Jennifer Gates: ...why it's so important to have a growth mindset
Jan: Welcome to Nobody Told Me! I'm Jan Black.
Laura: And I'm Laura Owens.
Jan: We're very proud that Nobody Told Me! is a media partner with the 2020 Palm Beach Masters Series, which features the world's best show jumping riders and horses competing in three world-class events, the World Cup, Nations Cup, and Palm Beach Open. We've been talking with some of the riders who've trained for years to compete at this level, learning about what motivates them, and how they deal with disappointment and success.
Laura: Joining us on this episode is one such rider, accomplished show jumper, Jennifer Gates, one of the top "Under 25 Riders in the US", president of Evergate Stables, medical student, and daughter of Bill and Melinda Gates, co-chairs of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. We sat down with Jen to find out more about how she copes with the ups and downs of such a challenging sport and how she balances medical school with riding at such a top level.
Jan: Jen, tell us, first of all, how you got into riding.
Jennifer: I got into riding when I was about six years old. I was trying a bunch of different sports and activities, tap dancing, basketball, was not really good at any of them, my parents will tell you. I said I wanted to learn how to ride horses. We found a barn about 45 minutes from our house. I started doing lessons there. We started with grooming, tacking up, all that stuff. About six months later, they had tried to let me canter two or three times, I fell off every time. They told me I was not allowed to canter anymore, I could only trot. There was this older quarter horse named Leo, he was adorable, but I just was super incompetent. Eventually I went online and found a barn closer to my house that ended up being the barn that I stayed with for the majority of my junior career. They introduced me to the Powell's, who were super influential to my career. It all came together.
Laura: When did you decide you wanted to compete?
Jennifer: I was at this barn and I started looking on eBay for a pony, I don't know why, I thought it was the best idea. I was looking for a mini pony, I don't know why. They told my parents, "You should really lease a pony if your daughter wants to do the short stirrup or start competing. It was this 20-year-old pony named Penny. She was adorable, just one of those horses you would put a quarter in and it just goes at the grocery store. You just sit there, you do nothing. That was the first time I started competing was with her. I think over time, there have been moments in my life where I've thought, "I truly love the horses so much, I could do this without competing and be completely happy." But the opportunities have just presented themselves. I never thought I would do the jumpers and now I'm doing the jumpers. It all just kind of happened.
Jan: Tell us about when you decided to really take it to the next level and be a top-level show jumping rider.
Jennifer: I think I started doing the jumpers when I was a freshman in high school. By my junior year, I'd realized that if I really wanted to be serious in the sport, there were great opportunities down here in Wellington. I approached my high school and asked if I could do tutoring, do online sessions, and bring my curriculum down here for two winters. That's when I really started getting serious about it, was when I could spend the bulk of my time around the horses, training with four or five every day, and just getting in the ring a ton.
Laura: It's at that time when you're thinking about college and what you're going to do afterwards. You're in high school and you're like, "Oh, my God, what am I going to do with my life?" What were you thinking? Were you thinking, “I want to take this as a profession in the next few years, or I want to go to college.” What were your thoughts?
Jennifer: I really picked college solely based off of what I thought I was interested in. I knew Stanford had an amazing Human Biology program. I've always been interested, also, in marine biology and they have a good program for that. I really picked the school based on the programs they had. I thought I would stop once I started at Stanford.
Jennifer: I thought I would maybe keep one or two horses on the side. I was able to meet a few other athletes, like Lucy Davis, who was able to compete her whole-time during Stanford. That gave me the idea that, "Okay, maybe this is possible. Maybe it's not impossible to do both." Once I started there, I loved it. The program was so flexible that I ended up being able to keep doing it. I always knew I wanted to go to college, it was always something really important to me. I knew that I wanted to go somewhere where I could pursue my passions outside of the sport.
Jan: And now you're doing medical school plus competing, does it get any tougher than that?
Jennifer: It's been an interesting journey. I will say I feel grateful to have had the role models that I did going into Stanford. Even my, now fiancé, who was totally a friend at the time, was someone who had gone to Stanford and done the riding. I have these great role models. Starting med school, I don't know anyone else who's tried to do both. I've had to find other people who have done other professions and keep riding as part of their life and use them as role models. Also, just carve my own way a little bit knowing that it's so hard to know what every year is going to look like. It's been challenging to balance both. Med school's way harder than undergrad ever was. I'm just taking it one month at a time.
Laura: We were reading about you dealing with your undergrad studies, that it was difficult for you, some of the science classes were tough. We were thinking that would be so inspirational for some of our listeners to hear that you made it through, you made it to med school, and you persevered. How did you do that?
Jennifer: Absolutely. In high school, I loved chemistry. I was great at chemistry, it was awesome, I enjoyed the equations and everything. I got to Stanford and was taking general Chemistry Intro and just found it so difficult. My friends did too, but I was like, “Wow, did I get here and realize that I'm not smart enough to do this? Maybe a serious medical profession isn't for me if I can't do these classes.” I got through that quarter, took the class, did okay, and then I was thinking, “I don't think I can go to med school. If I can't get through these classes, if I don't feel comfortable in them, how am I ever going to be a doctor?”
I had an amazing teacher, who subsequently became my advisor. It was a class called Children's Health Disparities. He mentioned to me this program in Mount Sinai called FlexMed, which is designed for students who want a non-traditional path into the medical field. The requirements are slightly less, you still have to complete most of the science courses, but it gives you a lot of flexibility in your undergrad career. I applied to that program, got an interview there, loved the program, fell in love with the school, was accepted, and then realized this is really what I wanted to do.
I had to go back and finish chemistry because that was a pre-requisite. I went back, finished chemistry, took physics, I did both of those my senior year, I think I was one of the only seniors in the class. But for some reason, at that point I had just realized, "I can do this. If anyone's telling me I can't, it's just myself. Yes, it's going to take extra hours. Yes, I'm going to have to go to office hours and my weeks are going to look busy. If I really stick with the material." I think it's that growth mindset of, anything is possible if you really believe in yourself.
Jan: You're finishing your first year of medical school. Have you decided what area of medicine you want to pursue?
Jennifer: I think I want to do primary care, either pediatrics or family medicine, or OB/GYN. So much could change, obviously. I feel like I've been exposed to my other classmates who have interests like surgery, which has been really neat. But I've always been interested in pediatrics. You can do so much for kids, help them be on the right path to thrive as adults. It's a super formative period and I've always wanted to do that.
Laura: Now that you've had that first year combining med school and riding, was it easier or harder than you thought? Can you continue the rest of the way?
Jennifer: It was harder than I thought. Everyone told me that it was going to be hard going into it. No one had this exact experience, but people who had started med school said, "Med school is super hard. You're going to be drowning in work." I didn't really know what to make of that. I felt like I had been able to combine both before and I didn't want to knock myself out of being able to do it before I had even started. It is more content than I've ever seen. The human body is unbelievably fascinating. But there's so much to go through in such a short period of time.
I think that once I start rotations, which is third and fourth year, I probably won't be able to ride as much. I'm figuring that out and what that looks like for me, but I'm just really grateful to have the opportunity to do it right now.
Jan: What advice would you have for someone who's going into their first year of medical school?
Jennifer: I think not prepare yourself and get ready to shield for this horrible thing because it's not horrible at any means. It's so fascinating and the professors want you to get it and they want you to learn. I would say take time for yourself, for your family, for self-care. Also really developing a routine every day that works for you, so school doesn't become your sole honed-in priority. I think my first week we were doing anatomy, we were working in the cadaver lab, doing lectures at the same time. I was like, "There is no way I'm going to get this unless all I do is study." I didn't really sleep very much. I kind of lost my routine and I lost my way. I think that if you can have those variables, like friendships, exercise, sleep, all those things established before, it really helps make the transition easier.
Laura: How much were you able to ride during this first year? How did you stay so sharp? You've had a great year so far in competing.
Jennifer: Thank you so much. I took a gap year between finishing up my undergrad at Stanford and starting med school. I think that really helped my riding. I had recently, before the gap year started, working with Harrie Smolders, my current trainer. I think we were able to really nail down a lot of the basics and get so much experience in the ring that now when I come to a show, I'm certainly a bit rusty and maybe not as strong as I was before, but I remember the feeling. I also have a great group of horses that I got to know in that year. The consistency helps a lot.
Jan: Tell us about Evergate Stables.
Jennifer: I always was at a traditional training barn with a trainer who had multiple students, and absolutely loved that. When I started coming on the road, we decided that it made more sense to set up my own LLC. That started as JKG Farms, which are my initials. Eventually I realized, "If we're going to be doing this at a bigger scale and if I ever want to incorporate sales or breeding young horses, it would be nice to have an establishment that feels a little bit separate from me and what I'm doing in the medical field and in other places in my life. We came up with the name, I think, about three or four years ago, and it all just went from there.
Jan: You're president of that.
Jan: How does that work with you also being in medical school?
Jennifer: I have great support. I oversee everything on a high level, but I have a great team of people that manage the horses and help manage the budget. I am just there to ensure that everything is running and check-in with my parents, of course. I'm so grateful to have their support every day. It really is the team behind me that does the everyday stuff.
Laura: I read that you really liked developing the young horses, that's so exciting.
Jennifer: It's cool. It's something I haven't gotten into as much. As I've learned to step up to the big level, I've been fortunate to have horses that have already done it and know their way around. You still have to develop those partnerships, but it's easier than starting with a young horse. My fiancé’s very into that. He developed one of his top horses, Lordan, from a six-year-old, that's been really fun to watch. I think for me, the most fun part is just seeing them grow. When they come into our program, we're obviously looking at so many different variables, like their feed, their physio work, how much we jump them. To just see them grow, and our partnership grow, is really satisfying.
Jan: What do you look for in a horse? When you're thinking about buying one or riding one, what are you looking for?
Jennifer: I think a lot of things. The first thing is scope, the ability to cross the jumps. I'm not a man, I'm not someone who can really clench onto them and push them to the other side. So scope. Then I would say brain is probably the second thing. It's the horse that is willing to take a mistake or be there with you throughout the course and not feel like you're forcing them to do anything. At the end of the day, we can't make any of them do anything they don't want to do. I think for me, particularly in the place in my life where I'm at, the brain is a huge thing. Carefulness is obviously an added benefit, but that I am okay with foregoing if it means that I get around safely and have a positive experience.
Laura: How long do you think that partnership takes to develop?
Jennifer: It totally depends. My top stallion now, Capital Colnardo, my trainer, Harrie Smolders, had been riding before. I say it took us six months to really get to know each other. We used last Florida just to get in the ring. I had to understand what cues he needed from me in the turns, how to best support him at the jumps. Other horses you get on and it's like you've known each other forever. I love that experience, it's really cool. The one I've had the longest, Kicks, it took us about a year to really understand his program and the feed that he needed. Once you have it, I'd say it stays pretty consistent most of the time, and that's a really good feeling.
Jan: What about giving up? Have you ever had those moments where you have a bad round or something happens where you just think, “You know what, what am I doing?”
Jennifer: All the time, I have those moments all the time. I have to remember not to let one round influence a choice like that because it is so huge. But I have those moments all the time, especially when I feel like I'm able to do both, but I'm tired at times. I start thinking about, “I'm doing both, but why? Am I satisfied doing both?” I think horses will always be a big part of my life, but how much I compete is always up in the air.
Laura: So many riders deal with so much fear, I know I've really struggled with that over the years. You want it so badly, but at the same time, you get scared. How have you dealt with that?
Jennifer: I got scared for so many years of my jumping career. It's something that dissipated once I had a bunch of positive experiences. I think the more that you have those experiences to build on and hold on to, you can go in the ring feeling like, “It's possible it'll happen again.” But I was scared. I would go up to every jump and think, "I'm going to crash through this one." That's a scary feeling going in the ring. It doesn't help you, it doesn't help your horse, and you don't feel good about what you're going in there to do.
I worked with a great mental coach, Peter Crone, who really helped me recognize that whatever I was believing about the future, about falling off or getting hurt, is just things I'm projecting onto what could happen. If I'm thinking that those things are possible to happen, they're actually more likely to happen. Whereas if I were to believe that everything was going to go great, I was going to have a lovely round, and the horse is going to feel amazing, that's equally just as possible as the other narrative I created for myself. Neither of them are true, so why not go with the one that's more positive?
Laura: But that's true for every aspect of life, not just riding, it helps anywhere.
Jennifer: Yes, yes.
Jan: Exactly, exactly. Tell us more about what role mindfulness has played in your life.
Jennifer: It's played an evolving role. I am currently not a daily meditator, it's something that I would love to do, I've gone back and forth in phases. I think that, as humans, we were developed as a species to basically have fear for everything. We're looking out for predators, trying to survive. In our modern day, a lot of us are fortunate enough to not have things that are everyday life-threatening. COVID is scary weird, I don't even know what to say about that. But if we use those feelings of stress or anxiety and project them on to everyday things, it's easy to feel stressed all the time. I certainly struggle with that. It's really the more you can be present in the moment that you're in, and the less you're thinking about the future, anxiety, and worry, the more satisfied you will be. If you're always thinking about what's going to happen in the future, you're never actually exactly where you are. I wouldn't be sitting here in this chair having a conversation with you two if I was thinking about the rest of my day.
Laura: Exactly. How do you ground yourself then when you start to feel like you're getting away from that present moment and you're focusing on the future?
Jennifer: The one thing I've found, I think within the last six months, is breathing. Breath is something that we're learning in Respiratory Physiology right now, which is super cool. But it’s something that's so constant. Your body needs it to get oxygen delivered to your tissues, and it is with us through our whole life. If you can really center yourself on your breathing, I think your sympathetic nervous system can settle down; you can go into parasympathetic mode and really tune into your body. I think things like sports, like yoga, are also really beneficial because that's really feeling your body and being exactly where you are.
Jan: Talking about sports and physical preparation, what do you do to be able to stay in top shape so that you can handle a horse competing at the top level?
Jennifer: I will say it has evolved over my time. When I was riding full-time during my gap year, I would work out, but not as much. I felt like the experience I was getting on the horse was so beneficial and I was really working the exact muscles I needed. Now that I'm back and forth from school, I try and fit in three to four days a week of something else. I think nothing really replicates being on the horse, particularly for some of the muscle groups. I've always been a huge fan of Pilates, classical Pilates, for core strength, I think it's great. A lot of riders have bad backs too. I've struggled with my spinal health. Just keeping your core strong so that you can be strong on the horse, and off the horse, is really important.
Laura: What are your goals for this year? Talk to us a little bit about your horses and who you think you have the best chance with going forward.
Jennifer: My goals in the sport have always been, or not always, but kind of as I've gone through this process and iteration, what do I want my life to look like? What do I want my professional career to look like? I would love to be on more nations kept teams. I think representing Team USA is super important. I had the opportunity to do that in Huaca, Mexico once, I think two years ago with my good horse, Pumped Up Kicks. Also, I would love to make it to the World Cup Finals at some point. I don't know when or how that will happen with everything coming up with med school, but that's always a target I've had my eyes on which is fun.
In terms of horses, my group is a little bit smaller now that I've started school. I have Capital Colnardo, we call him Cody in the barn, he's the 15-year-old stallion that my trainer previously rode. He loves big grass fields. Which speaking about fear, I used to be fearful of big grass fields because I thought I would fall off a lot.
Laura: Interesting. I did too, that was a big fear of mine. I've never heard anybody else say that before.
Jennifer: Really? That's so funny. Nobody expects it. Everything is so far away. No one can yell at me if I'm doing something wrong. Harrie's like, "I never yell at you anyways, why would you want me to be yelling at you?" He's very silent. His training is amazing. He's like, “I want you to develop the confidence where when you go in the ring, you know that you're able to cue the horse in a way that I don't have to be telling you every step of the way.” I think that's a big difference than some other training systems in the US where they're holding your hand every step of the way. It’s not wrong, but he's like, “I want you to develop these skills so that when I'm not here, you can go in the ring and feel confident and know the horse.” Which is really cool. I did my first 1.45m without him, without a trainer, I had my amazing barn manager, Chris Howard, there. But that was a really cool moment because I was like, “Wow, you've taught me enough where I can go out and do this on my own and feel confident.” Building that confidence for anything in life is so valuable.
Jan: What does the Palm Beach Masters Series mean to you? We're a media partner with the Palm Beach Masters Series so we'd love to get your take on that.
Jennifer: Palm Beach Masters has been an absolutely incredible addition to Wellington. I think the first year I went, my then boyfriend, now fiancé, won the Grand Prix, the World Cup qualifier. That was so special for both of us, all of our families are there. The environment is set up so well that anyone can have a good time. People who don't know horses, people who enjoy watching, or want to have good food. The arena and stabling is second to none. You go in that ring and you feel like your round is special. I think that really helps as a competitor, and for our horses, to feel like they're going out there and really performing their best. It's second to none.
Laura: Talk to us about your show jumping team too, The Paris Panthers. Oh, my gosh, what does that even involve, having a team?
Jennifer: The team is a lot of management and work. I am fortunate to have great people that are helping with that. We have amazing sponsors, Maui Jim, Edmiston, NetJets, have been longtime partners and I’m really enjoying working with them. The team is comprised of six riders, I'm the Under 25 rider. I've been able to work with, and get to know, some of these really top athletes who I admire in the sport, like Gregory Wathelet. Now we have Pénélope Leprévost on our team, and Darragh Kenny. It's a lot of management though. It's figuring out, who has the best horses to go to which venues? When are they going to be in top shape? It's been fun to get to know that side of the sport a bit.
Jan: What is it like? Or how would you describe the competition between you and the other riders? You're friends, but you're also competitors.
Laura: And your fiancé too. How does that work?
Jennifer: It's really interesting. For me, when I go in the ring, it's all about me and my horse and what we can do or can't do. I always have a target of what I'm trying to do. Obviously, trying to work on something specific, or go cleaner class, or work on my speed. I'm generally not a very fast rider and that's something I'm working on. Even saying that, “I'm not a fast rider,” like “Who says that? I can be fast.”
Laura: Exactly, exactly.
Jan: You are a fast rider. You're faster than me.
Jennifer: It's so fun. I’m lucky to have some good friends who I compete against as well. For me, it's never really been about competing with them. It's more about achieving what I can, particularly given the unique circumstances, it's fun. My fiancé obviously does it at a bit different of a level. He's going to the Olympics this year, hopefully. The first time I met him, actually, I beat him in a MER-30 Class, that was a huge achievement for me. That's the last time I ever beat him. It's really fun to see his journey and support him. If we're in a class together, I'm obviously always cheering him on.
Laura: Talk to us about that. You're recently engaged, that's so exciting. Congratulations!
Jennifer: We're so excited.
Jennifer: Thank you. We've been able to do this sport together as long as we've been together. It's so fun, and one of many things we enjoy doing together, it's really special. I think now, also to be able to think about the future and share our passion in a more substantial way. We're super excited. I was very surprised. But obviously we had discussed wanting to spend a life together.
Jan: So you said, "Yes."
Jennifer: I did say, "Yes." I was crying and then I said, "Yes."
Laura: You made him wait for a second.
Jennifer: I did, I did. I made him wait for a little bit.
Jan: Our show is called Nobody Told Me! We always like to ask our guests what their nobody told me lesson is, but we'd like to ask you several nobody told me things. What is it that nobody told you about the importance of family and the support of your family?
Jennifer: Growing up, my mom really instilled in us that we were a five-sum, a core unit. I am so grateful that she did that. I think no one told me that when you get older, obviously it gets more challenging, geographically, to see your family. Really making time to call them or plan trips so that you are all together in the same place and keeping those connections.
Laura: What about with riding, what did nobody tell you? So many things, I'm sure.
Jennifer: Nobody told me that it would be something I would never want to give up. Nobody would have told me that anyways, but I think I just didn't know how incredible the power of working with the horses is. I can't see my life without it being in it somehow, I don't know what that looks like. I don't think anybody told me how special it would be, and what a journey it would be, and how much patience you need too. Finding the right horse, developing that partnership with them, doing everything you can to set up for success. Sometimes it doesn't happen; you have an off day, the horse has an off day, you barely knock a rail. You have to have patience too.
Jan: What is it that nobody told you about medical school?
Jennifer: I guess everyone did tell me it would be a lot of material. What did no one tell me about medical school? No one told me how exciting it would be. Every class is interesting, every class is geared towards the human body. It feels like no one told me how much it would build on itself. The first course, I felt so lost. I was like, "Where is the stomach? Where is the liver? I don't even know. The heart has four chambers, great. That's all I know.” Now, we're learning physiology of every organ system, and you're like, "That's why this is here, and it works with this. I think no one told me how much it would start to come together and how exciting that process would be.
Laura: As our final question then, what is your nobody told me lesson about life in general. You can take that wherever you want.
Jennifer: Nobody told me that as you become an adult, you have to cultivate your own confidence in whatever it is that you're doing. As a kid, I think we look to our parents for reassurance and guidance. If you enter adulthood and don't learn to cultivate that for yourself, you might go out looking for that in a partner, or in an activity, or in results. It really needs to be something that you cultivate for yourself and are confident; like standing in your own shoes and having your own ground with whatever it is in life. That's something I'm continuing to work on, and it applies to everything.
Jan: How can people connect with you on social media or the internet? How can they follow you?
Jennifer: I think the best way to follow me is probably on Instagram, @jenniferkgates. We also have our evergatestables.com website. For people that want to learn more about the horses, that's a great resource as well as our Instagram where we post a lot of fun stories about the horses and their personalities.
Laura: You have a really special Instagram. I follow a lot of barns, but you guys make it so I get to know the horses. It's really special.
Jennifer: Thank you. It's so fun and there's nothing to hide. I think that's the most fun part of the sport for me, is getting to know the animals.
Laura: They all have personalities. So many different barns, or so many people just act like they're animals and this is their breeding, and this is how old they are. It's nice that you appreciate that about them and it's not just all about the competition for you. It seems like it's part of your life and you just love the animals. That's really nice.
Jennifer: Thank you. That's so true.
Laura: It's been so amazing to talk to you. Thank you so much for inviting us here this year, it's been amazing.
Jennifer: It's been so fun.
Jan: Thank you. This has been fun.
Jennifer: Thank you guys so much. I really appreciate it. It's been a blast.
Jan: Thank you. Our thanks to Jennifer Gates, one of the top show jumping athletes who've been competing in The Palm Beach Master Series at Deeridge Farms in Wellington, Florida. Remember, you can watch wall-to-wall coverage of the 2020 Palm Beach Masters Series online through Sunday, March 15.
Laura: Just visit palmbeachmasters.com and be a part of the action. I'm Laura Owens.
Jan: And I'm Jan Black.
Laura: You've been listening to Nobody Told Me! Thank you so much for joining us.