“I never had the money to always be in full programs with top trainers,” Janine Little reflects. The former member of the Canadian Equestrian Team – who currently competes internationally, wintering in Wellington, Florida, and coaching from Canada the rest of the year – devotes her life to working towards the top levels of the sport. Little has bootstrapped her way from Pony Club to Grand Prix, riding horses she brought along from Training level, optimizing every opportunity available. The renowned trainer has overcome a limited budget by drawing upon unlimited dedication. And she swears that the experience has made her a savvier rider, trainer, and horse person because of it.
(Janine Little and Sancerre, winners of the CDI*3 Intermediaire B, Dressage at Devon 2016)
Little is undoubtedly an advocate for making lemonade from lemons – and turning apparent disadvantages into advantages. Whether you’re an amateur, junior, or a pro aspiring to rise to the top levels, she believes success is possible. According to Little, the recipe for success doesn't just come down to dollar signs but rather grit and determination. Below she shares her personal strategies for climbing to the top of dressage on a shoestring:
1. Soak up quality learning – however and wherever you can.
Growing up in British Columbia’s Okanagan, Little spent her teenage years – and meagre savings from mucking stalls – driving long days to work with trainers or attend clinics, sleeping in her car and braving avalanche zones – “not the best suggestion from a road safety angle” Little now admits, but a testament to how fiercely she sought education.
“Don’t be discouraged if you don’t get into clinics at first,” Little advises. “I got turned away from riding in clinics because I didn’t have the ‘right’ mount or wasn’t at the level they wanted at the time. I’d show up anyway and watch every minute just to get the education. If I couldn’t ride in it, I learned by watching, and eventually managed to get the opportunities to ride because people realized I really did want it that much.”
Little recommends that truly ambitious riders commit themselves to lifelong learning. Even as an established professional, she still does everything she can to train with top clinicians, benefiting from instruction from Charlotte Dujardin, Robert Dover, Juan Matute Sr., and Robert Dover, among others. Little also advocates maximizing working student opportunities – as she did with Anky van Grunsven – and emphasizes the importance of making the most not just of riding opportunities, but of every situation, learning from vets, farriers, and taking part in all aspects of training and barn work. Just as in riding, every detail matters.
2. Make the most of the horse you have.
“Not having the fanciest or most expensive mounts doesn’t mean you can’t achieve success,” Little believes. “To this day I can still be found riding underdog, diamond-in-the-rough mounts. The key is to have the confidence and determination that no matter what horse you’re sitting on you can always be more accurate than your competitors. Even on unconventional mounts” – this year at Devon, she won with a Friesian – “I've beaten many people on more expensive or fancier horses than my own throughout my career. Riding an underdog drives me to ride better and make sure all the details are top, as you can’t afford mistakes. Don’t throw away marks on centerlines, walk pirouettes, transitions, 8 meter circles – places where many people lose marks, or the movements that tend to go unpracticed. Not taking those scores for granted makes a huge difference.”
3. Don’t expect instant success.
“Training horses is a business of passion, not of overnight success. Working your way up the ladder makes you a more well-rounded horseperson, as you have to be hands-on. When I started teaching and training, I was literally a one-person operation doing everything. It was never easy but it developed the instincts I have today.” This enabled her to truly know her horses’ needs, idiosyncrasies, and when something just isn’t right. Little recalls instances when these insights significantly impacted approaches to training and even saved horses’ lives. Being “full on” is what drives Little, and enabled her to progress from teaching a lesson string to coaching riders to win medals at the NAJYRCs, being listed to the Canadian team, and earning a great group of horses and clients. Success, Little emphasizes, is continual progression rather than one single moment.
4. Don’t expect to be a millionaire – and know how to budget.
Unless you’re independently wealthy, budgeting is key. “I plan every penny I spend through the year,” Little attests, recalling camping in a trailer during a downpour, eating soda crackers for dinner because every penny went to the clinic and the crackers were on sale, thinking, good thing I love what I do, because this sure isn’t glamorous! “But every day you work doing something you love, with the most amazing animals – and that in itself makes you a very rich individual.”
5. Pay your education forward by assisting the future generation of riders.
Since the horse world isn’t easy, Little sees it vital to pay one’s education forward for those coming up in the sport, especially those who are committed and dedicated to becoming well-rounded, resilient horse people – no matter what.
“I’ve been fortunate to have some superb working students who stayed with me many years – I’ve seen them grow into remarkable horse people and amazingly capable young adults.” Just as she never stops learning and trying to improve herself, Little strives to cultivate that in others, and ultimately, provide them the chance to do so. After all, in a world of five and six figure horses, expensive show entries, and opportunities with hefty price tags, Little still reminds aspiring riders that the greatest qualities for success can't be bought.