Smothering the Shame: Regaining my Confidence in the Equitation Ranks

Photo by Lauren Mauldin


Since my very first taste of showing on the A-circuit as a young child, I have always envied the classic, statuesque equitation riders with their floating half-seat at the canter, floating over fences with a still leg to compliment. I marveled at their solid upper bodies over the 3’6 swedish oxers that were synonymous with the big equitation stereotype that did not move an inch toward the horse’s neck, and was in awe at their flexible heels that reached the bottom of the horse’s flank. Unknowingly, this influenced my decision to commit to the equitation the day I was ready to move up from my beloved large pony. That is exactly what I want to look like, I, a 13-year-old thought to myself as I watched with wide eyes at the in-gate. I would give anything to look that flawless over fences.

But my vision altered as I began high school, and the long road to college began. As a busy, college-bound high-school student consumed by sports and other scholastic activities, my desire to shine in the big-equitation ranks vanished just as quickly as the time I was able to spend in the saddle. I thought that I was invincible, able to juggle running practice, mock trial scrimmages, studying for hours-on-end for every test, and could fit in time to better my riding all in the same week – an impossible task.

As a result of my sudden lack of riding-time, I began to heavily compare myself to the never-ending start-list of participants in the famous big equitation classes. These were the riders that dedicated so much of their life to the sport and spent multiple days a week riding many different horses in pursuit of a blue ribbon. I berated myself that I would never fit a horse as well as they did. That I would never look as good on a horse. That I would never ride nearly as well.

I became embarrassed to compete, and would avoid watching videos of my rounds as the fear of my own capabilities was quite evident. I developed a fear of my own physical appearance, thinking that it was directly proportional to the quality of my riding. With a mere 5 feet frame and an anxious mindset, I believed I had no business competing in the highly-selective equitation.

Watching videos of myself was a challenge because I was afraid of the negative thoughts that would sporadically pop into my head regarding my appearance. I thought that someone who looked the way I did could not efficiently guide their horse around the arena, which could not have been more inaccurate. As a gym-goer and distance-athlete, I have enough endurance to tackle any workout or long run that practice throws at me. By focusing on my fitness and training, I began to realize I was more than capable enough to challenge the top riders of my region.

Photo by Lauren Mauldin

Although my riding time was scarce, each time I slipped into the saddle it felt natural, and I started to understand that I could conquer any task my trainer had set out for me that day. No matter how I looked, I realized that it would never equate to my performance as an athlete — on and off the horse. My constant comparisons were unjustified, as the riders I was competing with had double, or even triple my riding time under their belts to perfect their positions, and simply were not fair to make.

Another result of my quick withdrawal from extensive riding practice was that I quickly acquired the notion that I did not deserve to be a competitor among the other riders in my ranks. I had not put in the work with my horse like my comrades had so diligently all year long, and I feared that it showed. Why should I jump around an equitation course if I haven’t done so since last month? I know I’m just going to fail anyway, I told myself.

But what I was not taking into consideration at this time was the physical setbacks that were a consequence of other activities, asides from their time commitments. In addition to my other tribulations, I was dealing with tribularunning-related injuries, and suffered from iron-deficiency anemia, rendering me weak useless. However, being forced to step away from riding made me grateful. Grateful for the time that I got to be with my horse, the time I got to spend with my parents and trainer, and for the time, although it was limited, that I got to compete. I had and still have every right to compete with my fellow junior riders.

The last yet most significant fear that seemed to consume me every time I desired to jump around an equitation course was one of immediate failure. As a naturally anxious individual, I was (and occasionally still am) petrified to jump around a tough equitation course set at 3’3 at the horse show. I was not afraid of failing in front of a crowd of familiar individuals, but instead was anticipating that I would head to the single oxer, dramatically miss the distance, fly off my horse and hit the dirt, injuring myself terribly.

Photo courtesy of Lauren Aubert

But did this terrible idea ever come into play? Of course not. I had to learn to put more trust in my horse by giving him a supported ride to each jump, and remember that he always tries hard to make it to the other side of the jump. I had to teach myself to stop anticipating and preparing for a terrible outcome, but rather to divert all of my nervous energy into setting my horse up for a safe distance and jump. I slowly learned to loosen up and to take each moment on course in-stride, literally. I began to realize my trainer would never put me in an unsafe situation, and often knew my capabilities better then myself.

Facing physical and psychological challenges forced me to swallow my insecurities. I came out of my shell, and began to soften the nervous grip I had over myself. I began to ignore the terrible things I thought other people perceived me as. I did not bother with the fact that I would never achieve the ideal equitation body, and simply threw away my unjustified shame.

I started to focus again on the most important aspect of riding; improving my connection and communication with my horse. My time at the barn should be spent carefree, the only worry on my mind how I would give my horse the best ride possible to the extent of my abilities. As a type-A perfectionist, I had to come to terms with my degrading mental habits, realizing that I would never deem myself the perfect equitation rider.

Photo courtesy of Lauren Aubert

Working around my rigid mindset was beneficial in allowing me to correct the distorted fears that were hindering my riding performance. Now, I am aware that while I will never come within reaching distance of my impossible ideals, I can shift and bend them so I can meet them to the extent of my abilities.