The thing about goals in the horse world…

“A goal is an idea of the future or desired result that a person or a group of people envisions, plans and commits to achieve. People endeavor to reach goals within a finite time by setting deadlines”. -Wikipedia

The equestrian version of a goal: an idea of the future or desired result that a person envisions and commits to achieve in which said person’s horse plots to challenge.  Equestrians endeavor to reach goals within a finite time by setting deadlines their horse stretches to the absolute limits.

When I first realized my goal of Prix St. George with my homebred mare, Petite Belle, it was fall of 2016.  My goal was to ride our first FEI test by the end of winter that season.  I overshot my landing by almost a year.  Aside from being stuck in 4th level purgatory for almost a year, being patient this time wasn’t that hard.  I was excited to wear my tails for the first time on a horse that I brought up myself from the day she was born, but I was willing to be as patient as possible, because it was worth it, and I wanted to do it right.

I could not have asked for a better first try.  Our test was harmonious and respectable, but it lacked the pizzazz and correctness to compete with the big dogs in my class.  I was fine with that.  Room for improvement.

So I continued to enter more shows, expecting to improve upon each previous test, with my eyes already set upon Intermediare 1.  But no matter how hard I worked, I was stuck.  Instead of improving upon my scores, they actually lowered.  And I became frustrated with myself and frustrated with my horse – as perfect as she is.

The problem was lack of patience.  While I know better than anyone that slow and steady wins the race, I was determined to prove myself amongst the sharks in the sea called Wellington, Florida.  The pressure to prove my skills not only to my peers, but to myself was causing me to place unreachable expectations on both myself and my horse.

“Patience is not simply the ability to wait – it’s how we behave when we are waiting.” -Joyce Meyer

I could sense that my 11 year partnership with my sweet mare was being compromised.  My horse who once placed 100% trust in me no matter what, was suddenly nervous and questioning my guidance.

After our last show, frustrated with my performance, I remembered something my trainer, Susan Jaccoma always says: “You aren’t going to the olympics tomorrow.”  (Relax, she’s not implying that I can’t go to the olympics, just that there is no reason to place so much pressure)  So I had to swallow my pride and take a few steps back.  I had to access where the root of my problems were and work from there.

I don’t know how long it will take before I get back in the ring with Belle, but I am in no rush.  Where I am right now, I am learning so much more than I have going down centerline.  I am making an FEI horse, and that is no easy task (as I repeat this in my head over and over).

That’s the thing about goals in the horse world:  You have to be able to dial them down when they aren’t in line with your partner.  The relationship is like a marriage.  You can’t decide to move to China when your partner is happy in Minnesota.

Does the Perfect Trainer Exist?

I think it’s safe to say that I feel we have a serious issue revolving around trainers in our sport if you read ‘Raising the Client-Trainer Standard‘ where I discussed the expectations each side should hold each other to, or A Letter to my Former Trainer about my experience being let down.  Which raises the question: Does the ‘perfect trainer’ exist?

Well, none of us are perfect, but I believe I have found the perfect trainer for me.

So what is it about her that makes her just the right fit?

First of all, she gets me. I understand that I can be difficult. While I am very eager to learn and willing to put in the work, I also have to challenge everything I don’t understand. This is not because I don’t trust her – in fact, I think she’s quite a genius and her techniques have never failed me. But I’m a Mare, and I want everything to be my idea. So when I huff and puff because I’m frustrated and can’t make sense of something, she doesn’t take it personally.  She either finds a way to work me through it, or she finds another way to show me.

She’s way too laid back to let this get the best of her and even when dealing with the horses, if her training is challenged, she stays calm and collected, but persists. If she still isn’t getting through, she will find another solution, and always with a giggle and a smile.

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She has a way of projecting her joy of training onto horses and students alike.

Which brings me to my second point: my horses LOVE her. Because she is so tactful and patient, my horses trust her and enjoy working for her. They even enjoy my lessons with her.  I have lessoned on horses she has never ridden, but they just seem to know I am going to ride better that day.  Her voice alone has the ability to relax them if they are tense at a show, and during our lessons at home, I can sense them looking for her approval as we trot past the gazebo where she sits.

Third: her tool chest of techniques and exercises is never-ending.  There are days where I am trying to overcome a problem that I feel is monumental and will take months to fix.  Sue comes along, tells me to put their haunches here, or their shoulder there, turn here, or move my leg there and POOF!  Problem solved!

Which is why number four is no surprise:  She can turn a 4 into an 8.  I have seen her get on a horse and make it unrecognizable (literally, I have to ask who the horse is, only to find out it is a horse that I have known for years) because she brings out the best in every horse and every rider she trains.  Sure, we’ve all seen auction riders get on a horse and spin it around in a forced frame and push the biggest possible movement the horse can give for a 30 minute ride, but she takes her time.  She puts in the work and makes the results last with patient and methodical training.

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Coaching Carmen Franco at Global Dressage

Number five is most important and almost makes reasons 1-4 irrelevant:  She believes in me.

When I met Sue Jaccoma, I had decided I was the baby whisperer.  That is the niche that I had found worked for me, and I settled myself there.  I love starting babies and I’m good at it, so I had given up my big dreams of FEI and Grand Prix and Sue brought me back to my place where nothing is impossible.  A place I had allowed neigh-sayers to push me out of and a place that brings me to life.  I’m not sure she even realized it, and she may be kicking herself in the *$$ for waking the lion, but I feel like Jasmine on a flying carpet and Susan is singing “I can show you the world!”

O.K, it’s not really that romantic, but Sue has been an inspiration, mentor and friend.  When I get down on myself and I think I’m no good, in her motherly way, she will kick me in the rear for being ungrateful and remind me of how far I’ve come, the achievements I’ve made, and that following my dreams is no easy task.

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Trying to be like Sue

She has never put herself on a pedestal and tried to pretend she is perfect.  She knows who she is and is incapable of being anything but genuine and always candid about her aptitudes as well as her insecurities.  Her attitude about the trials and tribulations and the highs and lows that come with being an equestrian is always positive and forward thinking.  Tomorrow is a new day.  She’s not in this sport for anything but the love of the animal.

So, thank you, Sue Jaccoma, for being the perfect trainer for me.  Thank you for all the time and effort you have put in to molding me into the rider I am today.  Thank you for supporting me and for all the opportunities you have provided me, from showing one of your young horses, to allowing me to learn on your own prized possessions.  While you are only there for me in the Dressage Ring, you have made me an overall better horseman and rider and even my jumpers thank you!  I look forward to many years and ribbons ahead!

I’d like to give special thanks to Queca Franco for capturing all these moments that so perfectly represent Sue’s carefree personality.  The time that you have committed to the May Faire Oaks Team, capturing our highlights – and some of the lows – and tending to us at the ring when you aren’t showing and could be at home, resting, has not gone unrecognized.  We couldn’t do it without you

A Letter to my Former Trainer

I want to start by thanking you for everything you taught me.  With you, I learned more than just how to ride.  I learned horsemanship.  I learned networking.  I learned business skills from within the equestrian world.  I watched you, a successful equestrian entrepreneur, juggle clients, horses and grooms.  Your farm was a well oiled machine that spit dollars and ribbons.  I was in awe.

When I first started riding with you I felt like I had hit the jackpot.  I felt like I had an encyclopedia of equi-knowledge right at my fingertips.  I had someone in my corner with the ability to give me everything I needed to build my career.  My dream was to have a successful sales barn and you could sell ice to an eskimo.

What I didn’t realize was that you had the ability to bring me down.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to blame you for this.  I honestly think that the negativity that spews from your mouth comes from a good place.  You are instinctually a teacher and a leader.  People are drawn to you and they naturally look up to you, as I did, so it’s understandable that I believed you when you told me that neither I, or my horses, were good enough to make it in this business.

I didn’t start riding as a child, like many other professionals out there.  I started when I was 18 and right before I turned 21 I quit for 5 years.  I don’t have the mileage under my belt that most riders have, so it’s understandable that my green mistakes would put you off.

While you were focused on everything I was doing wrong, you failed to acknowledge the bigger picture.  You live in a world of polished professionals and finished horses, so I get why you would overlook the diamond in the rough.  Why waste your time and tarnish your golden reputation on such shitty horses and an inexperienced professional.  I imagine you worked long and hard to get to a place where you no longer have to invest so much in such a high risk stock.

I guess this is why you and I didn’t work out in the end.  I love the underdog.  I love the Secretariats and the Sea Biscuits.  Nobody is ever going to make a movie about the horse that was bought for half a million and won the Hunter Derby.  We see it everyday.  With every horse there are ups and downs, but that horse doesn’t have the whole world watching, waiting for it to fail.  And when it succeeds, no one really cares.

But this isn’t just about validation for me.  This is about inspiring others.  All the riders who have the drive, and the willingness to work their asses off to get the chance to swim with the sharks.  The riders who are willing to put in the time on the horse they bought for $1000 so they can steal the blue ribbon from the 6 figure horse.  The ones who groom all day long so they can come home with an hour of daylight to ride their horse after 4 hours of sleep so they can wake up again at 5am.  The ones you said weren’t good enough because they don’t know what it’s like to sit on the horse that has already won 5 championships because the only horse they have ever sat on were the ones they bought at an auction.

So, regarding your advice to give up training and work at a desk-  Thanks, but no thanks, because I don’t belong behind a desk, I belong in the saddle.  In the next few years, you may see me in the ring and I’ll make a mistake and you’ll laugh at how I should have listened when you told me to hang up my boots.  I can see you telling others how you gave me such good advice, but I didn’t listen.  That’s fine.  Keep watching.  There is going to come a day when you have to do a double take because you don’t recognize me.  You will think it’s a fluke, because we all have really good days.  But it will happen again…. and again….. and again.  Till one day, you realize, you got it wrong.  Because I will stick my neck out there for you and everyone else to slice.  I’ll jump and fall flat on my face (maybe even literally), because I realize now that every cut and every bruise, every failure and embarrassment was placed there, not for me to run from, but as a building block to my dreams.

I didn’t name my business ‘Starbound’ for nothing.

Sincerely,

The Dark Horse

Going Solo: My Gamble in the Jumper Ring

I’ve been riding as a professional for a while now, but it isn’t typical that you will find me at a horse show without a trainer  This weekend, I decided to step outside of my usual box and brave the WEF Summer series sans trainer.  This isn’t because I’ve reached a place where I feel like I no longer need help – I don’t believe that day should ever come – but because sometimes I just need to do it by myself.  Because I’m tired of paying someone to tell me to stop making the mistakes I already know I’m making.

I’ve always been the type of person who HAS to make my own mistakes in order to learn.  If someone tells me not to do something, I have to do it anyway, just to see.  This isn’t always a conscious thought.  When my father told me not to max out my credit cards, I didn’t think “I want to find out what will happen if I exceed my limit.”  It just happened.  And at 23 years of age, I had to deal with the consequences.

When a trainer tells me not to override, it’s not that I enjoy overworking and getting minimal results, but somewhere along the line, it became my instinct and it takes a lot of concentration to catch myself AND reverse habits.  A level of concentration that is hard to keep with a 3′ jump coming with no distance in sight, a voice yelling in the background “Give! Give!”, and the voices in my head telling me I’m about to F*** up royally, accompanied by visions of poles flying everywhere as I crash my horse into the jump.

Besides, there is a certain feeling that you get when you make a mistake and you dust yourself off, try it again, and succeed.  It’s called confidence.  And confidence is one of the major building blocks to becoming better at anything.  If you have confidence, it’s easier to get up after a fall.  You forgive yourself for your mistakes and you try again because you KNOW you can do better, and you won’t give up until you reach your potential.

I’ve struggled with confidence in the jumper ring.  I make mistakes that I KNOW I shouldn’t be making and I kick myself for doing so.  The fact that making those mistakes had become a subconscious ritual for me, was making me a bad rider.  I expected to fail, and hoped I would succeed.  When a jump is coming at you in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, you can’t just hold on and hope that it works out.  You have to know that you have a the correct stride and impulsion and time to make a proper correction without overdoing it.

How many of us can agree that 90% of the mistakes we make over fences come from an “Oh Shit!” state of mind?  Either you didn’t act at all because you were too afraid, or you put your hand in a hat and pulled out a solution and threw it at your horse as quick as you could without contemplating the circumstances.  Panic makes you kick and pull, confidence gives you the ability to stay steady and know that you have time to contemplate the right choice AND trust your horse to react.

So this weekend I decided to have a leap of faith.  Faith that I would ride with focus, certainty and patience.  Faith that I would not judge myself or be distracted by the judgments I presume everyone is making of me.  Most importantly, faith that I would accept the outcome and learn from my disappointments and become better as a result.

So here’s what happened:

First of all, I did not ride any worse, or any better than I would having a trainer present, but I saved about $255 (assuming a rate of $85/day, which is the average of trainers I would work with in my area).  Since I trailered in, my show fees were only $193, so I cut my expense by over half, but that’s not the important part.  That is just the icing on the cake.  The important part is that I was not thrilled with my ride on Friday, but I took all my pros and cons and used them to improve on Saturday.  I went into Saturday’s ride with more confidence than I had on Friday because I didn’t hold Friday’s ride against myself.  I knew where I needed to improve and that I was capable of improvement.

Insecurity was definitely riding on my shoulder both days.  More so on Friday, but even Saturday she put up a hard fight for the reins.  She is a beast that I have vowed to mute, but the only way I can win is to get in the ring and fight.

So the point of this blog isn’t to tell you to fire your trainer.  It’s to encourage you to bet on yourself.  What have you been dreaming about, but have been afraid to do?  What have you told yourself you can’t do?  If it’s something big, why can’t you take the steps to get there?  What’s holding you back?  Tell me why you can’t, and I’ll tell you why you can!  I dare you!

 

Raising the Client-Trainer Standard

I have often said that choosing and keeping the right trainer is like dating.  When you first start riding, you probably pick the first one you find, not knowing what to look for.  As you start to learn a little more about the sport, you begin to broaden your horizons.  It may be that your first trainer is limited as to what he or she can offer you – Maybe their own knowledge is limited, or they aren’t going to the shows you’ve discovered you would like to attend.  It is also possible that you no longer agree with their training methods.  Maybe they are too harsh, or they have one method for every horse and every rider.

So you search for someone new.  Someone who better fits your current needs.  When you find them, it’s like the honeymoon period.  They are the best!  You’ve learned so many new techniques, your confidence is up, your horse is going better.  They may even help you find a more suitable horse with whom you move up a level or even two and win even more ribbons.  Everything is fabulous.  Until it isn’t again.  Maybe you plateau, maybe they don’t show up to school you at the show because they’re too busy with ‘more important clients’, or maybe you find out they have been ripping you off.  We all know the plethora of reasons for trainer-client break-ups.  At this point, you either decide to look for a new trainer, or a new trainer finds you.

Some repeat this process multiple times over and earn the label ‘Trainer Hopper,’ a stigma that most riders want to avoid.  However, I have to ask, why should you be frowned upon for having high expectations for yourself and for your trainer?  Why shouldn’t you desire the best match?  Your trainers job is to teach you to be a better rider.  If you don’t feel you are getting that result, then you need to change something.  Otherwise, what are you paying for?

I hear trainers getting frustrated with their riders because they tell them the same thing over and over again and the client doesn’t change.  Is that how you train a horse too?  Do you dismiss everyone that doesn’t respond to your methods of communication, or is it only the ones who are paying your bills?

As a trainer, if you are exhausting every option and not getting anywhere, maybe you need to explore the idea that it might be that you aren’t a great fit for your client.  And that’s ok, not everyone is compatible forever.  Or, maybe you are just stumped on one particular problem and you need another set of eyes, with a different form of communication to come in and say pretty much what you’ve been trying to convey all along – just different – to get you over the hump.  Maybe you just need to do a little research to find an exercise to give the rider a better feel.  But don’t blame your 3 foot amateur who spends $4000 a month just to have fun for being incompetent.  Embrace the challenge and find a better solution.

I’m not saying trainers should pamper their clients and make everything sunshine and rainbows.  That irritates me just as much.  They longe the horse before the client arrives, have it groomed and ready for the rider to just insert their foot in the stirrup and have a perfect lesson where they hardly break a sweat.  If the horse puts a foot out of place, take the rider off, put the horse back on the longe, or give it a school, place rider back in saddle.  When the horse finally refuses to work for the amateur after being yanked and poked and constantly asked impossible questions, he gets sold and a fresh ride takes his place.  The cycle continues and the only thing that changes is the horse and the number in the trainers bank account after all the commissions.  How about you teach the rider how to ride?  If they want to just sit there, give them directions to the local fair and have them ride the merry-go-round.  An equestrian who doesn’t want to learn their craft is the equivalent to a boxer who is afraid to get punched.  This is a sport – “an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment (Oxford Dictionary)”

I always tell my friends when they are dating: “Your low expectations are setting the standard for everyone in the world.”  The same goes for riding:  It is just as much the clients responsibility to raise their expectations as it is the trainers responsibility to meet them.  It works both ways;  you shouldn’t want to work for someone who isn’t working for you.  And the more clients settle for less, the less trainers will give.  The more trainers expect less of their clients, the less clients will feel they have to give.  But hey, everyones making money off it, so what’s the big deal?

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Disclaimer: I understand that there are older amateurs out there who we want to keep safe.  The joy of our sport is that it is the only olympic sport with riders competing over 50.  I know a man who rode into his 90’s and still jumped 3 foot.  He looked like a sack of potatoes riding a 17 hand warmblood, but he was good!  This is an exception.  This man could have run over a small child with his Cadillac and not even know it, but he could probably beat me in any hunter class.  However, I still would have like to seen him wrapped in bubble wrap when he was mounted.

 

The Faith to Win

I know many amateurs who get anxiety just thinking about filling out an entry form.  They don’t sleep the night before a show.  They can’t eat the entire day before they show and the only thing crossing their minds before they go into the ring is how badly they are about to embarrass themselves.  They focus on all the things that can and will go wrong.

I know this feeling.  I’ve gotten myself so worked up before a class that I almost puked.  I blame my anxiety for my drop from 4th in the warm up(right in front of George Williams and horizon: My claim to fame.) – down to 14th (last) in the 2011 USEF Markel 4 year old championships.  (Yes, I have to write out the entire class name.  You know.  Pride.)  I couldn’t get my head on straight that day.  All I could think about was how I didn’t deserve to be there with all of those huge names on beautiful imported warmbloods whose papers alone cost more than my car.  I knew it was going to affect me because I have never gone into the ring with that attitude and not been chewed up and spit out at least 5 times before leaving the ring.  Add to that, the fact that my horse is half thoroughbred and can read my mind and you get my most embarrassing moment to date.  For those of you who don’t know, these young horse classes are scored by 3 judges who announce their opinion of you over a microphone for everyone to hear.  People were there from all over the nation to compete and to watch the future of dressage.  I wanted to crawl in a hole and die.

I could have decided that I suck.  I should quit being a professional.  That I don’t have what it takes.  And I did for a moment, but that’s not how I work.  When I get knocked down, all I can think about is how I can redeem myself.  I focus on how my next move is going to make people forget about my failure.  The reality of that is that it is hard.  People tend to focus on the negative, so I most likely will need 5 positive events to cover that one negative ride.  It puts a lot of pressure on every ride, but I have faith.  Faith that I can do better.  Faith that I am better.  Faith that even if I fall, I can still rise another day.  Before I go into the ring, I try to focus my anxiety into excitement.  I’m so excited for my chance to win.  To show everyone my talent.  I’m excited to improve upon my last ride.  That doesn’t mean it always turns out as good as I hoped, but I’m not ready to puke before I go into the ring.

I think many people believe that if they don’t hype themselves up that they won’t have to deal with the disappointment of failure.  When have you ever come out of the ring after a bad ride and thought, “well, that’s cool, I knew I was going to suck.”  You’re still disappointed.  You’re still embarrassed.  The reality is that you set yourself up for failure.  You’ve stamped into your head that you aren’t capable – and so you aren’t.

People often despise cocky people like Donald Trump – “It’s going to be great!  It’s going to be Huge!” Or Rhonda Rousey whom they were so excited to see finally knocked out by Holly Holmes because she was an expert shit talker.  What they don’t realize is that they are announcing their affirmations out loud, to the world.  That’s brave!  If you’re over 30 you probably remember Stuart Smiley from Saturday Night Live:  “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and gosh darn it!  People like me!”  Yea, we laughed because it sounds ridiculous, but it works!  Ask any successful person.  Their affirmations may be subconscious, but they definitely never tell themselves they can’t.

Believing in yourself is not some special talent that only certain people were given.  It’s a learned habit.  Some people have learned to question their talent.  It’s understandable.  When you first started riding, maybe you thought you were good.  Until something happened that convinced you otherwise.  Maybe in your younger years you could compete and win, but now you just aren’t as good.  At some point, you told yourself that you could do it and you failed.  You lied, right?  And maybe you still thought you were ok, but then you failed again.  Lied again.  If a person lies to you more than once, you probably question everything they say from that point on.  Eventually, you will think everything they say is false.  Additionally, what happens if you are always around someone who tells you you aren’t good enough?  Someone who ridicules every single mistake you make over and over?  It would be hard not to believe.

What if you changed your perception?  What if you forgave your mistakes?  What if, instead of looking at your mistakes as a failure, you see them as a gift?  What?  That’s like wrapping up dog poop in a pretty box and calling it a gift!  Well, if you turned it into fertilizer, it could be!  The fact of the matter is, no successful person got where they are WITHOUT making mistakes.  What made them successful is what they did with those mistakes.  Those who choose to beat themselves up don’t grow, in fact, they shrink.  Those who choose to use those mistakes and build another step on the ladder grow more with every oops!

My mistake during the 2011 USEF/Markel Young Horse Championships (yes, every time) was doubting myself and trying to change my ride as a result.  I didn’t get there by mistake.  It’s good to improve a little with every ride, but what was I thinking trying to look like Edward Gal and Totalis overnight when I got there looking like Melissa Wanstreet and Petite Belle?  I had many trainers who hated my attitude.  My first dressage show, I wanted 70’s which I was told was impossible.  My dreams were always too big and needed to be dumbed down.  The one time I decided to see myself the way they saw me, I became just that.  Incapable.

So here’s my call to action: What if you told yourself how great you are?  What if, before you entered the ring, you visualized your excellent ride, over and over?  When you are learning your course in the jumpers, imagine your approach to each jump.  Imagine your horse moving forward and straight, you finding the perfect distance, waiting, jumping with balance and precision as you plan your next jump.  When you are reviewing your dressage test, imagine your prep before each movement, imagine executing each movement precisely.   Imagine a balanced and steady ride all the way through.  Imagine it 10 times over before you go into the ring.

If you’ve gotten this far and you think this is all a bunch of cheese, good for you, go back to hating yourself.  I was just trying to help.  But if you think there is even a 1% chance that this could help you, what do you have to lose?  What could you possibly lose by complimenting yourself?  What could you possibly lose by envisioning yourself winning?  Try it, and if it turns out to be the worst experience you’ve ever had, you can come back here and comment about what a idiot I am.

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