A Lifelong Pursuit of Better Riding: Staying Positive when the Going Gets (Very) Tough

I’ve always been at peace with the fact that I chose a profession in a sport that I’d never master. Maybe as a 5 year old starting out, I didn’t understand that I’d continually be learning and bettering myself as a rider and horseman — but certainly as I entered my professional career, I did. Because of that, it’s been a little lost on me the frustration and despair some riders feel about the often brutally slow process of improvement.

Through my journey into the eventing world and lessons with Jimmy Wofford, I’ve start to truly understand the root of the frustration that often has riders believing they’ll never get better. Throughout my whole riding career, I’ve taken lessons. I’m very used to the praise, criticism, learning process and the push from many different trainers. To date, nothing has been so challenging physically and mentally as learning a new discipline and riding with Jimmy. That’s largely due to the fact that he is the most gifted instructor I’ve ridden with, thanks to his many years submerged in the sport (I swear that’s not an old joke) and his incredible gift of riding and teaching. It’s also due to the expectation of your absolute best. He expects that you want to improve as much as he wants to teach. It’s about the shared passion. One of the major challenges I’ve faced, aside from the expectation that I be better than my body-throwing, hunter-esque bad habits, was that I was also learning a mostly new to me discipline. Some lessons would leave me on cloud 9, and some would leave me feeling guilty that I hadn’t been a better partner for my horse. However, I stuck (and still am sticking) to the work — and the following week would be an awesome lesson leaving me with a renewed belief in myself and my riding.

…Until at a recent horse trial, where after an honest “crap happens” moment, I walked away wondering what I was doing with my life. I had cruised through 17 obstacles at the Modified level when Duncan didn’t quite get all of his feet under himself jumping up a bank from water and dislodged me as he stood fully up. AKA I fell off. On the long walk back to the trailer, I couldn’t help but wonder what in the world I was doing at 36, 21 years into riding, with my googly, too big for me horse, learning “upper level” eventing.

For the first time since I can remember, I realized what so many adult riders feel right before they quit riding or stop jumping or drown their sorrows in a bottle of wine. There isn’t much we can do about the fact that the nature of the sport we chose is always changing, mentally and physically demanding, and with every new horse we come across, there is a whole knew set of skills we need to develop. We shouldn’t change the need to always better ourselves for the benefit of the horse, but we can change our outlook.

Here are some ways to help keep a positive outlook on the never ending journey that is becoming a better rider.

It’s important to look back. Generally, we’re a goal oriented sport. We’re working for that move up, or jump height increase or nailing that specific lateral movement. You can spend so much time looking forward that you can’t see the forest for the trees. It begins to feel like an endless climb, because there is always a new goal. Having goals are great but don’t forget to stop and look at all you’ve accomplished. It’s important to be proud of the growth you’ve made the last two months or six months or a year! I guarantee you’ll start to be happier with the rider you currently are if you remember the rider you used to be.

Looking way back. Photo by Beth Takacs.

Avoid comparisons. In most group lessons you’ll be riding with peers who are of a similar level. Despite that, we aren’t the same. Some people have more over-fences experience and some have more extensive flatwork backgrounds. Our strengths and weaknesses look different, as well. Instead of feeling disheartened, let the other riders motivate you.

Motivated by my peers. Photo by Allison Howell.

You can wallow for 24 hours, but then move forward. This is my most recent rule. With every person who asked about my horse trial, I felt worse about my ride. When you’ve been pouring all of your effort into growth and improvement, set backs and failures can feel crushing. You are allowed to embrace how a set back makes you feel, but then you have to let it reignite your desire for improvement and move forward.

Commiserate. Your barn family is there for you. We tend to think that our struggles are special or unique, but that just isn’t true. Every rider has had many bad rides or shows. Some of the best stories I hear from other riders are prompted when I share my misfortunes. As most of you could guess, I’m likely one of the least talented of the riders that Jimmy has taught over this career. His bio states that he’s had at least one student on every US Olympic, World Championship or Pan Am team since 1978 #notactlikeyourenotimpressed. While lamenting one day about my personal struggles of being a dumpster fire and tossing my body up the neck at the base of a jump, Jimmy told me one of the most comforting things I’ve heard to date. That some of the most talented riders out there have been in the same place. You’d never imagine it, because of how extraordinarily they ride now, but they struggled to find distances and struggled with the same basic skills. It was a simple enough statement; we all start somewhere, right? But imagining people like Karen O’Connor or McLain Ward ever missing a distance or making any mistake ever is mind boggling. However, every Olympian had to learn how to ride, just like you. So take heart, we’re all out here learning.

Learning buddies. Photo by Beth Takacs.

Don’t forget why you’re here. Instead of letting doubt take over, we need to remember why we put our feet in the irons to begin with. You are riding because you love it. Truly great things are often not easy. The level of difficulty does not need to dictate the level of joy you gain.

For the love of the horse. Photo by Beth Takacs.

It doesn’t matter if your goal is to blaze new trails like myself, or just to feel safe on the back of a horse. Success and failure are part of the journey. You aren’t meant to wallow in your failures or let your failures dictate your next move. Let the setbacks fan your flames for improvement. Your pursuit of improvement will be a lifelong one, but it can (and should) be fun and mostly painless.