Making an Equestrian Passion a Priority as an Amateur

Above photo: Michelle Durpetti and Lucca. Photo by Andrew Ryback Photography.

By Michelle Durpetti

For the vast majority of amateur riders like myself, a riding helmet isn’t the only hat that we wear. In fact, on any given day I find myself donning four or five different ‘hats’ – and I know I’m not alone.

First and foremost I am me, making my way in the world as a fiance to my other half, Collin, and a part of my incredible family; I’m a wedding planner, owning and operating my own business, Michelle Durpetti Events; I am a managing partner of my family’s Gene & Georgetti restaurants in Chicago; we as a family have a wedding and events venue in Rosemont, IL; and of course, I have the horses.

I often feel like I spend time running from one thing to the next, quickly swapping one hat for the other, and, as I sit down at the Pennsylvania National Horse Show and prepare for the Amateur-Owner 3’6” Hunters here and at the Washington International Horse Show, I realize that, when I got my acceptance to this year’s indoor horse shows, it could have been easy to turn it down and use the time to take a little breather. But that’s not me.

Michelle Durpetti and Caitlyn Shiels with Lucca at the Washington International Horse Show. Photo by Fine Art Horses.

As amateur riders, I know many of us can say, “I’m too busy. Now’s not the right time because of x, y, or z.” But when will be the right time? I’m getting married in January, and we’re opening two more restaurants next year. I don’t know exactly where I’m going to be in a year. So instead of putting off pursuing my passion amidst the craziness that is life, I’ve found a way to make my passion a priority and to let it positively impact my careers, my relationships, and all facets of my life.

Make Every Moment Count

Two of the most prominent lessons that I’ve learned as I’ve gone through the past few years of horse showing are 1) be prepared for not a lot of sleep and 2) you have to make every moment count. The second one has been huge for me, as I strive to utilize as much of each day as I can.

Michelle Durpetti at work as owner of Michelle Durpetti Events. Photo by Collin Pierson Photography.

My horses are kept with trainer and rider Caitlyn Shiels at Canterbury Farm – 52 miles from my house. I strategically schedule the majority of my conference calls for that time spent in the car, but then, when I get to the barn, my phone goes in the tack trunk and remains untouched until I’m ready to leave. Because for me, making every moment count isn’t just about fitting in as much as you can, it’s about enjoying the moment that you’re in and trying your best to focus solely on the task at hand.

I know they say, “Man plans; God laughs,” but I try my best to plan and schedule out my days to both maximize what I’m able to get done and to set boundaries as to what I am doing when. Caitlyn knows Wednesdays are never a good day for me to ride because I’m in the office. But my teams at work know, Thursday through Saturday, if I’m not working a wedding, those are my barn days.

For me, riding is the greatest therapy because it really drives home the idea that I can only focus on one thing at a time. I’m a multi-tasker by nature, and riding really forces me to just be in the moment with my horses.

Set Small Objectives and Work Toward Big Goals

I’ve found another important component of making every moment count is being very intentional and goal-oriented with how I spend my time.

My dad has been a multi-tasker and goal-setter my whole life, and he taught me to set a goal, work to achieve it, and then springboard off of it to a bigger goal. I’ve always used goal-setting at work, and I transferred the same approach to my riding as well. I break down my goals and take things one step at a time toward a larger objective.

Michelle Durpetti and fiance Collin Pierson. Photo by Andrew Ryback Photography.

I continually struggle with my confidence and with anxiety when I ride, so when I started back toward where I am today – competing in the 3’6” Amateur-Owner Hunters – I didn’t overwhelm myself with “I’m never going to make it in the 3’6” ring!” Instead, I focused on “Today, I’m riding in this three-foot class, and my goal is to do well here and now.”

Even little, seemingly insignificant things are goals that I set for myself. Caitlyn will get on a horse to flat, and she’ll trot for 25 minutes and not even be winded. She’s a machine. At one point, I started thinking, “That needs to be a goal to help my fitness.” I’m a little older; I’m not a size four, and I could use that work. So I started timing myself, and I eventually got up to 25 minutes like her. Those really small goals all help toward my bigger ones.

One of those bigger goals these past few years has been competing at indoors, and what I like most about these horse shows is where they fall in the year. They are able to act as our year-end finals, or, as I refer to them for the non-equestrian members of my family, as “nationals.” With indoors as a goal, I’m able to sit down in Florida at the beginning of the circuit and say, “It’s a new year, and this is the goal I want to work toward this year.” Putting that goal in place then sets up my whole year.

With that goal always in mind, I never make excuses like, “I don’t feel like going today because I’m too tired or too busy. I worked a 400 person wedding for 14 hours yesterday. I don’t want to get up and go ride.” It keeps me going, because I know I’ve set this goal, and I know Caitlyn is getting up every morning and helping me and putting in the time to keep me confident and to train me. The grooms are helping my horses be able to achieve that goal. When I know we’re all working toward this objective, and I have all of these people helping, I know I’ve got to get up, and I’ve got to show up and do my part.

Be Grateful for the Opportunity 

For the past year, that’s what I’ve done. I’ve shown up and given my best. And that’s what I’ll do again as I head into the ring at Harrisburg and at Washington.

I may or may not be breathing when I go in the ring. I’ll probably be scarfing down mints because a doctor once told me that mint could help with nausea, and let’s be honest, jumping around at indoors can be quite nausea-inducing! But I’ll give it my best, and at the end of the day, I’ll always remember to be grateful.

Michelle Durpetti and Caitlyn Shiels with Lucca. Photo by Fine Art Horses.

Being involved in this crazy, beautiful, unbelievable sport is such a privilege and one that I’ll never take for granted. And whether it’s juggling work and riding, or processing and overcoming fears and anxieties, there’s nothing that I wouldn’t do to continue the privilege of pursuing my passion.