BY LEXI PLAISTED
I sat on a horse before I could walk on my own two feet. Horses have shaped my entire life, and yet the moment that changed my life the most occurred when my instructor told myself and the other young riders at my barn about a new interscholastic league of competition. The Interscholastic Equestrian Association (IEA) had existed for years, but when I was in fifth grade I’d finally get my chance to dabble in the IEA waters.
Eight years later, I reflect on how that moment transformed both my riding career and my personal development. IEA taught me how to trust myself. Self-reliance and confidence work hand in hand, and without my challenging, character-building, seven-year journey as a member of IEA, I would not have grasped this gift.
Cupcake, a small, friendly, wise chestnut mare, was my first draw in Future Beginner Flat. I knew Cupcake already as an amazing lesson pony from my barn, and the trust I had in her helped me have a successful class. I still remember my dad’s loud, happy cry across the Dream Park indoor when the announcer reported my second-place result (he never truly grasped the appropriate volume level for horse shows). Walking, trotting, and cantering around the ring with Cupcake to earn a red ribbon brought me the utmost happiness. I knew from that point on, I would chase that feeling of reward.
Ricky, a saintly black pony who had just left my lesson barn, was my next draw at a Valley Forge Military Academy show during my second year in Future Beginner. Again, I knew Ricky, and I trusted him. As he piloted me around the ring, I felt faith in myself which ultimately stemmed from my deep trust in him. I would never admit it to myself then, and I might not fully admit it to myself now, but at the time I felt like I lived in my sister’s shadow. As a star rider, she had accumulated more first-place ribbons in IEA than I could count, and I had not yet achieved even one. When Ricky and I’s ride earned us first place, I could hardly contain my excitement at finally winning a blue ribbon in IEA. That fall day in Valley Forge seems simple when I reflect upon it now, but the small victory propelled my self-confidence and showed me how to become more like my older sister, who rode with great self-assurance.
Tribute was a quiet, bay horse, who I only rode for ten minutes, but changed my entire mindset on riding. I rode him during my sophomore year of high school in a Varsity Intermediate Flat class. My sophomore year in IEA brought new challenges and struggles that truly tested my strength as a rider and as a student. At the prior show, I fell off in my over fences class, and my confidence suffered. And that morning, I fell off again in my over fences class. Sure, on the surface, these two over fences classes appeared insignificant and nothing to become overly worked up over, but on the inside, I truly writhed with myself over these falls.
If I think back, I can still remember the exact footing from both of those arenas where I fell. Afterwards, I cried to my mom in the car while trying to rid my helmet of the dirt. The significance of these falls were far beyond their physical impact. They made me question my skills as a rider and doubted myself as a team member. However, if my coaches have taught me anything, they have taught me the significance of getting back into the saddle.
When I put my left foot in Tribute’s stirrup later that day, I certainly did not feel one hundred percent. I believe Tribute could sense that. He held a calm and forgiving disposition, and I will never forget our journey around the arena. He gave me a sense of security, exactly the horse I needed in that moment. This time, the ribbon we received at the end of the class didn’t mean half as much as the inner peace I felt after completing the class. Tribute reminded me that in riding, and in life, it doesn’t matter how one falls; rather, it matters how one dusts off and moves forward. In this moment of truth, I grasped again the significance of trusting oneself, as that self-trust translates into every aspect in life.
Catalan was a huge, powerful chestnut horse unlike any horse I had ridden before. Looking back, I doubt my dramatic memory of his height, but for someone standing at five foot one, he surely felt ginormous. After the rough year, I wanted to redefine my experience in Varsity Intermediate Over Fences. I had drawn Catalan once before in a flat class, and he looked amazing in the schooling ring, but I worried that my skill set didn’t quite match his strong impulsion and athletic build. I tried to focus on learning, rather than placing.
My misgivings proved accurate, but I persevered through my course. Our trip may have looked far from perfect, but my definition of a ‘good course’ had changed over the years. While I certainly lacked the skills to work as the best rider for Catalan, Catalan proved the best draw for me in his teaching ways and ability to highlight potential areas for improvement. From that point forward, in practices and shows, I focused on what I could control—my equitation and strength, and most importantly, my confidence. Catalan certainly defined this transition for me and helped me focus on my strengths, rather than my weaknesses, as a rider.
Bruce was an amazing grey Thoroughbred. I drew him twice at two home IEA shows. During my junior year, I had a goal of placing in both of my classes. But a long time had passed since I came home from an IEA show with two ribbons. But Bruce helped us to a second-place ride, and I ended up tying the day for reserve high school high point rider. When I drew Bruce again in Varsity Open, I felt so grateful to ride this great horse again. As I stepped into the saddle, I felt sure of myself. Each jump came in stride, and each lead change appeared readily available. When I rode Bruce, I rode the way I always wanted to ride. He showed me that the rider I longed to be was buried deep inside of me under layers of self-doubt and ambiguity. It took years of riding for me to come to this realization, but I hold great gratitude that I came to this understanding during my last year of competing in IEA.
Each horse I drew taught me something new, but these five horses significantly impacted my journey to self-assurance. Variability and unpredictability serve as key aspects of draw-based equestrian competition, and these horses helped me embrace rather than fear the unknown in IEA.
As I look forward to the future, I have faith in my abilities and confidence in my strength of character. These life lessons that I have learned in IEA have transformed my life and will continue to do so in the future. I wish I could individually thank each horse, coach, steward, parent, and team member that has helped me along the way, and I believe the best way to do so involves continuing to have faith in myself and continuing to carry these life lessons with me as I conquer the next obstacles that lie before me. Variability will continue throughout my life, and by maintaining my self-confidence and individual strength, I will remember that in whatever my future contains, all I must do is take the reins.
Lexi Plaisted is a graduating senior at West Chester East High School in Pennsylvania. She has ridden in the interscholastic league for several years, and plans to attend George Washington University in the fall to further her academic and equestrian career.