AERC has a formal method for matching up new riders and mentors. The Mentor Program lists, by region, individuals who have considerable experience in our sport and have reached out to the Education Committee or their Regional Director to volunteer to mentor new riders or riders who may have questions:
However, I must admit that many riders have hooked up with their mentors in a much more informal way. My husband and I competed without a formal mentor for a handful of years I’ll bet — and it showed. We made all sorts of mistakes, but we leaned on one another, and eventually met up with the folks that today make up our “network.”
So, when I think about our less-than-perfect model for success, it prompts me to offer new riders a slightly different method to get from Point A (wherever you are today) to Point B (success and fame or whatever goal it is you envision yourself attaining):
- Know your goals! What is it that you are aspiring to achieve? Do you want to ride at the International level? Do you want to do a ride or two a year with the horse you currently own? Do you want to move up in distance and dream, someday, of riding 100 miles? Is it Tevis that turns you on, or perhaps riding with the runners at the Vermont 100? Do you hope to keep your young horse going to achieve Decade Team status (i.e. a rider/horse pair with ten seasons of at least one 50-mile endurance ride)? Do you just want to improve what you are doing now such that you are competing faster, or for longer distances, or with your horse displaying better fitness and condition, or training? It’s difficult for anyone to help you get where you’re going if you’re not quite sure where that is! Or maybe you want a mentor to help you figure out where the “gaps” are in your program.
- Use the AERC Mentor Program, as linked above. Back when I was a kid, when we walked uphill to school both ways, there was no such program. Take advantage of it!
- Contact your Regional Director http://www.aerc.org/Membership_Bod_Board.aspx if there is no mentor listed in your neck of the woods. That said, if you’re comfortable with someone assisting you via telephone or email or Facebook, a mentor from just about anywhere can assist you, regardless of where either of you reside.
- Most of the mentor/rider relationships I’m aware of, including my own, started much more organically than what I am describing above. So I’ll say again what I tell just about every person I have encountered who is starting our sport or is aspiring to start our sport. Go to a ride and volunteer! I’m not just trying to recruit workers for Ride Managers (although that’s a nice side benefit) — I think that all of us “old timers” agree that this is the single best way to learn about the sport! If you can get the plum job of recording vet check results on rider vet cards, that’s a bonus — you’ll get to watch horses be vetted all day long and get to overhear a lot of what the vets and riders are saying, perhaps see some interesting metabolic and soundness issues, and have some down time to get to know some of the key people in our sport. Taking horse heart rates in the P&R box is another great job but be sure to practice listening to hearts with your stethoscope before signing up. And bring your watch!
- Walk around, say hello, say nice things about the horses you see. I cannot think of a single rider I know, unless they are in the heat of trying to make pulse or deal with some other horse issue at a ride, who is not anxious to talk about how wonderful Old Dobbin or Sparky is. Likewise, ask about tack or feed or whatever else comes up. As a general rule, endurance riders are amongst the friendliest and most generous with regard to sharing of knowledge, ideas and experiences. Now, that is not to say that we don’t have a few $(*&# just like every equestrian sport, but they are typically fairly few and far between. We do tend to get focused on our horses and what we are doing, but catch us in a “down” moment and we are happy to talk your ear off.
- Seek out folks with whom you appear to share some commonalities. Maybe they’re competing on a Quarter Horse and you have a young Quarter Horse at home that you’re just starting to condition. Perhaps they have a saddle you’ve been wanting to try, or a trailer you’d like to check out. Maybe they ride beautifully and their horses are happy and well-behaved and that’s a goal you aspire to attain.
- Avoid the grumps or marginal horse people. (We do too!) We may not have a lot of these folks, but they exist. If you’re walking around a ride, you may witness some behaviors you DON’T wish to emulate. Ill-behaved horses, poor fitting tack (and the results), displays of marginal horsemanship or horse care or horse containment. It happens. You are bound to see some tools you DON’T want to add to your toolbox. If you’re scribing for a control judge/vet, you might overhear some unofficial commentary when a vet has to avoid a horse which tries to kick, or whose rider is not paying attention when the horse is being vetted. On the flip side, you’ll see the response when the control judges/vets are working around well-behaved horses with attentive riders who raise any concerns they might have about their horse so they can discuss it with the vet. These folks typically smile and share a joke with the ride staff, and ensure everyone around them is safe if they have a concern about their horse’s behavior, and they say crazy things like “please” and “thank you.” It won’t take long for you to see who in the sport you wish to emulate!
- Reach out and ask. Sometimes this is the hardest part of seeking a mentor. No one wants to be rejected, but if you think you’ve met someone who might have “the right stuff” to help you on your journey, ask if you can pick their brain, get some coaching, contact them if you have questions. If they’re geographically desirable, maybe they’ll invite you to join them for a conditioning ride. If they do happen to say no, don’t take it personally. Some endurance riders are amongst the busiest people I know, or they may just not have the heart of a teacher. But I almost guarantee that if you were having a bad day and needed a hand or to borrow a stirrup leather/flake of hay/spare set of reins/easy boot, they’d be jumping right in to help you out too.
- If all else fails and you are at a ride and feeling all alone and confused or overwhelmed, stop whatever you are doing, and in your best OUTDOOR voice (no library whispers, please!) say — “Help! I am new and I have NO IDEA WHAT I AM DOING!” I would bet a large sum of cash you will be inundated with offers to help or direct you. (I use this one myself from time to time. Still.)
Come on in, the water’s just fine. We are AERC and we want you to succeed!