Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Mental Obstacle Course of Riding

I'm a competitive person by nature, always have been, and if my parents are any indication, always will be. Growing up, I was a tri-sport athlete, an honors student, and rode 6 days a week while working off lessons at the barn. My family supported me in every way they could, but more than weekly lessons and some board was out of our budget. In every sport, I tended to find myself in more leadership roles, where I'd always encourage everyone to focus on doing their best, not to get frustrated, and to simply shake off the mistakes. Why, oh why can't we listen to our own advice??? One missed serve in volleyball and I'd start swearing, get down on myself, and totally affect the next play, and the play after... A great serve? Rally the whole team, get excited, make great saves. Needless to say I was a highly inconsistent player at best... Good days I could compete with the best of them, bad days I should have just gotten off the court. Even track, I'd find myself in my own head, worried about an old injury or about proving the coaches picked the right person to run. I was a natural athlete, but NOT a natural competitor. Finally my sophomore year of high school and varsity track (after a particularly embarrassing mistake on my part), my coach sat me down and handed me a meditation CD. He told me to get out of my head, focus on what I needed to accomplish, and bring ONLY that to the line. I lived with that CD in  my disc man for 2 years. In those two years, I set 3 school records, qualified in two events for State, won 4 different invitationals and finally was doing more than just preaching to Choir. I was preforming as well as I was practicing, and learning to let go of the external stresses.

My Zen Meditation Pose

Now to bring that over to my horses. Seems easy enough right? As someone with a limited budget, I've always had to pick and choose my show schedule. Shows were always very limited, and in that respect, a BIG deal to me.  I love to compete, love the thrill of the chase, the adrenaline rush, the whole lot of it. My problem, is that when I go to shows, I am already worried. To me, it's THIS show. There's no, well if we don't have a great run, there's always next week. If I was lucky, there was always next month. Horse not quite dragging me to the jump that day? Well I'm not going to throw away $300 because Star just wasn't feeling it today. Suck it up and kick on. Dressage was and is a constant lesson in preparation, ring time, and learning how much space you have in the sand box. Learning to manipulate those precious minutes before your test to REALLY get your horse ready for the ring. When you compete often, you learn a routine that works for you and your horse, you learn what doesn't work for your horse. 3 times in a year is hard to figure out how your horse likes to be prepared. Or so I told myself for a long time.

With this mentality, I always felt "behind" the competitors that could afford to be out competing every weekend, practicing their test in the ring, and they always seemed less affected by the environment of the show. I'd get all nervous that I wanted to make it worth the money we spent to get there, make my coaches proud of all the work I'd done, and I'd proceed to go in and panic.  I caused myself constantly to go in to the ring with a bitter taste in my mouth of being nervous, rushed, and woefully unprepared, even when this was far from the case. I was always measuring myself against the next rider. Was my horse as fancy? Should I be competing higher already? Was my jacket fancy enough? My stall set up right? WAY too many things to actually think about putting in MY horses best test to OUR ability.

How I felt doing Dressage (ok so this is one of my old students and a dear friend, but still one of my all time favorite pictures. This was actually a great jump, not that you can tell from here... haha)

To say this produced a few years of less than stellar results would be an understatement. I did one thing though in hind sight. I'd get so mad at myself about a poor dressage test, that I'd go out on cross country with a determination to go clear and fast, and move up from there. I was focused on this goal. And wouldn't you know it, I CONSISTENTLY produced clear, fast (ok often TOO fast) cross country rounds, on just about any horse I was on. This also came from a no excuses way of thinking that even on a bad day, I wasn't just going to be able to afford to retire. We were going to get through it. I rode with a determination, a clear plan, and heart. This gave me the confidence to start really thinking of myself as a cross country rider, and that again, pushed me to continue to get those results. Positive mental attitude, positive results. Negative, distracted, blaming attitude for dressage? Not so much. Stadium again, I'd blame my saddle, or my horse, or the course, or this or that. I just never came in with the same ride I'd warm up with . I'd panic and simply worry about trying to go clean, instead of riding the course.

A throw back to my first Prelim. Dressage wasn't pretty, but man did we get around cross country! We produced the only double clear round that day, and moved from 11th to 4th. 

A few years ago, I was given the opportunity to show strictly dressage, and I competed through 2nd level. I learned to over prepare my horse for the level. Showing 1st level? Your horse should be starting to think about 3rd. You should not be barely scraping through those 1st level movements. The more over prepared my horse was, and the better I learned to use the sand box, those results started to fall over in to my eventing. My training horses were fit enough to run preliminary, jumping prelim combinations, and training began to look and feel easy to them. I started producing consistent scores, while not always brilliant, at least I was no longer all over the board. I knew what my horses SHOULD feel like before I get in the ring, and was beginning to replicate my warm up in the ring, and ride the horse, not the test.

On our way to qualifying for regionals, as well as winning high point. Forgive my hunt cap. 

To me it is still a battle, every day, to not let myself compare myself, my horses, or my business to others. Some people will always have more money, more natural talent, fancier horses, and more business sense than I do. But at the end of the day, that can't matter. I have to come into the barn each day with a clear, determined plan of how to accomplish MY goals for that day, month and year. I have to bring my horses along at MY pace, not worry about being the youngest rider to go to the Olympics, or to score the lowest dressage test ever to get on Eventing Nation. Do I want to be recognized for my hard work? Who doesn't?? I was on cloud 9 the first time I saw my name in a magazine under a little headway that said Silverwood and listed me as 2nd place. I taped that on my fridge for months... But now I keep tabs on my personal accomplishments, and make myself proud. A year and a half ago, I couldn't even get ON Jag, and two weeks ago he finished his 3rd training (and only 5th recognized show ever) with only a rail to his dressage score. Will we be in a magazine for the results? No. Will I be on Eventing Nation's Got Talent? Probably not. Did I cry calling my Dad to tell him about how proud I was of my little ChinChilla?? You better believe I did.
From first ride, to first BN, to his latest Training. What a special horse he's become in a little over a year. 

 I always tell others that my goal is not to make it onto the Olympic team. No matter what I do, I can't guarantee that because in Eventing, a committee decides that. Look at Shinead Halpin and Alison Springer, arguably the best two women riders in our country right now, with top 3 placings at WORLD class events. Both passed over for the Olympic Team. What more could they have done? When I am consistently producing results, I won't be able to be ignored. If I am consistently winning, I won't be able to be ignored. I just have to focus on producing the best results I can produce, not worry about beating someone else's scores. Will there be shows that you felt you laid down a 20 test and the judge sees a 40 test? Absolutely. Come back 4 more times with that test, and judges will notice.

Always remember, we all fight our own battles. Even the most talented riders have skeletons in their closets, as do the fanciest horses.