The Importance of Being a Thinking Rider

Olympic gold medalist Melanie Smith Taylor encourages riders to think independently, learn from others and continually educate themselves. From the editors of Practical Horseman magazine.
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Olympic gold medalist Melanie Smith Taylor encourages riders to think independently, learn from others and continually educate themselves. From the editors of Practical Horseman magazine.

Editor's note: Veteran show jumper Melanie Smith Taylor, who is currently co-chairman of the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association Emerging Athletes Program, spoke to the group of young riders who were selected to participate in the 2008 George Morris Horsemastership Training Program in Florida. Here is a transcript of her talk.

To quote one of my favorite philosophers, Ayn Rand: "'To be or not to be' is 'to think or not to think.'" The mind is our greatest resource. We can choose to use it or not. Think with your mind, and your body will follow.

Melanie Smith Taylor | ? Stacey Nedrow-Wigmore

Melanie Smith Taylor | ? Stacey Nedrow-Wigmore

I want to cover three main points as I share my experiences with you. The importance of becoming an independent thinker, learning to use your own judgment and counting on your own judgment is number one. Number two is learning from others. Take every opportunity to learn from the people around you; develop role models. And third is the importance of education--developing your own intellectual curiosity. Educating yourself throughout your life is so enlightening, empowering and rewarding.

In the early days, when I first started riding with George Morris back in the 1970s, he used to come to Germantown, Tenn., where I was raised on a farm, to do clinics. I would dread his visits for two reasons: First of all, my mother and I could never control the crowing roosters and the gaggle of geese and goats and things that would just go marching through the covered arena unannounced. As we know, George loves order and organization, and it was chaotic during his lessons. So we would just cringe, but that was out of our control. Secondly, George would use these opportunities to stretch me--to challenge me and stretch my courage and confidence. We would ride up on this flat clearing up on the hill--it was very primitive--and he would start by building lines of complicated, complicated lines of jumps. But the problem was that we didn't really have much in the way of jumps, so he'd pull out benches and buckets and barrels, plywood panels, limbs that had fallen--whatever--and he would build these jumps, these lines. I would have to say they were not just primitive and airy, but trappy. And our jump standards were never high enough, so we'd get these concrete blocks and put the standards up on blocks. We didn't have enough jump cups either--we would drive nails in to hold the poles, so we would just have to have our hammer and nails ready.

On one such occasion, I happened to mention to George that I had this horse who could really jump, but he was so unorthodox. "Let's test him," George said. So we pull him out of the stall and I get on him. The reason he was so unorthodox, I think, is because he was a Tennessee Walker, so just as you saw your distance to the jump, he would lapse into a running walk, a rack, a single foot, whatever--and the distance you had was obliterated. That intrigued George even more, and up went the jumps. To this day, I don't think I have ever jumped bigger fences than up on that hill on plain dirt footing over barrels and two-by-fours hanging way up in the air. So my point is, who was George testing? The horse or me?

I'm telling you this story because we all learn good judgment from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment. Therefore it's of the utmost importance that we use our minds to differentiate between what is a challenge and what is unnecessary risk. It's all about trust: I totally trusted that George would never ask me to do something beyond my ability, just like the horses we ride shouldn't be asked to do something beyond their abilities. It's about trusting the people who are giving you direction. Later on, as I developed as a horseman and had more experience, George encouraged me to develop my own sense of awareness. With independence--or being an independent thinker--comes with it the acceptance and the awareness of your own judgment. You have to take responsibility for your own judgment. George encouraged me to question him--he never discouraged me from that, because that's how we develop as horseman. We learn from our experiences and use those experiences to give us the wherewithal to make that transition to making decisions on our own. It's how we grow, how we blossom, bloom and mature.

As an example as how I had to learn my own way, my own judgment: I showed in the Amateur-Owner jumpers, and I had a horse who was a great winner in the show ring, but he could hang a leg straight down in the schooling area if there were no ground lines. George is a master at preparing horses for the ring and jumping just the right number of fences--never too many, and just what you need to get that horse ready. But I had to use all of my courage and independent thinking and judgment when he would take those ground lines away and raise that vertical up in the air for this particular horse because I knew that a fall could be imminent. I learned you have to think for yourself--again, you have to learn what's a challenge and what is unnecessary risk. It's not about being a chicken or lacking courage, it's about being smart and using your head not to take the fall, but using your head to keep from falling and to stay safe

There are three types of riders: the natural rider; the more technical rider and the combination of the two--the latter being the preferred because that's a rider with educated feel. If you're fortunate enough to have that natural talent, you probably started doing a lot of things on your own. You didn't really know the fancy name for a shoulder-in, you just knew to move your horse over. But as you learned the language through education, you were able to learn even more and develop yourself even more to be better able to articulate that to other people.

No matter what type of rider you are, you must be a thinking rider. Every type of productive work involves a combination of mental and physical effort--and the continual judgments along the way needed to advance, stay sharp and improve.

I want to remind you again, your mind is your greatest resource; your mind is responsible for everything that distinguishes you as a person, as a rider and in all areas of your life. Your mind controls not only your ability to reason but to process information. Your mind controls your physical activity. Your mind controls your nerves, your ability to handle pressure in big situations. Your mind controls your emotions, your ability to stay positive and believe in yourself. We can never stop learning and engaging our minds even if it's considered only "sports" that we do. We must continually ask ourselves, how can we get better? How can we learn more? How can we do it differently? And my advice to you is to watch, to learn and to see. (Those aren't all the same words.) To listen, to hear and to absorb. To immerse yourself with mentors. Shadow the great riders, follow them around, stick to them like glue, listen to everything they have to say. Expand your horizons, go new places, ride with different people, try new things, new ideas. Live it every moment; be hungry for it. Never stop pushing yourself and searching for a better way.

All of you riders in this session are reaching a plateau in your life. A lot of you are just leaving the Junior ranks, and it's a time in your life when you can start to formulate your own system of riding, start to become independent thinkers, start to develop your own style from the role models in your life. Just remember that independence is your awareness and acceptance of responsibility for your own judgment. That, of course, involves engaging your best resource--your mind. Thinking through present situations, planning ahead, securing every detail before a big event. There are no pinch hitters in life. No one can do your thinking for you. It's up to you, and your success is commensurate with how much effort and how much thought you put toward your life and career. Your generation is extremely important to our industry, our sport and to the horses we love. We need you to want to make a difference; we need you to influence others in every aspect of the sport. We don't just need Olympic riders; we need grooms and horse show managers, stable managers, vets, farriers, owners, all the people who are involved in the sport.

The real essence of this clinic, to me, is developing all-around horsemen like yourselves, who can not only make a difference in our sport but who can influence others in the process. You are the leaders of tomorrow. It is your turn to take ownership of this challenge. But you must educate yourself fully to be able to educate others. So besides becoming independent thinkers and role models, I'd like to add the importance of educating yourself further through reading, studying, exploring the sport. Develop your intellectual curiosity. Expand your knowledge base. It just brings you so much satisfaction and so many rewards.

George quoted last night [in his Welcome speech]--and I was planning to quote today--the English philosopher Sir Francis Bacon: "Knowledge is power." And he goes on to say, "Knowledge enables a person to take the steps to achieve his end." What horse books have you read lately? Have you read any of George's books? Have you read any of Billy Steinkraus' books? Have you even read about the art of riding? Did you know that the teachings of the Greek Xenophon in the fourth century BC are the foundation for present knowledge? And during the Renaissance, these writings were rediscovered and redistributed and developed in Italy and then on through the rest of Europe, mainly Germany, France, England, Spain--the major powers of today. All the teachings that have been spread through Europe and every country developed them in slightly different ways, so it's so fascinating and inspiring to read about the different training techniques. You'll hopefully be competing someday against all the great countries of the world, so know what they do, find out what they do, read what they do, try to do it their way, but maybe a little better, and try to do it your way.

My hope is to inculcate in you all the interest and desire to keep learning in every way that you can because that's what always impressed me with George. He isn't just a great teacher: He is a great student because he is a thinker, he is an observer, he is a listener and he is a reader. And I've heard him, so many times, encourage people to read more.

I want to review again the importance of being a thinking rider, and I'd like to leave you with this one pearl of wisdom: To me, to think is to know. To think is to know. In other words, preparing for a challenge with the proper thought empowers you with the self-confidence to proceed and succeed. You will maximize any opportunity when you think through your plans and focus on everything that is necessary, securing every detail, making sure there's not a piece of tack that's likely to break, making sure your horses are schooled and ready, making sure you are fit and properly trained. Having all that with the right support team in place is what gives you the confidence to know that you can walk into the ring, whether its an Amateur Jumper or Junior Jumper class or the second round of the Nations Cup in the Olympic Games, and jump a clear round. If luck is with you on a given day and if you have the right horse, you can jump and win over any course at any competition in the world. Because of your mind, to think is to know--to know you can, because you have prepared with your mind, and your mind is in control of everything.

To read about Melanie Smith Taylor's system for getting peak performance from your horse, see "Peak at the Right Time" in the September 2009 issue of Practical Horseman.