Staying in the Saddle Against All Odds

Photo © ES EQUINE PHOTOGRAPHY || EVELYN SZCZEPANEK

BY ASTRID JAMES

Staying in the saddle is not always about gluing one’s seat to a finely crafted CWD or Voltaire—it’s often about what it takes to keep one in it. 

As an honored mother of a rider and as a true admirer of this sport, my job has been to do whatever it takes to keep my daughter riding and competing. Specifically, in her last 2-3 junior years, the costs of getting her through equitation finals have been never-ending angst. 

It’s been fear and stomach aches and looking for solutions in places that don’t exist. Who said you can’t draw blood from a stone? Trust me, they are wrong, I’ve found ways, over and over again. 

The question I keep asking myself is—why does this all have to be so unachievable? Are these numbers real, or incredibly inflated? Who is driving these numbers? Why does it seem that in the U.S it’s astronomical, bordering on insulting? Why do people say that France and Italy and Spain and anywhere else have a more level playing field? Why, unlike many other sports, does the athlete, as talented as they might be, have to fight against those with multiple horses and a bigger bank account? 

Does talent alone even count? 

Photo © ES EQUINE PHOTOGRAPHY || EVELYN SZCZEPANEK

The struggle isn’t only about the aforementioned, but also about the god-like hold the trainer might have on the athlete. Sometimes the issue is that the athlete/rider not only has to battle all the financial conflicts and concerns as a minor, but also the worry about the trainer losing interest because the family can’t “pony up.” 

I worry the stress of being in a top program creates anxiety in riders like my daughter. That it compounds “what-if’s” that may have little to do with actual talent and ability. These athletes run through them like a mantra: What if I can’t achieve my goals, or make my lifelong dream come true? What if I don’t have a ride next month? What if in two months I won’t be able to get to finals after working so hard to qualify? What if I can’t ride?” 

I find myself asking, how does a parent guide their child through this? All while they consume social media postings of the rest of the team at Tryon, Devon, Saratoga, HITS, Thermal, etc. Why does something so beautiful as riding horses have to be so hurtful? 

Maybe that’s the fight, the journey. 

This sport builds endurance like no other. It’s trying on all counts. These athletes are Rocky Balboa’s; physical, mental, and emotional warriors. The horse, however, is the real hero; at the end of the day, the horse is what counts. After all the ribbons, and all the hoopla, keeping your horse safe, sound and happy is what this sport is about. 

I find that watching my daughter turn to her horse in the dark moments rebuilds her. He gives her the strength to keep fighting against all odds—to never quit. Maybe each rider has his or her own path. 

I’ll tell my daughter that not all paths are meant to be a straight line. Hers is a wild rodeo ride, but one that will keep her in the saddle at all costs.

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