When I was a teenager, I had the hardest competition years of my life. By “hardest” I don’t mean exhausting or high-pressure, but because they taught me some of the biggest, and most difficult, lessons about equestrian sports. I was attending high school in addition to working every night and free weekend as a working student and training/competing two horses for a spot on Young Rider teams — one in dressage and the other in eventing — and those days taught me two very important things:
Lesson #1: Focus on the positive and you will succeed.
The hardest weekends were those where I woke up at 3 a.m. and drove 4+ hours with my eventing horse, Sampson, to an event. Though he was an honest horse, Totilas he was not. Our day usually began with a horrible dressage test — no thanks to the fact that he was an OTQH with the body of a tank and mind of a sports car, who was retired from racing because he “got too distracted by the spectators.” Despite his lack of natural ability in the dressage ring, he taught me that it is possible to ride through. The moment I forgot about my fifteenth-place dressage score, I could support my horse through his stronger phases of the competition and we regularly moved up as high as second or third place. I began to not only accept his weaknesses, but focus on improving them. Sampson, with his horrible dressage tests, forced me to spend extra time training him on the flat–to relax, accept the leg and bit without racing off … my first true lessons in training the basics of dressage.
Lesson #2: Someone will have a better horse.
Notice how I said second place, not first, when I talked about how well I could place with my eventing horse. Back in those days, there was a horse and rider combination that always competed with us. They were always in the lead after dressage and always jumped clear. Riding around the dressage warm-up on my horse’s sewing machine trot, seeing that rider’s smiling face and her gorgeous gray horse made me think horrible thoughts. I was a teenager with little experience in the competition ring and I was convinced that this pair was the only thing standing between me and the Olympics. If only she would go away, I would be overwhelmed with blue ribbons and success. Until one day, I learned that was not what I wanted at all. Because at one particular show she was forced to scratch because her horse came up lame. I was convinced it was my chance to take the lead, until I learned the show was oversubscribed and I had been placed in the Open Training division with 31 professionals. Instead of worrying about one unbeatable pair, I had 31! At that point, I gave up on my chances of winning and just made a goal of getting through my dressage test and surviving very hard cross-country and stadium courses. Survive I did and when I was the only one to jump double clear, I won the class.
After years of working as hard as I could with my horse, I learned a lesson that has carried me through my years of competition: someone will always have a better horse, but they will push you to give 110% and ride your horse to the best of his ability. Those unstoppable pairs will make you unstoppable. After that year, that rider gave up riding but other talented people replaced her–some were in the competition ring, while others were in my college classes or other areas of my life. Regardless, it taught me that sometimes the better horses help you focus on developing your strengths and weaknesses in order to succeed.