With bated breath, I entered the ring with stilled nerves and quiet determination. The air was damp, the rain was cold, but all I was concerned with was the 1200 lbs. animal beneath me. I had trained for this moment for months, and dreamt of it for years. I thought this was the beginning of my long journey to the North American Young Rider’s Championships, but, as I was about to find out, my dream would be cut short before it barely had a chance to begin.
I am an equestrian athlete of dressage, a sport predicated on a training scale that emphasizes time, dedication, and determination. Dressage requires the horse to learn gymnastic movements performed under saddle by developing muscles and sensitivity to the rider’s cues that requires years of consistent and correct training. I first met my horse, Winnie, three years ago. Despite her lack of training, experience, and show record, I trusted my eye for talent and purchased her on the spot. After achieving success at the lower levels in our first two years of showing, a well-known trainer took me in and coached me with the intention of qualifying for the 2010 North American Young Rider’s Championships. The NAYRC is a very prestigious yearly event for riders aged 18 to 21.
It would be a huge task to reach the level of training required of the event with just under a year of preparation, but since it was my last eligible year to qualify, my coach and I decided to go for it. Though Winnie was young and relatively unproven, she picked up on everything I asked of her extremely quickly. I began to feel very optimistic about our chances as we approached the qualifying show season.
As soon as I made my way down the centre line of the ring, something seemed off. Winnie was slow to respond to my cues right from the beginning of the test, something I had never felt from her before. She had a good warm-up, and I could not think of a reason for why she seemed to be ignoring me. As the test progressed and the movements became more demanding, she started to quit altogether, slamming on the brakes whenever I began to set her up into a difficult movement. Although we made it through the whole test, it was a total disaster. We failed to perform almost all of the most important movements, and our score was an embarrassment.
After the test, I was primarily concerned with having a vet check that she had not injured herself in some way before the test. She hadn’t. I thought that it might have been a case of nerves as it was the first show of the season, but the next day, when she performed even worse, I decided to scratch the rest of the show. Not only did I have to give up on my dream of making the Young Rider’s team, but my horse was apparently broken from some mysterious cause. It was the only thing I hadn’t factored in to my chances of qualifying – my horse’s self-confidence.
That’s the thing about animals; they’re animals. In the majority of elite sports, your primary concern is your own performance. In equestrian sports, you have to factor in a living, breathing creature with a mind of its own. If something feels off for an animal, they cannot communicate with you their feelings. Sometimes, no matter how prepared you are, things go wrong. It has happened to all equestrian athletes at one point or another, and is the reason why many of us are so humble. However, with this difficult lesson, a more powerful one forms: never give up. Try harder. Get back up on the horse.
The overall theme that I am trying to convey with this story - horses have taught me to keep going back, day in & day out, no matter what horrendous shit goes down. You never quit, you just try harder. I am not afraid of hard work. That's what horses have taught me from day one, but this particular case seemed to really encapsulate that for me (we later regressed down a level, spent 6 months addressing her confidence issues, and won our last national show.. & now we have even bigger goals for the future). Anyway, I didn't want to get too carried away with it, in case someone posts here saying it's garbage and to scrap it.
I'm mostly concerned it sounds to prissy, like, oooh me and my horse didn't win a huge competition, boo hoo. But also I'm not sure if the topic of horses is really accessible to most people. Anyone have any thoughts? Much appreciated!