never seen. His attitude is always, “Hang on Mom! I’ve got this!” Do I still have to ride? Yes! Do I still have to work at dressage? Absolutely! BUT his trustworthy, kind, big-hearted spirit is exactly what this fifty-something mom needs. HE gives me confidence. HE makes it okay, and I adore him for it.

Me on Syd. I love this horse. Photo by Michelle Wadley.

So what does this have to do with defending the lower levels? Well, I’ll tell ya. Buckle up, buttercup, and get ready for a rant. We as eventers are an adrenaline fueled group. Bigger, faster, further, higher! Dressage be damned! We’re in this for the guts and glory of cross country day! Huzzah! And yes. We are. But as I have gotten older and become a mom, I have also begun to face the very stark reality of my own mortality.

I have responsibilities! I have a child! I don’t bounce! (Let’s be real. I didn’t ever bounce). What happens if I get seriously injured? To my family? To my job? To my horse? And again, let’s be real, this sport is dangerous. It is! Folks get hurt walking a horse down a barn aisle! Even if you are the safest of the safe riding the Guinness Book of World Record holding most bomb proof mount, you are STILL dealing with another creature who has his own brain and could accidentally hurt you.

Another rare occasion when I ate my Wheaties. Photo by Annie Fike.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I LOVE my sport. I defend it regularly to all sorts of folks. I have been volunteering at the Kentucky Three Day Event for over 10 years. I am by no means trying to degrade or call into question anyone who rides at the upper levels. That is absolutely not my intent. What I am simply trying to do is defend those of us who don’t want to. Ride at the upper levels, that is. Because I think that sometimes we lower level folks are looked down upon because we DON’T go bigger, faster, higher, further.

Sometimes, I think the perception is that we CANNOT jump higher, or even worse, that because we are not, we lack knowledge or expertise in what we do. And sure, sometimes that is true. But let me give you this example: I turned 52 this summer. I hold two college degrees, and almost a Master’s. I have been riding since I was FIVE. I’m a writer and a researcher by nature who has owned a tack shop. I LOVE horses, eventing and everything to do with them, and because I love to read and study and audit, I am constantly learning. I enjoy educating myself on all things horse because I love what I do. But as an adult I have not competed above Beginner Novice. I have done that quite successfully; and I have schooled fences that are at the Novice and even Training level, but that’s it.

If you looked at me on paper alone you would wonder what in the heck was wrong with me. What’s wrong with my horse? NOTHING! (See the paragraph above). The knowledge in my brain far exceeds the level I have competed. Does that make me incompetent? Absolutely not. And it irks me that sometimes I am perceived that way. Because here is the bottom line for me and so many others like me: I CHOOSE to ride at the lower levels. Why? Because that’s where I am comfortable and that’s where I enjoy myself. Both Syd and I could absolutely school and compete at a much higher level than we do, but I choose not to.

Don’t get me wrong; I am super competitive. My family loves to talk about the famous domino throwing incident at Christmas one year when I got mad because I lost to my sister. I love to compete! I also love to take lessons and school (I ride 4 to 5 times a week). For me, it’s simply that I want to live to ride another day. I love what I do, and I want to continue doing it. All of it. But that’s just me! If you want to contest Land Rover, good on you! Go for it! But remember some of us just want to work on our horsemanship, love on our ponies, and become better riders.

Happiness at a dressage clinic. Photo by my long suffering horse husband, Tim Wadley.

Choosing to be an adult amateur rider is simply that: my choice; just as vying for the Olympics might be yours. Lower level adult amateur riders make up the largest demographic in the USEF, and we spend a lot of our hard-earned income to be a part of the horse community. There are quite a lot of us out there supporting and cheering on those who ride at levels we choose not to.

One final thought: A few years back at a horse trial, someone asked me at what level I was competing. I replied, “Just beginner novice.” An older lady sitting nearby whipped her head around and quickly corrected me, NEVER say ‘just.’ You are out there taking a chance and getting it done. Some folks never even throw their leg over the saddle. You are brave and courageous just to be here. There’s no ‘JUST’ to it.”

Wise words.

Go Jumping!

First photo: Syd and Michelle (bravely!) jumping a log. Photo by Lisa Phillips.