Last time we chatted in regards to fear, I provided a detailed background history of how its unfortunate power consumed me from the inside out. My promise was to split my experiences into two posts, the first encompassing an insight into the most hurtful, depressing part of my life, and the second being how I worked tirelessly to curb the fear.
The response I received from the first entry was purely overwhelming! I had no idea my story would resonate with so many of you, but I am so glad it did just that. Once again, you all continue to be a huge blessing in my life, always providing support, kindness and positivity. Writing my blogs for my followers has become a gargantuan honor.
Jumping right into the continuation of the last entry, I finished my anecdote with a cliffhanger tone. While the emotions of embarrassment, disappointment, failure, guilt, shame and fear became my new identifiers, my soul knew that hanging up my bridle and breeches, for good, wasn’t the route I so desired. Even though I was at a total loss as to where I would begin to even search for an inkling of confidence, I had to start somewhere.
Allow me to tell you about my somewhere.
After Sammy returned to California, I resumed to partaking in the daily barn activities, as I mentioned in the previous post. I found peace and serenity while carrying out the most basic of tasks such as stall cleaning and water-bucket filling. A weight had been lifted off my back, my shoulders. Enjoying the horses came without the pressures of performance, and our Barn-Master barn situated towards the back of our property certainly came without the bull-hockey of ignorant railbirds.
It was my personal retreat. It was positively glorious.
I never spoke much about competitive dressage during this time period, mostly because the painful sting was all too real, too new and too fresh. My mom would drop subtle-not-so-subtle hints from time to time, such as “have you thought about riding Henry today?” (Henry was my mom’s Trakehner gelding I showed prior to Clovis; he was virtually bombproof even for a Trakehner) or “let’s just look at horses online to see what’s out there.”
I’d take her words into legitimate contemplation, scouting Warmbloods For Sale and Dreamhorse nightly from the comforts of my bed.
Henry was a horse I knew like the back of my hand. He was incredibly safe, reliable, and honest. Henry also showed no promise to be an FEI mount. Bless his heart, his confirmation was wonky, and it hindered his abilities to execute more demanding, collected worked. He was the perfect lower level schoolmaster, embracing the "steady-Eddy" identifier on the daily.
• Henry was sold to the most amazing Adult Amateur in California back in 2013, and he lives in the lap of luxury. Lucky dude!
Anyway, back to my storyline. Henry would be the first stepping-stone into falling back in-love with general riding. Each afternoon after college homework had been submitted to professors, I’d meander down to the barn in my finest riding clothes. Just kidding. Riding at home meant breeches with holes in miscellaneous places, Old Navy tank tops purchased years before, and brightly colored sports-bras that peaked through the fabric of said tank tops. I wasn’t trying to impress anyone, nor did I give a dang!
My mom would assist me in tacking Henry, he had a hankering for setting back (just for fun, I’m convinced) when tied, and our barn did not come with cross-ties/a designated grooming area. Once fully assembled, we’d walk across the driveway to the arena in which my step-dad, the best dad (really) a girl could ever have, created just for my use. I wasn’t kidding when I said I have the very best parents.
Now, if you’re thinking I simply swung a leg over Henry and boldly walked off into the arena, you’re horribly mistaken… quite the contrary, actually. I’m interjecting the fact that this journey would be one of snail’s pace. There was no overnight success; there was no “instant fix.” This process was one that required daily attention, energy, and determination. Most importantly, my journey to confidence restoration required copious amounts of time.
The bottom line remained: I was afraid, and there wasn’t a single way to beat around that bush. I clung to my mom, requiring her constant companionship in the form of walking alongside of me while never leaving the 20-meter-circle. Some days, I’d feel a bit more at ease, and request her presence at the center of the basic shape. We’d walk… occasionally trot, and rarely canter. If I did ask Henry for the latter, it was for half a circle before I’d call it quits. A huge sense of accomplishment would wash over me, followed by a wave of self-criticism.
“We walked a 20-meter-circle and I wasn’t afraid! Alright! …… Really, Maddie? That’s all you can do? What a disappointment, a failure, you really are. Pathetic.”
I wish I was exaggerating, but those thoughts were the caliber in which I was patronizing myself with on the regular. In order to make any sort of progress with my quest for healing, a severe change in attitude would be necessary. There was no way in hell I would succeed if I continued to belittle my small milestones. I took steps to eliminate outside distractions from my life, deleting all my social media accounts and stayed away from situations in which opinions, thoughts and statements could potentially cause further negative influence. I continued to ride Henry each afternoon, pushing myself to take little, yet mighty, strides in the name of progression. Each day, we’d build upon the last ride, whether that was trotting on the rail or cantering down a long side, or even allowing my mom to sit ringside as opposed to stand on the centerline. Suddenly, I gave myself permission to feel accomplished as opposed to total discouragement.
This was my make it or break it moment.
One late July evening, I strolled into the living room of our home, my nose buried in my iPhone. W Farms in Chino Hills, California, had recently updated their sales page, and one horse in particular caught my eye. Overly inquisitive for my own good, I handed the phone over to my mom, suggesting she take a look at the blood bay mare whose picture sprawled across the screen.
“She’s nice,” my mom noted. I concurred.
Honestly, I had no earthly idea what I was even doing. It made no sense. I was nervous aboard Henry, a horse we had owned for years, yet a stranger of a mare caught my interest like a dry field catching flame in a Texas drought. I felt connected to this horse just by a damn photo. How crazy is that? And, the best part was a few nights later; I was booking a flight to California.
David and Alisa Wilson, owners of W Farms, graciously invited me to stay with them for an entire week. They took me under their wing after being privy to my full situation with Sammy. Naturally, I jumped at this opportunity, regardless of my fear issues. I wasn’t going to turn down a week in California, full of new people, beautiful horses and abundant learning moments. I’d also be able to meet the mare that sparked such curiosity, ride her, and test the possibility of making her part of my family.
Little did I know that this trip would change my entire life for the ultimate better.
She caught my eye from the moment I strolled down the pristine isle way of W Farms’ main barn. Her symmetrical blaze could capture anyone's attention. Intoxicated with her radiating self-confidence, I couldn’t wait to make my formal introduction. I didn’t even notice the sales horse standing next to her; he too awaiting my arrival.
The plate that adorned her leather bound halter read “Ulfilia,” which seemed so strict and proper. “We’ll definitely have to change that,” I whispered to myself. Snapping out of my thoughts, I stroked the mare’s neck softly, quietly expressing her beauty through coos. A moment I’ll never forget? As I petted her gently, she let out an enormous sigh, almost as if she was saying, “finally, my person is here.”
I instantly felt a soul connection.
I watched inquisitively as David bridled the mare. Shortly after, he handed me the reins and escorted us up to the arena. “I’m going to call her Leah,” I exclaimed during our walk. It seemed so sophisticated, so classy, yet playful and relaxed. It was perfect.
Leah stood patiently at the mounting block, allowing ample time for me to suck in a deep breath and timidly swing a leg over. I gently sunk my weight down into the saddle, quickly shortening my reins out of fear-induced habit. Leah stood as still as a statue, letting out yet another deep breath. She was good at reminding me to breathe, and still is even to this day. I applied the slightest bit of pressure in my calf, and she slowly walked forward, waiting for me to direct her as we entered the white dressage walls. I couldn’t believe how sure footed she was. Hell, she was sure of herself, no insecurities to be found.
Initially, this was not a buying trip. We decided that if something clicked, we would pursue the venture, but this “vacation” was more along the lines of a decompressing getaway. However, by the end of our first ride, I knew I would not be returning to Texas without her. Halfway through our inaugural lesson, David proudly boasted how this was a “perfect match,” and I couldn’t have agreed more. Leah was patient. She allowed me to make mistakes without becoming sensitive, irritable, or opinionated. I continued to learn her ways during the duration of my California week, even taking her off the property to a barn down the street for more exposure. She was perfectly behaved, reassuring me in all the ways I so desperately needed.
Exploring new things in California, shown here.
As my week drew to a close, I spent the final few nights in the hotel bamboozled with overwhelming emotions. I didn’t want to leave, nor did I want to leave without Leah.
We had only known each other for a few days, but I felt deep down as if she was my “heart horse.” I had not only picked her, but she had equally picked me.
Saturday morning was tough. Our lesson had finished with a soapy bath, extra sugar cubes, and tear filled cuddles. I snapped a handful of photos, cherishing the memories I created with such a special animal. Much to my happy surprise, my mom had scheduled a Pre Purchase Exam, which I was able to watch firsthand that afternoon. Come Sunday, it was time to fly back to San Antonio. When I left Leah’s stall, I mentioned that I would see her soon… This was only the beginning of our journey together.
Settling Into Our Own Routine
Two long months passed, and on an unusually chilly October dusk, I found myself unloading Leah from the trailer at our home barn. Leah endured the trek from California wonderfully, stopping first at a trainer/friend's place in Waco before finishing the trip to Boerne a few days later. She held her weight and hydration without any fluctuation, and settled instantly, promptly finding the fresh coastal my parents had placed in the corner of her heavily bedded stall.
I awakened the following morning to oak tree branches repeatedly hitting my bedroom window. Texas’ unpredictable weather had served a large helping of autumn wind at the same time in which I was planning on riding Leah for the first time at home, naturally. My stomach churned as I made my way down to the barn. Did I want to ride? Hell no! Did I know that I absolutely needed to in order to move forward in my confidence renewal process? Definitely. Through shaky hands, I saddled Leah and headed to the arena, my mom in tow, of course. The wind howled, blowing red sand in every direction. This totally wasn’t my smartest choice, but rather something I just needed to do.
Leah couldn’t have been calmer. You could say I was shocked, but that would be a severe understatement. Her focus remained purely on my nervous-self, flicking ears as I gabbed on and on about how good of a girl she was. While our ride didn’t last long on that blustery morning, it set the tone for our partnership. We would go on to form a bond based upon raw trust, with riding coming last in forms of its foundation.
Having Leah at home with me was the best decision I could have ever, ever made. This provided ample opportunities to learn her personality traits and appreciate her slightest quirks. Each morning, she’d greet me with a nicker, followed by a gloriously loud kick to the side of her stall, alerting me that she was ready for her breakfast. God bless. With the exception of my mom or stepdad, I was the one feeding her, cleaning her stall, turning her out and bringing her in, refreshing her water buckets and blanketing during the winter months. Never did I pass up a chance to spend some quiet time reveling in her presence, whether that was hanging in her stall/connecting run, or grooming, or taking her out of the barn for a graze. The more these moments occurred, the more we began to respect each other.
Respect with your horse is earned, not automatically given. I find this to be true especially with mares. Once you’ve earned their respect, you’ve earned the right to know their heart.
Curbing the Fear During this time period, I let go of competition ambitions and the subliminal pressures it cast upon my budding partnership with L. North American Junior Young Rider Championships became a distant memory, accepting the fact that this one show would not define my status as a dressage rider, nor impact my future endeavors. I was not in any shape of rush when it came to dancing down centerline in front of a judge and scribe. No timeline, no problem. My absence of social media helped tremendously, and really allowed for a clear mind without the opinions of others. Just like I had previously done with Henry, I continued to celebrate the small improvements during each ride with Leah. One day, we would canter a 20-meter-circle; the next, we’d do it again, adding a long side on a whim. I built upon each session, well aware of the underlying goal: if I wanted to get back into the show ring one day, I’d have to fight for perseverance. This journey was centered around myself and on Leah, no one else. No trainer to lean on for guidance, just my mom who always served as my main support.
My mom always reminded me that if I wanted something badly enough, I'd find ways to make it come to fruition. To this day, those are my words to live by, and a statement I find so important to share with you all.
The journey to where I am now is something that took time, as I mentioned above. NO ONE can tell you how to overcome fear, not even me within this blog post. I can only share with you my experiences and let you arrive at a system that suits your needs. This wasn’t an overnight process, far from it actually. I moved at my own pace, building upon each ride every time I’d slide my foot into the stirrup. Being comfortable in the saddle took years and years, and that’s not to say I still don’t get nervous in present day. The difference is that I trust my mare wholeheartedly. I know her like the palm of my hand, and I credit this on account of not rushing into competing or rigorous training right off the bat. My logic? If I didn’t understand her ways 100% at home, I would never be confident with myself in handling her at a busy show. Plus, for me, showing is the cherry on top of a sundae, and not something to call a base for a horse/rider partnership.
As for the railbirds that said I had no talent or skill…? Well, I’m not tooting my own horn or anything, but I proved those suckers wrong. Candid moment: the first time I competed Leah in San Antonio (circa 2016); I had a total meltdown right before my test. This setting was a breeding ground for those who had once spoken ill of me, and my insecurities engulfed my developing confidence. Did I let this stop me, regardless of my puffy cheeks and tear filled eyes? You bet I didn’t. I pulled myself up by my bootstraps and trotted down that centerline. We didn’t score the best, but I didn’t care! This was the HUGE breakthrough I needed, not only for my peace of mind, but also for my horse who deserved my resilience.
In 2017, we earned our USDF Silver Medal under fantastic guidance of my trainers, Eva and Joshua, and not only did we earn the medal, we did it under FEI Judges at the Katy CDI competition. We won the AA Intermediate I Southwest Dressage Championships Gold Medal at regionals, and also took home champion for the AA GAIG/Region 9 USDF Intermediate I Championship a few days later, earning us a spot for 2017 US Dressage Finals. We declined, due to Hurricane Harvey damage on our home, but this fueled our motivation for 2018. Last year, we learned more about our partnership than ever before, celebrating some serious highs and appreciating the serious lows. Leah and I competed in our first CDI with PROFRESSIONALS due to an age misunderstanding for AA classes, we made our I-1 Freestyle debut, and we qualified for regionals earning another invitation for US Finals for our said freestyle.
A dream come true served as the pinnacle: competing in the Alltech Arena at the Finals last November. We fed off of each other’s nerves, but by God, we did it. I cried through cold-ridden gasps after our final salute, because this competition was more than just another test score. Finals were an accumulation of our journey together through the tears, the doubt, the struggles, and most notably, the fear. If you had told me in 2013 that I would be competing at the largest stage for an AA rider, I would have laughed in your face… politely, of course, but still.
How’s that for rising above the naysayers?
Let me reiterate that I am not sharing my accomplishments to sound braggadocios, but to show my followers that they are capable of achieving great things if you set your mind to doing so. You are solely responsible for your own path to success. When it comes to fear, we have two options: succumb to its power and allow it to destroy our biggest passions, or make it our b*tch. If I can go from barely trotting a 20-meter-circle to being in the 60%’s at US Dressage Finals for an FEI level test, you too can overcome the grasp of fear.
If you or anyone you might know is currently struggling with fear based insecurities, please don’t hesitate to reach out. This is a topic I am so passionate about, and I feel as if more riders struggle with fear than we know. It shouldn’t be a subject of taboo, but rather a conversation starter to help others not feel so alone in their emotions. I am here for you, I support you.
I’ll finish this post on a sentimentally proud note. My encounter with fear has transcended into the type of woman, and equestrian, I am today. It taught me about the necessity of humility, kindness, and patience. I strive to be a positive force within our world because I know what it feels like to be drained with negativity. Although at the time I felt so very weak, I am now stronger than ever before. Nothing stands in the way of my path I share with Leah. I love her more than words could ever describe. She is the true reason in which my confidence returned. Her patience, her kindness, her willingness, and her grace soothe my anxieties time and time again. That mare is my rock; I rely on her like she relies on me. We are a true partnership, one that will never be replaced. I owe her the absolute world.
Thank you, Leah. Here’s looking at you.