The most frustrating, infuriating, devastating, expensive, terrifying, mortifying sport.
So why do we do it?
Because with the frustration, infuriation, devastation, expenses, terror, and mortification comes the greatest reward.
Recently, I overheard an interesting conversation between a trainer and rider that got me thinking about this sport, my role in this sport, and why the heck I still do this sport. Because, if I were even partially sane, I would have quit a long time ago.
To fully understand where we are coming from, we need to go back to my pony days.
I am 11/12 years old. I am showing constantly. I am doing the Large Ponies and the pony equitation on my pony, Stuart Little, I am doing the Children’s hunters on a client’s horse, the Children’s Jumpers on Joker, and I am catch riding anything and everything from pony hunters to children’s jumpers. I ride all day, everyday when I am not in school. When I am in school, I am riding everyday after school for hours. On breaks I go and train with other trainers to gain perspective and experience riding other horses. I am a successful junior rider ready to break into the more competitive Junior Hunters and Modified Junior Jumpers.
I am 13/14 years old. I am barely showing. I am catch riding off-the-track thoroughbreds (still not sure how I survived some of them). I get Junior back this year. He is wild, out of control, and I am back down to cross rails. I begin working and riding at Cottonwood Farms.
I am 15/16 years old. I am back to showing consistently. I go to Spruce. I am catch riding again. Again, am again, ready to move up. This is the year I moved to Colorado. Junior has his first bout of soundness issues in the fall.
I am working as a groom and working student. I am catch riding a little bit. Junior and I are moved back down to the 1 meter jumpers. I am watching many of my friends from the California circuit, whose ponies I catch rode and schooled when we were kids, move up into the high juniors and Grand Prixes. I continue waking up at 5 am to lunge horses and clean tack and cry in a stall when I realize my horse and I are going nowhere no matter how well I groom the next horse or how many hours I put in at the barn. I end the summer season with a lame horse and a blistering sunburn.
Junior starts the year back strong in the 1.15m and I still have hope my last junior year won’t be a disaster. My trainer moves to California and I go to work with someone new. I am rarely catch riding and Junior never settles into his new home. The first week of the summer circuit we can’t get around the 1.10m. I am told it is because I am not a tough enough rider. We go on to not be able to get around the .90m. I know my horse is hurting but instead I am handed a crop and told to get him over at all cost. I pull Junior from the show when he persists to feel off and give up on my last junior year. I find myself waking up at 5 am to lunge horses from the crack of dawn into mid morning only to then go and get on my hands and knees to clean the barn’s drains after a big rain storm. As I am scrubbing these drains, physically picking mud and manure out of them with my bare hands, I think to myself , “Six years ago, I was being told I’d be in the Grand Prix ring. Now I am scrubbing drains and all I have is a lame horse and no success.” Shortly after this, Junior went to California and I went to college.
I thought my riding career was over. I thought I had lost.
I thought I would never have a chance at Young Riders or the Grand Prix ring.
My riding career went from looking like a story on the front page of Heels Down to a joke in a matter of months.
Then I got a second chance.
I rebuilt my relationship with my mom. I realized that my riding career was not a joke. I was not a joke. I was a good rider. I could not let myself believe what all those people had said. I was tough enough. Hell, I was too tough. One of my biggest faults is I often ride too defensively. I was a good enough rider. I was a good enough person. I was worth more than cleaning storm drains. I’d had a string of bad luck and some major obstacles that looked insurmountable. Luckily, I do a sport where the whole point is jumping over obstacles.
This sport has the ability to completely wreck us. It has the ability to make us feel worthless. But, it has the ability to empower us. To push us to become not only better riders, but better human beings. Setbacks are part of this sport. We participate in something that has so many external factors that are out of our control, that we cannot expect to win every single time. Horses get hurt. They max out. They get scared. They have bad days. They fight with us. They give up. We can’t. If we gave up every time we lost, no one would do this sport. We don’t participate in a sport like auto racing. Our horses are not machines that we can always rely on to take us into first place.
That is why this sport is not just about winning. You can’t do this sport for the sole purpose to win and not be disappointed. If I did this sport to win every time, I would have given up on the day I was on my hands and knees, in the mud. Hell, I would have given up when I was 13 and at Onondarka Medal Finals with Karen Healey, schooling in the Equidome on a green horse at 3:30am during a thunder storm trying desperately to not cry as I was dragged around the arena in front of all of the top equitation riders and trainers on the West Coast. But here I am at almost 19 years old. I’ve been busting my ass in this sport for nearly 14 years and I am just now starting to see it pay off. I am still not winning consistently.
Week IV of Thermal was the week that truly taught me what success looked like in this sport. It was my first week of doing the USEF Talent Search on Joker. I was riding with Hap Hansen, an idol of mine, and let me say, it was a disaster. I suppose that is dramatic but I didn’t ride anything like myself. I was timid, indecisive, and frantic. I went into the ring and I froze. I didn’t place, or even get called back for the flat phase. The picture above, is of me speaking to my mom after fighting tears of frustration. In that moment, I had lost. But then I began to walk back to the barn and I ran into Samantha, our Southern California Voltaire rep. She told me that I couldn’t expect to walk in the ring, top of the order, at 7:30 in the morning, into a solid 1.20m course, in a ring I’d never been in and expect to be perfect. She told me I needed miles. I needed confidence. This was not a loss. It was a learning experience. So, I took Joker back, found my mom, and told her I needed to do another class. If you read my post about week IV, you know that I won that next medal class. My success Week IV had nothing to do with winning the CPHA. It had everything to do with doing the CPHA. And that was the day my mom said she knew my goal of the Grand Prix ring was attainable. But not because I won, but because I didn’t lose my determination to succeed.
I have pulled thousands of rails. I have gone off course hundreds of times. I have fallen off more than I can count. I have put down more bad rounds than good. I have missed hundreds of thousands of distances. I have been trusted to get a horse sold with hundreds of thousands of dollars on the line and completely blown it more times than I care to admit. I have given horses bad habits. I have crashed, burned, and seen my life flash before my eyes. But those are not the moments we can let define us as riders. It’s getting back on, going back in the ring, going back to the basics of flatwork, it is waking up again tomorrow and trying again. Those are the moments that define the kind of riders we are. Those are the moments that define us as people.
That is what you have to have to be competitive in this sport. More unwavering determination than you know what to do with. Have so much “fire and fight” that you terrify people. That is the only way to get over the losses. We have to remember that we do this sport for the horses. We will have setbacks but if we find a supportive, positive, ethical team and never lose the determination that got us into this insane world, success is always attainable. But with that, when we achieve that winning, we must remember it is temporary. Winning is enjoyable and important to appreciate but then we must go back and reassess. Winning is not success. They are not synonymous in this sport and you are going to be disappointed if that is what you believe. We must remember to keep improving because winning will always come to an end but your team will always be there, your horses will always be there. We all have to take a step back sometimes. We have to accept the reality that we will never be perfect. We will never master this sport. The best riders in the world have disastrous classes but terrible shows. This sport is hard. It’s more than hard, it is nearly impossible. Yet, somehow, thousands of us wake up every morning and head out to the barn. We drop our stirrups. We ride all day. We work until we can’t see straight, we’re so exhausted. We do this and we still pull rails. We still fall off, and we always will.
That’s why it takes a special kind of person to do it. That’s why we are all a little crazy.
In this sport we must focus on progression not ribbons. Ribbons are temporary. It is the moment we mistake the transience of the win for permanence of the determination, that we lose.
The most important thing I have learned about showing is we must never lose the lesson no matter how many times we lose the class.
Like a very successful trainer said recently, “Winning is the icing on the cake.” Funny thing is, I enjoy the cake more than the icing.