It is widely believed, and often stated, that to achieve an exceptional goal a person has to have wildly aspirational dreams. There is this hopeful, unlikely caricature of American life—the immigrant who learns English as a second language and ends up sitting on the Supreme Court, or the kid from a working-class background who loves basketball and makes it to the NBA. In the equestrian world, it’s that rider from the Midwest without a trainer who self-teaches themselves to a high level and in the end makes an Olympic team. Or it’s the catch-rider who finally gets a real break and has a sponsor purchase a horse that they can keep and ride at the top level.
If you ask these riders what they’d dreamed of from a young age, many of them will say that they dreamed of getting to the place they’re now occupying, whether it be the Olympics or the Grand Prix level. But I’d bet that a few of them didn’t even dream of achieving what they are now doing. It came as a surprise. They didn’t plan for it; they may not have even thought it was possible at all. Yet they ended up there.
I rode at my first five-star level event this spring at the Kentucky Three-Day Event. It was not exactly planned several years ago that I, or this horse, would do that. It just sort of happened. In fact, when we went to spectate at the show a few years ago, I apparently told my mother that it looked too hard and I did not want to do it. Something, I suppose, changed between then and this spring!
I’m not saying that I did not prepare, or that I entered the event randomly or thoughtlessly. What I did was take it one step at a time. I did a two-star event, and then eventually a three-star and four-star event. I fell off a few times doing 4*, so I went back to 3*, and then gained confidence again. The horse and I were learning the game together, and he is a generous partner. A couple of years ago, we found ourselves qualified for the 5* level, so we kept getting experience and working toward that as it was the natural next step. But when I was 16 and starting to do 2* events, I did not say that by the time I was 23 I aimed to be going five-star. In a weird way, I think if I had set that goal, the pressure of achieving it may have precluded it from happening.
I guess my point is that you are allowed to see where the journey takes you. It is more fulfilling, oftentimes, to be surprised when success comes along than to be chasing a crazy dream and always feeling like you are failing. Unattainable goals can be great—they can push us to get better and make us get out of bed in the morning. But they can also slowly chip away at you and make you feel inadequate, particularly if you’re trying to get something done on a particular schedule (i.e. Kentucky by 2025, or Olympics by 2028, or Maclay Finals by 2022).
I have this coffee cup at home that reads “You are your ancestor’s wildest dreams.” I like it because it makes me chuckle. My ancestors fled Europe for Australia. They had no idea that I would be raised an American girl, and find a dangerous sport in which I strap myself to 1200 pound animals hurdling themselves at jumps. But I did. That was beyond their wildest dreams, and it is very wild and very lucky. So here is to being open to opportunities, and letting horses take us for the rides we never imagined they would.