By Ayden Uhlir
I have participated in many events, clinics, and educational programs during my years as a junior/young rider. The information and knowledge I learned was invaluable in helping me to achieve competitive success and emotional maturity through those formative years. However, at eighteen, after having won both Junior and Young Rider National and North American Championships, I was hit with an entirely new world. I had felt competent and secure in where I was and what I had achieved. But, in the naiveté of my youth, I thought it would go on in the same way into adulthood. But then, so many things began to change, which put new pressures on me.
I had choices to make about college, selling my competition horse, where I would train, if I would take a working student position in Europe, and how I would continue to finance my dreams. I now know that these are the choices that we all have to make, in that phase from youth rider to adult career. As youths, our parents are not only emotionally supportive of our goals, but they often financially support them and, more importantly, guide our actions. When we become adults, we strike out on our own. Yet, there are so many roads and new obstacles in adulthood that we haven’t previously faced. I have struggled with many of these choices throughout the last two years.
A turning point in my journey came while attending the 2016 USDF/USEF Young Rider Graduate Program (YRGP). The weekend is designed to give participants a sort of crash course in “adulting” in our industry. You learn from experts about sponsorships, business contracts, tax laws, and other numerous options for directing and financing a future in the equine industry. During the business discussions that weekend, I had a revelation: If I desire a life-long career in dressage, I was going to have to do something dramatically different from my youth years. My parents were not going to fund me forever and, in fact, they never had the ability to fund me to the level I needed, in order to achieve my long term dreams of international competition. It was time I faced the adult reality that this sport is very expensive.
After the YRGP weekend, I changed my college major from psychology to business. I finished my season in Wellington, with my beloved horse Sjapoer, and then I made the heavy hearted decision to sell him. But, instead of my initial plan to sell him and buy a new young competition horse, I changed my strategy. I scoured real estate sites. I made calls to sellers about my plans. I eventually found my little slice of heaven, forty acres in Battle Creek, with three arenas and two beautiful barns with 33 stalls! I negotiated with the seller, and turned the money from the sale of my junior/young rider horse into a business that could support my long term dreams. It is a huge undertaking, I know. But the YRGP gave me the courage and ideas on how to proceed and move forward. Without that spark, I don’t think I could have taken the leap.
Furthermore, having been the recipient of so much help from so many amazing groups like the USDF, USEF, The Dressage Foundation, KWPN, and most importantly Dressage4Kids (D4K), I decided I needed to give back to the equestrian youth community. I needed to do my part to help with the goals of the YRGP, and help others make the transition and experience the revelation that I had. So, I decided to donate one of the two barns (eleven stalls) and one arena to Lendon Gray and the D4K programs. We have already discussed having additional follow-up programs for youth transitioning to the adult ranks. We have discussed things like week-long clinics on topics like barn management, or weekend crash courses in being a working student.
Every day, I become more excited about all the opportunities this adventure is bringing to me and other youth riders. Every day, I realize that while the transition is scary and hard, it is not only possible but exciting. There are so many people in the industry who want to help, and who care about our youth members and their industry goals. I have already had so many great trainers volunteer to come for clinics. I have already gotten support from all my sponsors, to be part of my programs. Even the local feed stores and business are amazingly supportive. I am so grateful for the advice, direction, and guidance, and can’t wait to be asked back some day to the future YRGP weekends, to share the stories of my adventures in property ownership.