BY KRISTEN FRANZ
As you stand at the in gate, ready to ride through each technicality of the course, your mind focuses on the challenges that lay ahead. Every other person, thought, and worry is put aside and your mind is centered on the horse beneath you and the ride in front of you.
This sport may focus on the twelve obstacles standing between you and a victory, but behind the barn doors there are many more obstacles a rider faces leading up to that very moment. Aside from the physical demand of the sport, each rider combats grueling battles everyday, whether that is in mental preparation, rebounding from a loss, or understanding goals, it is important to step back and ask ourselves, “What keeps us going?”
The Mental Game
I cannot recall a time where a rider, in any event, has walked out of the ring with a blue ribbon and said, “That was easy.” Regardless of what outsiders of the sport believe, anyone who has ever truly ridden a horse can say that it is far from easy. Endless hours are dedicated to working, training, and conditioning the horse and rider, prior to a competition. So, what really separates the good from the great? The truth: it’s all in your head.
This sport, like any other, primarily revolves around the rider’s mental game and the ability to, not only overcome the nerves and the pressure, but to be able to make split second decisions while on course. Each rider has approximately three minutes in the ring. There is a lot to prove and a lot to lose during those 120 seconds, and that can easily get into a rider’s head. As a mentor once said, “Your biggest competition is yourself.” Getting past that mental barricade is one of the toughest battles that riders face, however, the key to a successful round is a positive attitude. This ability to ride with confidence is truly what separates first place from second.
There is something about the bond created in a horse and rider that is not paralleled in any other relationship. The silence of a horse is worth more than a thousand words and their sensitive nature invokes a feeling few truly understand. Your horse is your teammate, your confidant, and, most importantly, your best friend.
Unfortunately, for most of us, this delicate bond can be broken apart by business or injury, and that heart-wrenching process leaves a lasting impact on the rider’s heart. Whether the lesson pony you’ve been learning on is retiring or the green OTTB you were training just sold, dealing with the separation is never an easy obstacle to overcome. In an even worse scenario, hearing the news that your equine partner has passed feels almost like the death of a close relative.
Speaking from experience in all three of these cases, moving on is a long and difficult process. As much as I wish there was a way to overcome loss quickly, wrestling with the sadness makes us much more aware of how remarkable these divine animals are, and how fortunate we are to get the chance to experience a relationship with them. It is easy to take this sport and these animals for granted, however, through the loss, we learn to cherish every moment spent in the barn.
Many young riders dream about standing on the top of the podium, decorated in blue, showered in champagne. However, only a select few have the honor of doing just that. What we don’t realize is that all riders have one common goal in mind: to be better.
As simple as it sounds, I often hear complaints about the division a rider is competing in and how “if only I could just be doing this…” everything would be solved. So often rider’s look solely at how far they have to go in order to accomplish their dreams of being on the podium, but they always seem to forget to look back and see how far they have already come.
What many equestrians fail to understand is that there are hundreds of junior riders wishing that they could be in their very position, whether that is jumping the Grand Prix or just simply having the ability to ride a horse. This constant battle to jump higher, compete more, or simply to be better, weighs down rider’s who dream of so much more. It is crucial to remember that no matter how far you are from the finish line, there is always someone behind you wishing they were in your position.
From being a pleasure rider to being a professional, there are certain challenges equestrians face that make it difficult to understand why any of us are still in the saddle. The hardships of overcoming doubt is a constant challenge for all riders, but those who enter the ring with positive thoughts, leave the ring a more experienced rider. Those who are faced with the blockade of leaving an equine partner behind cherish each moment spent in the saddle. And those who set their standards high, look back and understand the sacrifices made to be where they are today.
These are the riders who understand the complexities of this sport but who also understand that the challenges we face are no match for the outstanding passion we have for the horses we love so dearly. The prestige of competition and the ribbons is what this sport glorifies, but, never forget the real reason why we choose to combat these battles everyday; never forget that we ride for the unexplainable feeling that can only be felt on the back of a horse.