Equestrians. We cart full water buckets down the aisle, barely spilling a drop. We chuck bales of hay up and down. We throw muck tubs and wheelbarrows around like they are nothing. We can hold ourselves on a 1,200 pound animal using a combination of aids and our own core and arm and leg muscles. We are generally a tough, physically strong group of individuals.

But, I think that the muscle we spend the least amount of time working on – and arguably one of the most important in this sport – is our brain. For me, that has always been my biggest problem – a wimpy brain turning me into a wimpy rider, mainly in the face of a horse show.

I can’t remember a horse show where I was not extremely nervous growing up. But I loved the horse show atmosphere; I loved my friends at the barn, my trainer, my barn family, the competitiveness, the horses I was showing, the idea of showing.  But I’d get in the ring, and crumple. Especially when I used to show in the showmanship classes, my lack of confidence would become immediately apparent in a discipline where exuding confidence is paramount. But I’d always trot down the ramp, go into the ring and exit with some type of show-ring amnesia. What had just happened? Where were all the skills I knew how to do? Where was the equestrian I knew I was? Not in that show ring, that’s for sure. It resulted in a lot of mediocre results and frustration on my end – not because I wasn’t winning, but because I knew I could be riding better.

When I was in undergrad, my freshman year we had a Skype clinic with Daniel Stewart.  I think this was the first time I realized that I was the biggest thing standing in my way. I needed to work on myself.  I stocked up on sports psychology books, I came up with my own acronym, made a playlist of pump-up songs, plastered my dorm walls with inspirational quotes. I am *incredibly* superstitious, and developed a whole routine before and during shows.

And I still loved the show atmosphere. I loved traveling with my team. Still loved the horses, my trainer, the barn family, etc., etc. But the confidence was still lacking at times. I would make little mistakes and those little mistakes felt like the end of the world; and inevitably those little mistakes would snowball into giant mistakes.

Not always – sometimes those techniques I’d read about and tried paid off. But more often than not, I was still trying to remind myself to even breathe walking into the show pen.

When I started showing my own horse on the local jumper circuit, the pressure, the nervousness was different. Now I wasn’t representing my team, just myself and my horse. In some ways, this was better. If I messed up, it wasn’t a reflection of the amazing athletes on the team. But in some ways it was worse. Now, it was a direct reflection on me, my trainer, and most importantly my horse. I never wanted to make my horse look bad. I felt like I needed to be *perfect* and give her the *perfect* ride and anything less than *perfect* was absolutely earth-shattering.

And I became petrified in the show ring.

I still loved showing, and being at shows, and my trainer, and my horse, and the people at the shows. But in the show ring, my mind would get wiped absolutely blank. Half the time, my trainer had to call out my course to me as I was cantering around.  I would get so nauseous, so worked up before we went in the ring there were several times I didn’t think I would make it around.

I had total trust in my mare; but I didn’t trust myself. I believed that she was good enough; but I didn’t have that same belief in myself. If there was something that could possibly go wrong, that thought crossed my mind about 10 times a minute. I awful-ized and dwelled on everything that could go wrong. Every course.

Of course, they didn’t, 99% of the time. But those 60 seconds in the ring that were supposed to be fun…let’s just say most of my pictures from that summer look like I am about to 1. Cry, 2. vomit, or 3. pass out. I look miserable.

Going to burst into tear or vomit? You decide.
Photo by J. Winslow Photography

We did well that summer (I attribute that to my amazing mare and her willingness to save my sorry behind whenever I stopped thinking in the ring), but I was still standing in my own way, and showing – while part of me loved it and wanted to do more; part of me dreaded it and I hated that part. I wanted to love it whole-heartedly. I wanted to have as much fun in the ring as I did outside of the ring. I wanted to not feel paralyzed every time I had to memorize a jump course.

After we moved to Indiana for vet school, we had a hiatus from showing between illness and injury and finally settling at the right barn and coming back from aforementioned illness and injury.

We started taking lessons at this barn, and I honestly can’t tell you what switched. Maybe after a year of illness and injury the pressure felt less and I was content to enjoy my horse. Maybe the pressure of perfectionism in vet school has left me with less energy to be perfect everywhere else in my life.

More likely, I have gotten yelled at enough over the last year – by not just my Trainer but several other clinicians that she has had in – to let go and stop trying to make everything perfect. We were working on progress, not perfection. I didn’t have to be perfect. My horse didn’t have to be perfect. We could improve, imperfectly.

When I learned to let go, my riding got better. My horse got better. Her jumping (which was athletic and scrappy and she was clever to start with), has gotten better. Her flat work – which we both kind of hated and found very boring, has gotten *eons* better. And it’s been a cycle. Break old habits of perfectionism and nit-picking and hanging on and viewing every mistake as the end of the world and focusing only on what went wrong.

Replacing it with letting go and learning from mistakes and looking at what went right and how to improve the areas that didn’t go as planned.

I think in stepping away and re-building our base, I was able to find my confidence there at the bottom of the barrel. But this time, as we moved back up to where we were – and then surpassed our previous bar in a lot of ways – I was able to keep my confidence with me.

When I look at videos over the last year, the change is astonishing, and each one is a little better than the last, consistently.  It didn’t happen overnight – but if I were to watch a video from today compared to one from a year ago, the difference would be absolutely night and day – in my posture, my horse’s gaits, both our form, rhythm, relaxation.

Trainer finally convinced us at the beginning of the summer to go schooling with a few of the girls – show jump and cross-country.

Once again, I loved the atmosphere, the horses, the people I was with, my trainer. And when I went in for my first show jump round, that same feeling set in about halfway through my course. I finished the first round, barnmates cheering loudly outside the ring, and meanwhile I was doing everything in my power to not upchuck off the side of my mare as we trotted out of  the arena.

I came out of the ring, pointing out every mistake. Trainer said something that changed my perspective in a literal instant. She told me that I needed to give myself a little more credit. I had a nice horse, I was a nice rider, we put in a nice round – and she’d think that even if she wasn’t my trainer.

I don’t know why her words finally sunk in then, but they did. We went back in for another show jump round and then had the most lovely afternoon schooling cross-country – something that would’ve had me pulling and thinking backwards and nervous before.

We won at our first ever event at the end of the summer, with just the one schooling under our belt and Trainer not having seen our dressage test until the night before the show. All things that would have petrified me before.

We packed up and went across the country and showed in a National and World Championship show – something that would have had me frozen with nerves a year ago, and not once was that fear and anxiety present like it used to be. This time, I remembered all my courses and jump-offs with ease. This time, I was pushing my horse for more speed instead of holding her back. This time, the mistakes I made (and there were a few biggies) didn’t consume me. This time, when we met success, I felt like we’d found it together – and I wasn’t just relying on my horse to get us around.

Most recently, we competed at Hagyard Midsouth Team Challenge – after a mere week after MGN, and with just that 1 cross-country schooling early in the summer. I had started to get nervous walking cross-country; but this time I was able to push aside the negative self-talk. This time when I got on my horse and galloped out of the start box, I was able to keep thinking and keep riding and keep making decisions. This time, we both had a blast.

Over the last year and a half, my riding has been completely flipped on its end – and with it, my mindset about my riding, my goals, the journey I am on with my mare.

I don’t need every ride to be perfect. I am allowing myself to make mistakes, learn from them, and move on without them shattering my world. I have learned to relax (some. Still working on that). I’ve learned that what I put into improving my mare, improves my own equitation and riding.

I’ve learned to stop selling myself short.

I’ve learned to have a little more faith in myself.

I’ve learned to believe in my mare and I as a team, more than I ever have before.

And sure – all the superstitions, all the sports psychology books, all the inspirational quotes – I’m sure they helped.

But the biggest thing I can attribute the change to is having a Trainer who found a way to not only push us, but to also pull the brake. To stop and address some underlying issues before letting us move on again. To slow us both down, which has actually allowed us to improve faster. To encourage us to lesson with other clinicians, to gain more perspectives, to continue our education in as many ways as possible. Who only told me about a million times to let go, relax, and to stop pulling before it was ingrained in my subconscious.

She is quick to demand precision, improvement, and effort – but we have discussions about exercises, what is working, what isn’t; and her praise is just as numerous as her constructive criticism. She has had this inherent belief in us; and she has slowly pulled us along until I shared her viewpoint. She has given me the fun back in horse showing, and helped my strengthen my riding – both from a physical and mental standpoint.

I’ve got a long way to go, but I am looking forward to becoming the most fit athlete I can – including my brain.