An important character trait about me: I don’t like to lose. In fact, I kinda hate it. I also don’t enjoy doing things that I’m not very good at. I’m not the type of person that does very well with the motto “if at first you don’t succeed, dust yourself off and try again” (unless I’m singing the lyrics to the chorus from the little ditty “Try Again”, then I’m all about it…) When it comes to physical things (especially sports) I usually just quit if I’m not the best, or if it’s super hard. That being said, it’s very odd that I picked up a sport that I know nothing about; that I am not very “good” at; IS very hard; and has many times given me a sense of failure. The truth is, I simply love horses. I’m sure that my husband David did not know when he bought me a single “horse experience session” four years ago, that it would turn into THIS–me competing in my very first horse show. Over the past few short years, I’ve spent almost 1000 hours in the saddle and that same amount of time (and then some) in driving, mentally engaging, reading, visualizing, and physically preparing myself off the saddle.To my knowledge, I have never been scared of their massive size, nor have I felt afraid of their huge features. I love how the tenderness of their eyes melts my heart. I love how the sensitivity to their surroundings is a keen example of their intuitiveness when a rider is on their back. I love how in tune they are with the people, animals, sounds, and sights in their environment. They instinctively know how to carry you safely, and can pick up on cues simply from the rider just “thinking” what action to take next. I just love to be in their presence.
I have been in sports all my life. I was a collegiate volleyball player, with hundreds of opportunities to be in practices, games and tournaments of all sorts in front of lots of people. Up until my middle school years I was a decent pianist with multiple recitals and competitions under my belt. I’ve sung in front of crowds for weddings, funerals, and choir competitions. I’m a teacher and quite comfortable at public speaking. Yet, NEVER in my life have I done anything as hard as what I did at the horse show. It drained me physically, mentally, and emotionally. It was nerve racking and presented a new meaning to the word “fatigue” that I’ve never quite experienced. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I’m the first one in my family and social group to do anything like this, and so I have no frame of reference for what this sport really entails. I basically have no one that connects with me in this realm and had no clue what the word “dressage” even meant when I embarked on this little fun afternoon out in May of 2017. Yet, ironically, I’ve never felt alone in this journey because of the connection to my new horse community, and the unwavering support of my husband, my closest friends, and my family. And while my family and friends love me, and basically think I’m ready for the Olympics now with my super cool outfit and helmet, I haven’t been able to fully express to them the depth of difficulty this sport brings. But my horse peeps–they get it.
Harley, a 14 year old saddlebred coming out of “pasture retirement”, was my handsome and strong partner for this dressage schooling show. It was his first show as well, and we both had our nerves revved up in full force. Harley is, in general, a little bit of a Nervous Nellie. He is probably one of the most tender horses at the barn where I ride. And he is a giant cuddle bug (sometimes to a fault because he likes to use people as a scratching post and could knock you over if you allow him). All he wants to do is please and try his best. However, some of the movements in dressage are not natural to a Saddlebred who has spent most of his days grazing in a field. And while my teacher and many other amazing riders have been working with him, it’s as if we are trying to retrain his brain and teach him new habits and skills. As I mentioned earlier, I spent hours and hours and hours just to learn a few riding techniques, and I still have EONS to go. Harley is doing the same thing. He has spent many hours trying to learn this tough stuff, and can easily become frustrated and overwhelmed when asked to do these complicated and very hard movements. Yet, horses are not natural quitters. They are hard workers and love to please.
If you are unfamiliar with the term dressage allow me to simplify it for you. In non-horse-person’s terms it simply means making good circles and straight lines–basically… give or take adding in geometry, equitation, human and horse demeanor, harmony, balance, and skill. All at the same time. Like many other individual sports such as gymnastics, certain track and field events, etc. the two tests that I participated in were less than four minutes each. Each test consisted of a different pattern that I had to follow inside of an arena. Making circles and straight lines and rounded corners from certain points and distances within marked letters on the course. Thankfully, at the schooling level your teacher is allowed to call out the course for you so that your rattled brain doesn’t have to keep it memorized. This is really helpful because one of the scores that you get in a test is based on your geometry/math. (Those circles gotta be FLAWLESS!) I have some emotional trauma around this area as I was never very strong in math, and to this day I still get anxiety around math related issues. There were so many things to be concerned about on the show day. The outfit had to be pristine. For myself and for Harley. His mane, and mine (yes, I have a mane now) both had to be braided. Neither of which I know how to do but thankfully the horse community is so giving. My friend and fellow rider is a master braider and she whipped out braids like some sort of a Jedi. It’s quite overwhelming to feel like so many things have to be impeccable.
We decided to board the horses at the show location so we could have some time to get ourselves, and our horses familiar with the new diggs. The night before the show we had an evening practice. It was a disaster. Harley warmed up well, but quickly became frustrated when I began asking him to do things for me. He was in a brand new environment, in a strange arena with new sounds, sights, and smells. He was away from his home, his stallmates, and his best buds. I too was in a brand new environment and there was no way I could keep covering up my nerves. But as I mentioned, horses (and Harley is no exception) are intuitively aware of people’s emotions, and I had to keep it together. My teacher and I were hoping that once Harley got all of these jitters out of his system, he would do well on show day. So, after 5 hours at the barn I headed home hungry, exhausted, worried, and anxious. I’m sure poor Harley probably felt the same.
When I arrived home, my son Carter said the most amazing and perfect statement to me when I told him how nervous I was. I shared with him and David about our awful practice, and how Harley was a mess and wouldn’t listen to me. I too was a mess with feelings of confusion, thinking “why did I sign up for this?” and “maybe I should just forget it because WHAT WAS I THINKING?? Neither of us know what we’re doing here. Harley’s just wondering why in the world we’ve taken him away from home to do more things he doesn’t like, and I’m wondering the SAME THING!” Without hesitation Carter simply said “Mom, you’re gonna do great. You’re so good with animals.” Period. That very straightforward, yet profound statement meant so much to me. Because that’s really what it came down to in the situation that I found myself in. The minute I get stressed, my 2000 pound empath that is holding me will notice it. My energy will directly translate to him. If I freak-he will freak. Carter was right, all I had to do was be confident in myself and let him feel that confidence come through me. My mantra the entire weekend with Harley was “I’ve got you buddy, I’ve got you.” There is a tandem relationship in riding where I also have to feel like he’s got me. The minute my confidence waivers or my energy turns negative he will do the same. So I took Carter‘s advice and remembered that yes, I am good with animals! I can DO THIS!
My first test, Intro Level A, was pretty awesome if I do say so myself. We placed 5th out of nine other riders. I was ecstatic! I had no intentions of placing or getting any sort of an award. I really thought we would just do well to finish. I felt like a proud kid at the end-of-the-year field day with my pink 5th place ribbon. Our second test, Intro Level B, tells a different story. As I mentioned, Harley’s little nervous system was probably overworked. He was most likely thinking “when are you guys taking me back to my home pasture and stall to be with my crew? Can we be done already? This is stupid.” He DID NOT want to enter the arena, and my teacher, Kathleen, had to coax him. No biggie, I thought…he did this for my first test too, and we got a whopping 5th place! Once he entered the arena he seemed ready to go. We started off well. After finishing our first 20 meter circle in the middle of the arena he decided he was done. Like, legit done. I could feel him inching towards the 3 foot wide exit (which also serves as the entrance) and he was ignoring my aids. He simply walked right out. Do you know how when you ask a toddler to do something and they aren’t having it? A little temper tantrum begins, right? Well Harley started to get himself into a little temper tantrum. He was not going back into that scary space where I made him do stuff he doesn’t really want to do. I had less than five seconds to decide if I was going to quit (which was my FIRST thought), get in a battle with him (which I would most likely not win), or just be encouraging, and see if I could gain his trust back. I firmly, yet patiently and calmly, coaxed him to turn back around and willed all of my energy to him asking him to trust me. I quietly said my mantra “I’ve got you buddy…come on…I’ve got you”. And back in we went. We did finish, although to the trained eye it would’ve looked like a little bit of a joke. But, my friends and family that were there thought I was a rockstar. They don’t know the difference between an appropriate trot and a stretchy walk. They don’t really know that I’m supposed to be inches away from the railing. They most likely can’t tell the difference between a free walk and a medium walk. But, I’m pretty sure they knew I wasn’t supposed to actually LEAVE the arena. In spite of that, I felt so happy, because when I finished they cheered like I’d just won first place.
Allow me to back up a little bit. Over the past three years in preparation for this event, I actually had no idea I was “preparing” for anything until about six months ago. I just thought I was doing a new thing; enjoying some time outside in nature playing around on and learning more about a creature that I truly feel is my spirit animal. When we decided that I was going to enter into my first schooling show I had been practicing quite a bit on my teacher Kathleen’s horse. Chantilly Lace, (Lace for short) is an experienced and first place award-winning true champion dressage horse. She herself is confident (sometimes overly confident!) and knows her job in that arena. Her and I had developed a real solid relationship, and I was feeling pretty good. Kat realized that she herself needed to participate in the show, and therefore it wasn’t going to end up working out for Lace to enter the show with me. We then needed to start my training on a different little guy named Mowgli. He and I were doing quite well in our training, and I was getting a little bit more confidence thinking “OK I definitely can do this. If I don’t have Lace I’ve got a really good second place dude here that is going to be a great teammate with me.” Four weeks before the show Kathleen was in an accident trailering Mowgli to the barn. Her truck was totaled, and the trailer was damaged. To us animal lovers, more sad than that was the fact that Mowgli was slightly injured in the accident. Kathleen also struggled from a severely sprained wrist and elbow. And of course they both had a decent amount of emotional trauma. (Note: they are both doing fine now, and Mowgli is back under the saddle again!) Needless to say, riding Mowgli in the show was now not an option for me so we had to make a quick decision as a team. Do I stick with it and say let’s push onward, and go for it by riding Harley? (who by the way has zero dressage experience) Or, do I continue practicing and catch the next schooling show when I can ride Lace or Mowgli? Let’s pause here for a minute so I can also explain another one of my quirky personality traits. I am neither a good planner nor a good spontaneous person. Sooooo… I’m not exactly sure where that leaves me, but one thing I do know is when I set my mind to something it is very difficult to change it. I had already begun mentally and physically preparing so much for the show that the thought of waiting seemed to outweigh the stress and pressure of moving forward. We chose Harley. And here we are. Back to the night before the show. In that practice arena, he seemed miserable and I WAS miserable. I began second-guessing myself. “Why did I need to move forward with this? You don’t know what you’re doing Amy… This was really dumb of you. (Yes…I know–shame based self-talk. I’m working on it!) You’re stressing yourself out and this sweet animal, too.” I was losing patience with my teacher. Who is the EPITOME of kindness, gentleness and patience herself when it comes to teaching green riders like me. I was also very caught off guard by all of the other things that I had missed in mentally preparing for this event. “I’m sorry–What? You mean I have to braid his mane? I don’t know how to braid. Have you seen me? My hair is only in a messy bun or ponytail when it’s not flying all over the place. (*NOTE: Remember, Jana saved me on this one!!!!!) “Oh, I’m sorry I have to wear a belt with these pants that I borrowed from someone else? Who even owns a belt?” And “Why do I have to give this horse a bath? He’s brown. No one can see his dirt.”
Okay, back on track to show day. If your horse leaves the arena it is an immediate elimination. However, at the schooling level the judges realize that we are there just for the experience and practice. I was allowed to finish, and even though they gave me my scores I wasn’t eligible for placing. One might think that because of my “I must win and be first at everything” personality I would be very upset about getting disqualified from my second event. I was actually happier with these results than I was with my 5th place ribbon in my first test. It would be very easy for me to have gotten super frustrated and let Harley be in charge because I knew how much he was struggling. As an empath I was feeling his pain. But I knew that in order to continue training and practicing in a sport that I have now grown to love, respect, and appreciate, I had to finish. I knew I had to keep it together and be encouraging rather than give up. I knew that getting mad or pushy with Harley at that moment would only result in more frustration for us both. In the words of my friend Tyler, I needed to try easier. Not try harder. I did just that, and it worked.
A couple of weeks after my show David asked me what it would look like to just go out to the barn and ride for fun. In other words, not training or working towards something. I compared this to what it would be like for him to just go to the gym and shoot around, and never play a game; be in a league; or tournament. (That clicked!) I’ve decided that even though I don’t need to win first place, or be the best at riding, I do enjoy having goals in my life. Be it physical, spiritual, or even mental. I feel that in order to be the best version of ourselves we can never settle. There’s always something more that we can get out of life. Finding that sweet spot between winning for MYSELF, and being okay with letting go of other’s expectations of me is where I’m working. Be it on the back of a horse, or on a deeper internal level. It’s all tied together. I’m going to stay on the horse, and I’m going to cherish this new learning curve as I lean into the hard work I’m doing in becoming more of my authentic self.