Hawley Bennett-Awad is a Canadian four-star eventer who competed at the 2004 and 2012 Olympic Games. She was also on the eventing team that won a silver medal at the 2010 World Equestrian Games and another silver at the 2011 Pan American Games. Hawley, 41, is based in Southern California at Copper Meadows.
There’s no doubt about it: riders and horses are getting better at a younger age these days.
I’m teaching riders that are 17, 18 years old, and they want to go advanced. When I was 18, I was still going around at training level. I don’t know if it’s more pressure that’s driving them or if it’s better coaching and better horses. It could just be that eager, hungry kids are more aware of their ambitions and act on it at an earlier age.
But the reality is that kids are trying to get to the upper levels more quickly. And I don’t know if that’s the best answer for them.
There are 20 year olds competing at the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day event now. Which begs the question, just how much experience do they really have? These fences are big and they don’t come down. The pressure to ride in that stadium is real. If you don’t have the experience of what to do when your horse hangs a leg, that can have serious consequences.
I don’t want young riders to stop dreaming. Always dream and dream big. I’m only doing eventing because someone told me I couldn’t do it.
I’m a big believer in drilling the basics into horses and riders. I’d rather wait a year or two to know that the pair is solid than to move up too fast. That knowledge and confidence base is so important.
My longtime friend and coach, Pam Arthur, used this concept called the “Wheel of Knowledge.” She wouldn’t allow me or any of her students to move up a level until we could do everything on the Wheel of Knowledge. That’s stuck with me to this day.
A good example is my Livingstone horse, a Canadian off-track Thoroughbred I met when he was just four years old, who went advanced for 11 years in a rubber snaffle, the same bit I used when I got him at four. He won five preliminary events in a row when he was seven. Everyone I knew was upset that I wasn’t moving him up right after that. He was a good jumper, but at the time he couldn’t canter a five-meter or 10-meter circle. It was just wasn’t there. To this day, I’m still so grateful I never moved him up.
He’s 28 years old now and retired. But he wouldn’t have been the horse that he is if I didn’t do that. I could get on him tomorrow and he could still go do whatever I need him to do.
Allie Knowles did her first ever advanced as a catch ride on him. He had such a good base on him that he taught her what to do.
I don’t want young riders to stop dreaming. Always dream and dream big. I’m only doing eventing because someone told me I couldn’t do it. I’m a fighter and yes, I’m a little stubborn. But I’m also very realistic about what I do. I have a four-year plan and a plan for the year, where I work back from where I want to be. We all know horses, which means you need a plan A, B, C, and D. If you’re going to ride in this sport, you have to accept that it comes with highs and lows.
But it’s important to remember to never rush the learning process.