My followers continue to inspire blog post upon blog post, and this entry is no different than the last handful I’ve written up. Today, we’re digging deep into the topic of fear and how I dealt through horrendous bouts of its unfortunate grip. I’ve touched on my history via the ‘gram, but never have I taken the time to provide a detailed account of events.
Precursor: I’ve decided to divide this post into two separate entries. Here, I’ll share the timeline in which my fear developed. In the next post, coming soon, I’ll explain how I coped with fear and the steps I took to center my riding confidence back on track.
Let’s get started.
As a kiddo and young teenager, we don’t necessarily have full comprehension of self-limitations. Opinionated ponies are usually the norm when learning how to ride. Raise your hand if you have a few pony-bucks under your belt! Fear certainly wasn’t in my vernacular; I’d ride anything I was handed from pony-camp mounts to lesson horses and schoolmasters. Timidity was nowhere to be found, nor did I ever think I’d be afraid of the one activity that provided such bliss.
I knew (and know) the risks of what equestrianism entailed. In an instant, our lives could change for the worse. Injury is a part of the sport… It’s not a matter of if, but when. I’d fallen off multiple times; my mom always jokes that only good riders fall, but I had never experienced an event that would change the way I felt about my passion.
Not yet, anyway.
Cue the summer of 2012: The discussion of welcoming a new horse to our family arrived on the table. The sweltering Texas summer was becoming more than the schoolmaster (I was currently showing) could bear to handle. He was a 21 year old, Oldenburg gelding built awkwardly lanky and possessed a collected trot that would make your lower back cringe in agony. My trainer had carefully scouted him from a friend, letting me take the reins to earn my USDF Bronze Medal. I did, and qualified for Third Level JR/YR Championships that year with Clovis. Clovis was a Godsend, teaching me the ropes of more advanced movements after 7+ years at Training and First Level. I’m beyond grateful for everything that horse gave me, instilling valuable knowledge that has transcended into my partnership with Leah. I'm also grateful for Eva, my trainer, who provided this fantastic learning opportunity.
Clovis wouldn’t be able to withstand our climate for the remainder of the summer months, and the decision to find his new home was settled. He made the move to New York State and has gone on to flourish in cooler temperatures.
Soon after Clovis made his departure for New York, the search for my next horse intensified. I knew I didn’t want anything young – I wasn’t prepared to handle a task of that nature. Plus, our Trakehner mare, Hailey, owned by my parents at the time, was in foal to a French Kiss colt. This would be my future horse, the one I developed myself. At the time, I had other goals on my checklist, first and foremost, making the Region 9 Young Rider Team for the North American Junior Young Rider Championships. Eva and I flew to California after a disappointing buying trip to New Hampshire… The mare I fell in-love with via YouTube turned out to be quite unsound once we got into the nitty-gritty of a Pre Purchase Exam, long story short. However, much to our pleasant surprise, luck would be on our side during that July weekend in SoCal.
The rich bay coat of a striking gelding they called Sammy caught my eye underneath the rays of California sun. It was 9:30AM, and we had just arrived to the sales barn in which I would begin my trial and error sessions for the day. Sammy was the first horse in my lineup. He stood about 16.2 hands high, oozing Hanoverian elegance at age 16… Or was he 14? He was a teenager, I remember that much. A schoolmaster persona, Sammy had successfully shown through I-1 on the West Coast circuit, even competing in the FEI JR divisions with a talented young rider. The gelding fit all of my criteria. Our first ride went well, he was mild mannered yet much more sensitive to my aids than anything I had ever ridden prior. I casually mentioned to Eva that he resembled a Ferrari, zippy and sharp and spicy. It was a refreshing breath of air coming from a horse that took every ounce of physical energy to maneuver around a 6-minute test. We ran through all the movements needed for the YR PSG test with ease; he was uncomplicated and straightforward. Naturally, I was smitten, and after two days of getting to know him, we were lining up another PPE.
Trying horses is such a fascinating process, don’t you think? You’re supposed to make this huge emotional and financial decision after basically 2 hours of knowing each other. That’s tough. How can one even do that? Did our temperaments click? The ride felt nice, but what’s he like at a show? I guess I’ll find out? Do I feel emotionally connected to him? Not yet but it’ll happen, surely?
All of these thoughts played like a movie on repeat once the plane wheels touched off California soil.
A few weeks later, the sweet gentleman from the shipping company was handing Eva the lead rope that contained a shiny, new horse at the opposite end. I gleefully sped to the barn, excited to meet my equine partner that would make all of my NAJYRC dreams come to fruition. This was the moment I had been waiting for! My planner was traced with needed competitions for qualification purposes; I was ready. What could possibly go wrong?
Famous last words.
The following afternoon, I arrived to the barn dressed to ride. Sammy stood patiently in the cross ties while I groomed, selecting the brightest of white polo wraps to protect his legs along with a matching saddle pad. Eva hopped on first, and I watched in awe as the expressive schoolmaster danced around the arena. He was so refined yet so powerful all wrapped up into a drool worthy package. Well behaved for having been on such a long trip day’s prior, I climbed aboard without hesitation. We began our first ride at home together, learning the very basics of how the gelding ticked. By this point, a few barn mates had crowded around the arena to see him go. Everything couldn’t have been going better UNTIL Eva asked me to ride across the diagonal at the canter with a flying change somewhere on the quarter line. Sure, no problem!
We made it about five strides onto the diagonal when I blinked and realized I was lying in arena sand. Honestly, I don’t even remember the true minutiae, mostly because I blacked out for a split second. Apparently Sammy had spooked and violently dropped a shoulder, bolting out from underneath me before I even knew what was about to go down. No pun intended, I was the one going down onto arena dirt!
Wiping the wet sand from my backside, Eva had remounted while I took a second to compose myself. She asked if I was alright to swing a leg over once she graciously made sure the gelding was more relaxed, and I nodded, knowing in the rearward of my mind that the worst thing I could do was choose not to. A bit shaken, I pushed through and finished our ride. I hate to say this would set the tone for the duration of our partnership, but I’d be lying if didn’t play an influential role.
Despite our serious day-one-blooper, Sammy and I went on to have success in the show ring during our first and second competitions of the fall season. With scores up to 68%, we qualified for Third Level JR/YR Championships at the Fall Alamo Dressage Association Show, then two weeks later, scored well into the 70%’s at both Third and Fourth Level at the Platinum Dressage Show.
The 2012 Platinum Dressage Show is a competition I’ll never forget. As I mentioned above, on Saturday, we pulled a 72+% in Fourth Level Test 1, followed by a 70+% in Third Level Test 3 that same day, earning the highest score for all junior riders combined. I reveled in the winnings, soaking in my pride and accomplishments for the remainder of the evening. Sunday would be another chance to earn my second Fourth Level score for my USDF Silver medal. I was feeling on top of my game. That night, our group gathered around a table to Johnny Carinos (BTW, they tore the building down and the restaurant is no longer there, which is saddening because no more Johnny C’s bread…) to celebrate the barn’s Saturday results. I can’t remember how the topic arose, but I know we gabbed about previous falls and wrecks.
“I haven’t fallen off at a show in yeeearrsssss,” I exclaimed through bites of my lasagna. “It’s totally been since Brightwood days!”
Joke. Was. On. Me.
In typical Texas fashion, Saturday at the horse show was brutally hot and muggy. The humidity resembled soup, heavily floating around the steaming competition grounds. On Sunday? An unpredicted cold front hit with a vengeance. We were not prepared; no blankets had been packed on the trailer and no jackets had been packed in our suitcases. My 4-1 ride was scheduled for 8:30AM in the crossfire of frigid 30mph winds.
Bound and determined to earn that final 60%, I tacked Sammy and headed off to the outdoor warm-up arena. It was bustling, horses tracking every direction. The sound of voices complaining about the severe temperature drop riddled the rail. Nerves seeped into my body, running rampant with growing anxiety. My chest burned. There was no way this was going to end well, how could it? Sure, I had faith in handling more chaotic scenarios, but I didn’t know this gelding enough to feel secure in my abilities. I was unaware of his personality quirks when more stressful situations came about... The high was I running on the day prior was suddenly gone without a trace.
Eva snapped me out of my self-induced panic, offering to ride Sammy first to evaluate the waters. I quickly handed her the snaffle rein, taking a step back to organize my thoughts. 15 minutes passed, and Sammy seemed fine from the ground. Eva mentioned he was a bit tight in the back, instructing to ride long and low for several more minutes before picking up my reins. Obliging, I swung my leg over my saddle and headed off into the crowded arena.
We didn’t even make it all the way around the outside track before Sammy spooked and dropped his shoulder to the left. I was able to stay seated, shifting my weight back into the center of gravity. Swiftly, I began to shorten by reins, but I was a day late and a dollar short. I couldn’t save the inevitable from happening. Sammy’s neck and head went down and my own personal rodeo started, except, I didn’t last 8 seconds. He bucked like a Mustang bronc’, I went flying.
No words escaped my mouth as I hit the cold ground, but boy, the expletives were flying in my thoughts. My left hip made contact first, followed by my head and neck. I blacked out yet again, suffering from a concussion and whiplash all down my spine. THANK GOODNESS FOR MY HELMET, or else I can’t imagine where I would be now. As I lay in the middle of the arena, all I could hear were the frenzy of various “loose horse” chants. My mom is the real MVP; she caught Sammy at the in-gate before he had the chance to galavant around the Great Southwest Equestrian Center. EMS gathered around my bruised body, offering a hand to help me to my feet.
Because I felt a bit disoriented, I did not get back on. Instead, I was escorted back to my stall via golf cart, limping to the front seat of my mom's car where the waterworks commenced.
The one noun I had hoped never to touch into was suddenly consuming me from the inside out. For weeks after this competition, I struggled to gain the incentive to even walk Sammy on a twenty-meter circle. I was paralyzed with the thought of him bolting, disturbingly spooking, dropping shoulders, and hitting the ground even worse than what I had already practiced. With a qualification for Regional Championships in the bag, I knew the goal was to ride down that centerline, but doubted its probability. Somehow, I mustered up the courage to do just that, and we ended up winning the Southwest Dressage Championship for Third Level Juniors for 2012. This would be our last competition together before fear would completely override our partnership.
Sammy had my number, rightfully so. Our personalities couldn’t have been more opposing, which only made things more difficult. Days upon days, I’d try my hardest to set aside my newly developed unease, but most rides would result in watery eyes. My parents made the decision to bring him home where we could spend ample amounts of time together in effort to rebuild our partnership.
It didn’t work.
Just when I thought we had moved forward in the slightest bit, he’d bolt. Just when I thought I wasn’t afraid to ride, he’d intensely spook and buck at something stupid like a bird or chair. I began to question everything. Why was I doing this to myself? Did I even want to ride anymore? This certainly wasn’t what I had envisioned, and if moving up in my riding career meant dealing with a horse of this nature, I was out.
I began to resent Sammy. In fact, I wanted nothing to do with him. He had cast a negative spell over the one thing that brought me so much positivity and happiness. I wasn’t myself… I was depressed, afraid, angry, upset. I felt guilty, like I had done a huge disservice to my parents, my trainers, everyone who had helped me once flourish. This beautiful schoolmaster sat at my fingertips, and I couldn’t even look at him without feeling pangs of nausea. How selfish, I convinced myself. These emotions were only heightened by cyber-bullying that was pointed at me; railbirds writing openly on Facebook that I had (and I quote) no talent, no skill, no sense of reality, my parents only bought me horses comparable in price to luxury sports cars, I had no idea what it was like to pay the bills, I was a spoiled brat, the list goes on and on.
I always thought it was funny – certain people want to see you succeed while you’re navigating the lower levels, but God help you once you make the transition to the upper levels on a higher quality horse.
Yet, these small-minded people couldn’t begin to fathom the emotions, the feelings, in which I was dealing with every minute of the day.
Finally, I broke.
One afternoon, I was tacking Sammy for our lunge session, when something scared him from the neighboring field. He charged me to escape his stall, and in the knick of time, I was able to slam the door shut, blocking his noble attempt. I stood there, my mom watching in silence from the end of the barn. Turning my head in her direction, I once again succumbed to the fear. I slid down the metal stall front, burying my face deep into my hands while tears streamed from my flushed cheeks.
It was painfully obvious to my parents… something had to give. They had watched me struggle for months on end, working tirelessly to regain trust in a partnership that continued to display nothing but deterioration. Enough was enough, and a few weeks after this breaking point, Equine Express was pulling into our driveway with an empty spot saved for the gelding. He would return to California to be sold.
* Allow me to interject that Sammy did find an INCREDIBLE home, and has gone on to blossom with a very talented junior rider! I couldn't be happier for this partnership. Everything worked out for the better in the end.
Things were beginning to collide all at once. My toxic relationship with my boyfriend at the time resembled a one-hundred pound weight falling onto my shoulders, and my stepfather had just been diagnosed with stage seven prostate cancer. I felt as if I couldn't come to the surface for air.
Failure became my new motto. As far as I was concerned, my dressage career had come to a disastrous close. Each day, I’d pass the adjacent dressage arena to our barn, letting a snide comment escape under my breath. I was done, emotionally and mentally exhausted. My NAJYRC dreams slipped away, and I couldn’t have cared any less.
That doesn’t negate the fact of how devastated I was feeling in my soul. Deep down, did I want to stop riding? No, no matter how many times I convinced myself the opposite. However, where would I go from here? How would I ever be able to regain an ounce of courage? I was even leery to show my face around competitions or educational events. Shamefully embarrassed, the railbirds were the straw that broke the camel's back. They had won, nor did I have the strength to prove them otherwise. I slowly began to believe the rhetoric spewing from swirling gossip. Even though their statements couldn't have been further from the truth, I allowed their false, perceived thoughts to define my character.
My emotions snowballed into a huge loss of self-esteem. This was my ultimate low. Rock bottom, it was nice to meet you.
I continued to spend my time around our horses at home, grooming, cleaning stalls, feeding; partaking in all the basic care I called my daily routine. The more time I spent away from the saddle, the more I realized giving up my passion was simply not the choice I wanted to make. I had no idea where to begin, where to even search for the first piece of shattered confidence.
With encouragement and unyielding support from my parents, I would embark on a journey that would eventually restore my faith in riding, my love for dressage.
In present time, I find myself to be a different woman than the one I just showcased. The events I lived through did not break me, in fact, quite the contrary. I'm stronger, more centered, more secure, and I know what I want from my riding career. I've gone on to accomplish some of the highest goals I set for myself, such as earning my USDF Silver Medal, competing at US Dressage Finals, winning a GAIG/Regional Championship Title, riding down my first CDI centerline, and executing an FEI Intermediate I Freestyle. I'm not listing my proudest achievements to sound braggadocios, absolutely not. It's important I share them to show my followers, you, that I did not let the negative, hurtful thoughts of others, or my fear, hinder my future successes or my motivation. Shockingly so, these aspects served as fuel to excel, much to dismay.
I did it.
You can too.
In the next post, I am so looking forward to sharing my bullet points of how I overcame the darkest, most depressing time in my life. It was a long journey, no overnight results, but it led to me to where I am now. For that, I am thankful.