I spent the last two weekends basking in the sun at the Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington, FL. I’ve been short-term one-quarter leasing a few horses at a training barn down the road to get more jumps under my belt, and the plan all winter was to head down to Florida in March and experience WEF in all its glory. However, as the winter closed in on me I started to have confidence issues and felt that I had no business flying in to one of the biggest horse shows in the country and riding horses that don’t belong to me in classes with people that have been doing this their whole lives.
I talked to my long-distance coach about it and we agreed that, given my propensity for beating myself up for 6 months about something that lasted thirty seconds, maybe it wasn’t the wisest idea. I was afraid that I would have a terrible round and would relive it in my head and in my dreams until it consumed me and I quit. It was settled, I would fly down to ride around and experience WEF, but showing was not in the plan.
Still, as I packed my bag I shoved my show clothes down into the bottom of my suitcase. One never knows.
I arrived on a Wednesday and immediately hopped on a horse and rode to the show. I jumped around a bit and all went fairly well. My ride was status quo, and although I wasn’t thrilled with it, there was nothing out of the ordinary to send me into an internal tailspin. Still, one of my goals during my trip to Florida was to find a horse for my husband, so that afternoon I headed to a barn near the showground to try a big gray gelding. I arrived and threw a leg over the horse, only to immediately realize that the majority of the Irish Olympic team was sitting on the rail watching. I choked. I mean, I CHOKED. I was literally willing the horse to crash me into something and put me out of my misery. At the end of my ride I climbed down and basically ran to the car.
I spent that entire evening lying awake berating myself for sucking so badly. I relived the entire day in my head, and really tried to dissect my performance. It came to me then, in the middle of the night: I need to do less. My instincts are pretty accurate, but my maniacal, mechanical, oh-shit-there’s-a-jump! technique entirely negates any natural ability that I might have. I’m sure this is something I’ve been told by several different trainers several different times, but apparently this was one of those riding lessons that I needed to figure out for myself.
I spent the next three days fighting the overwhelming urge to turn the corner, increase my pace, and then pull until I saw the perfect distance. It took a couple of days, 3 rounds in the show ring, and 5 more trials before I felt like I had really figured it out. I went home and spent five days trying to remember the feeling of doing nothing, and when I returned to the show the next weekend I was like a different rider. It felt great.
Fast forward two weeks.
The ground at home has thawed and after the longest, most treacherous winter in Courtney history, I can finally ride my boys again. I moved all the jumps around in my arena, walked the lines, set up some combinations, and jumped my horses around. Not only did my new wisdom stick and work on my own horses, but I was shocked at how much I’d learned about arranging a course, walking the lines accurately, and giving myself lots of options to practice a long approach, a bending line, a rollback, etc. For the first time since August I feel like I’ve really turned a corner in my riding education.
But still more importantly, after a winter of regularly riding and showing broke, talented, athletic horses, I was happy to be back on my own. All three went back into the ring like they’d had no time off whatsoever (except the girth was a few holes lower than usual for all of them). Even though I needed the experience of riding other horses, and I needed to jump 10,000 jumps, and I needed to go around a small course in a show environment several times, there is nothing in the world like taking the blankets off, grooming and saddling on my own, and quietly riding in the sunshine with one (or three) of my favorite souls on the planet.
I AM SO LUCKY.