Anna Ross: the challenges talented young professionals face in the industry today


  • In her latest exclusive column, Anna Ross explores the challenge of “making it” in the horse world and speaks to talented young professionals about the pitfalls they’ve experienced as they’ve attempted the big step from young riders to establishing a successful “real life” career in the industry...

    It is difficult to “make it” in the horse industry. Frankly, outstanding talent is an entry-level requirement, and only three or four people a year ride on a senior championship team.

    The standard is rising, with more and more horses scoring above 69% at grand prix in the UK. Those at the top-end and the grassroots are generally well served. But I wonder whether those in between, like the proverbial middle child, are overlooked. Are we missing out on identifying further medallists?

    International grand prix competitor Sonnar Murray-Brown (pictured below) and his partner Rob Barker run a successful training business. As a member of the World Class Podium Potential Programme, Sonnar is grateful for the practical support it gives and he’s attended training weekends covering business aspects alongside the performance-related topics.

    Sonnar’s youth career was cut short due to a horrific car accident. While some were honing their careers riding on teams, he was in hospital.

    Rob went to Hartpury College and did a degree to facilitate his riding career. When he started his business, he was living in his lorry with no bathroom facilities.

    They both recommend being based long-term with a top rider, as does the head of British Dressage (BD) Youth, Claire Moir, herself an experienced international competitor. BD Youth provides an extensive pathway of subsidised support for under-21s, catering for those wishing to take both academic and practical routes into the industry, with a committed team delivering camps, training and stable-management advice.

    But what about those young professionals who are too old for BD Youth, but not yet established enough for the World Class programmes?

    Josh Hill, a 24-year-old professional rider, says he feels the youth programme left him unprepared for a career in the equestrian industry. He has revealed that the pressure affected his mental health and he has called for more support for young professionals.

    While researching this column, I was messaged by many riders who had found the jump from the support of the youth programme into the abyss of “real life” hard to handle. Many were lonely, and told me they now feel like “outsiders”.

    In contrast, they described their time in young riders as a “bubble” and they all missed the camaraderie. Learning to cooperate with others on a team is a skill that prepares people for life and sport, but those feeling disenfranchised had one notable link – they had all set up their own business and were working on their own.

    The real world

    Interestingly, not one of the messages I received mentioned training horses. Concerns were overwhelmingly around mental health and the practicalities of dealing with owners, running businesses, social media and handling stress at competitions.

    Mental strength, grit and fortitude are as essential as business planning, so maybe support programmes could focus more on these aspects going forward.

    Riding for owners who expect results can be a huge shock to the system for those who have only had parents to answer to in the past. Some riders found the leap from enthusiastic youngster to paid professional brutal, when results rather than their feelings were prioritised, coupled with the realisation that underperforming could have significant consequences. For some, the fear of losing rides raises the stress levels further.

    Many mentioned that they would appreciate mentoring, and Claire has confirmed that this is in the pipeline of the evolving BD Youth project.

    The cream always tends to rise to the top and Sonnar and Rob are good examples of that. But how others navigate the gap between BD Youth and seniors and handle the pressures of the “real world” remains to be seen. Do these criticisms stem from “middle-child syndrome”, coming from a group who have unrealistic expectations?

    Let’s not forget, the likes of Nelson Mandela and Bill Gates were middle children, so let’s make sure the voices of this group are heard within dressage.

    Ref: Horse & Hound; 19 November 2020

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