I would love to see this dirty phrase eradicated forever. LAST JUNIOR YEAR.
This ‘term’ we have erroneously created in the horse show industry has been the detriment to teenagers across this country, and to this day, it continues to amaze me that juniors are thinking that at the age of 18, they will become worthless as riders. How did this happen? Who is responsible? Why would anyone stress about being 17 years old and have an upcoming birthday?? We don’t have enough classes and leagues for you to participate in as an Amateur? I’m kidding, we do, I assure you. Probably one of the greatest experiences of my life happened this year at WIHS with the 10k Adult classic, and I was just a small part of it. There is actually more emphasis now being put on the adult divisions than ANY other divisions that are offered. There is even a new team championship offered from the USHJA, and it is expected to be a really big deal.
Is there too much concentration put on Big Equitation classes, that they have become the means to an end? Most people who are serious about the sport of riding on the recognized show circuit do keep riding after the age of 17, I can assure you. No other discipline has this ludicrous fear. Since I was immersed in the Eventing world at that age, I never heard the term before I started coaching kids at a school several years later. Then I realized it became a serious psychological malfunction of an already shaky teenager’s mind. It was so baffling. So, what, you might have to switch to a new horse once your Eq Horse lease is up? Is that the worst thing to happen?
Is it the end of riding in the Junior Hunters that is so unnerving? Were you a great catch rider for a 3’6” junior hunter that you didn’t own, and now you won’t be able to ride in the Amateur Owners because you don’t own it or can’t afford it? And maybe you feel you just figured out how to ride 3’6” well in the last six months? Maybe get on the board of USHJA and ask for a new division called Old People That Don’t Own A Horse, But Want to Jump 3’6”. Or, enter a Derby. You have options.
College riding is still riding. Loads of colleges have riding programs, teams, or are located near a place where you can to continue to ride, no matter the discipline. Your Last Junior Year is not a legitimate fear or stress factor, yet LOADS of junior riders have this stigma about it. Why? Are you freaking out because you can’t compete in the same division as your best friend? You both are attending the same show, share the same hotel room, carpool, eat every meal together, so whats the problem?
Or maybe it comes from the parents….. How could you possibly let them down? They are your parents whether you are successful or not, it is not possible for parents to love you less because you didn’t qualify for Devon. If they actually do behave like this, go get adopted by someone else, they are terrible parents.
Riding a horse, no matter the division, is a glorious privilege, your value as a person has never been based on the division you ride in, (or anything else for that matter) it is your personality which dictates your success in life. Maybe you restructure your junior years, then and spread out your talent, no one is forcing you to choose to JUST be an Equitation rider, there actually are options. If you didn’t make any sacrifices for the horse you rode as a 17 year old, yet your best friend did, was there a discussion about the pressure of winning with that horse? Sports psychologists sell all sorts of expensive material on how to overcome nervousness and incapacitating fears in the ring, when maybe all it has really become is a fear of turning 18.
If you think I can’t understand the fears rolling around heads of teenagers quickly approaching the December 1st career is over date, you are absolutely right. I can’t relate. I would no more go back to the age of 16 or 17 then poke my eyes out. I probably blocked a lot out. At that age, despite being an amazingly fearless rider, with many accomplishments, my equine education, and sophistication of body control as a rider happened when I was more mature in my 20’s, when I wasn’t trying to get good scores on SAT’s and weary from other responsibilities and obligations. My talent was cultivated long after those endless, painful years of high school. If you are intending on keeping riding in your life, your best years are yet to come.
What can we do to reassure teenagers that the Last Junior Year is not a deadline? I asked Kori Pickett in Maryland what she thought about it, and she absolutely agreed many kids have a stigma about the end of the junior years, (she jokingly referred to it as the Apocalypse) and how she handled it as she was off to college before Indoors started, but she chose to skip those competitions which kept her away from her studies her final year, despite qualifying for them. Did it affect her? Not really, she always knew horses would be a part of her life regardless, and could easily return to them between semesters, following graduation, and now around her job. And what did she just do this year that I only know a few people have been lucky enough to have experienced? A Fox hunting trip alongside her Dad… in Ireland!! Yes, she went hunting in Ireland (one of the most challenging terrains out there) with her DAD by her side! Not only that, she often hunts with him here in Maryland, or challenges him to an occasional gymkhana. What could possibly be more magical? Will Kori show more in the future? Sure, not that it matters, horses are a consistent part of her life, but I think she is pretty content what she is doing now, maybe the happiest I have ever seen her. Her values are placed elsewhere at the moment.
I placed the same question to a former student I had while teaching at Garrison Forest, Melanie O’Boyle. Her response was that her her accomplishments as a junior on her horse were, (in her mind), not living up to her expectations, and each time she gave her best performance but her horse let her down was another disappointment she felt drained the enthusiasm out of her. “I looked at myself and saw someone who only had one horse so I couldn’t do all the things that famous young riders could. I had only done the jumpers a few times because getting Libby around the hunters was becoming too frustrating. But unfortunately aging doesn’t stop and I had to suck it up. We retired Libby after I finished high school and my parents practically begged me to take my first year of college off of riding. Being a person who hates to disappoint them, I listened, but I’m glad I did. The summer after my first year was when I realized that not being a junior wasn’t a bad thing. I thought your opportunities changed when you became an adult, but they don’t. You can still experiment in any discipline, you can still qualify for finals, you can still be a barn rat.”
Melanie went on to form an incredible bond with a trainer in Texas to this day has not been shaken. She has intrinsically become involved in almost every aspect of the barn, learning more about the horsemanship side of it now that she has the time to enjoy it.
Trevor Hawthorne also responded, he now runs an import business in Pennsylvania and can be found consistently winning and selling horses on the recognized circuit.
“The last junior year brings a daunting reality that comes along with the close of what most believe to be their only shot in this sport. But I couldn’t disagree more. While a majority of junior riders act as though life behind the junior hunters, junior jumpers, and equitation simply doesn’t exist, I was anxiously awaiting the dreaded term “aged out” because of all the new opportunities it would bring. In a sport centered around tradition and an industry that has evolved in so many ways recently, the transition from being a junior to an amateur or professional forces you to think about where you stand amongst it all. From school and career obligations to financial and relationship reasons, it becomes more difficult to balance life in and out of the horse world. This stark contrast between the junior career of chasing points and having the latest trendy show coat is frankly terrifying to most riders. But with that said, life goes on. Sure, the equitation ring has slipped away- but who really misses that? Not me! Life goes on after your junior career if you so choose. Sure, the real world can interrupt now and then and saddle time tends to dwindle, but if you want it bad enough- you’ll make it happen.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.