BY JESS CLAWSON
Last week I found myself driving into the Adirondacks to the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, site of Daniel Stewart’s Equestrian Athlete Camp. With my fingers clenched on the steering wheel and mind racing with anxious thoughts. “What if I can’t do it? What if I’m an outcast no one will talk to? What if I break a bone or re-injure my shoulder and can’t ride this season?” Before I left, I “joked” with barn friends that I’d be a lot less nervous if I was just taking my horse up there to jump the whole time.
The eight hour drive gave me time to ask myself why that was, and it came down to this: I have all the faith in the world in my horse, but very little in myself when it comes to being an athlete. And the Equestrian Athlete Camp is entirely about the rider as athlete. At this camp, it doesn’t matter how nice your horse is or how big you’re jumping–all of that is irrelevant, because the horses aren’t there. It made me aware of how much of a crutch my horse, Mo, is to my confidence.
My stomach was a mess of anxiety by the time I got to the registration desk. Surrounded by fit, active (and wonderful) teenagers, I was the oldest participant in the camp by about 15 years. I was going to look like an idiot. I was sure of it.
But when I approached Daniel to say hi, my nerves started to dissolve. He is warm and sincere and his eyes lit up when he said, “We’re the grown ups so let’s set a good example for these kids.” Just that simple acknowledgement helped a lot. I felt like maybe I was there for a reason.
The camp’s structure interlaces seminars about the mental game of riding with workouts specifically designed to improve rider performance. Over the course of what is really three full days (Wednesday evening through Saturday afternoon) I took 15 pages of notes on the seminars and ran more stairs than I could have possibly believed. In my attempts to distill this experience into a relatable resource, I’ve charted out a three part series with a handful of helpful insights each day.
“I think our sport deserves this.”
The first night, sitting in a seminar room at the Olympic Training Center, we talked about why people who aren’t riders think we just “sit and steer.” But here we were–Daniel investing his time in us, and us investing our time in ourselves–to prove to ourselves that we can and should think of ourselves as athletes too.
“We have to be able to cope with challenges and setbacks as athletes,” he said, which requires resilience, balance, strength, and courage–both physical and mental effort. He focused on helping us identify those things that hold us back from being the best riders we can be and learning how to let them go.
“We can make the sport better tomorrow”
Anyone investing their time and effort and money into the sport of equestrian competition, regardless of discipline, has to care about that sport on some level. It might seem odd that a camp focused on teaching riders how to effectively exercise and improve their mental game will make the sport better for everyone else, but it will. Confident and prepared riders who understand the importance of focusing on themselves instead of what everyone else might think have a lot more capacity to be gracious to their horses and the people around them.
“No more wonder, wish, and worry”
This became a refrain over the course of the camp. Resilient riders who can focus themselves on doing their best in whatever the situation will be better at letting go of the worry about what other people are thinking, wishing their horse was fancier, and worrying about what might happen in the ring. Letting go of all of that is part of acting like an athlete, because top athletes don’t give up after making mistakes or judge themselves. They push themselves to be better.
Limiting Beliefs vs Bias to Action
Another concept that came up time and again is the idea of limiting beliefs: those stories we tell ourselves about what we can’t do and are almost always based in nothing real. Daniel helped us learn what those limiting beliefs are in ourselves, and how we can trade them out with a bias to action, or a habit of always taking an action to solve a problem. Instead of wondering whether you should take an action, just do it. To do this, he taught us about the importance of a survivor mindset and how that leads us to believing that when we have a problem, we can solve it.
Locus of Control
Our locus of control needs to be inside ourselves, not elsewhere, so that we can not only take credit for our successes but learn from our mistakes instead of blaming them on others. It’s easy to slip into a place of “I pulled the rail because someone opened an umbrella outside the ring” or “that judge has a breed bias.” If you’re riding your best and you’re satisfied with the genuine work you’ve put into the preparation, that will all matter less and less. You’re in control of you, and sometimes bad things happen or someone else tries to hinder us, but if we focus on how we can manage the situation to our best advantage instead of getting wrapped up in why it’s someone else’s fault, we can make a huge difference to our riding and our lives.
Believe it or not, all of that is from just the first night of the clinic–before the workouts, before we had to really confront our limiting beliefs, before we had to find our bias to action. Stay tuned for part two, where the rubber meets the road.
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About the Author: Jess is a professional historian and educator who lives in northwestern Virginia. They completed their undergraduate degree in English at William & Mary, and did their masters and doctoral work at the University of Florida. Jess is an event rider with a passion for thoroughbreds, and has extensive experience in community organizing around queer identities, racial marginalization, and labor.
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