Leaving the Ring

At every horse show, I call my parents after every class to let them know how it went. They’re both fantastic sports about this- they’re not quite sure where they failed as parents, but they’ve learned to roll with the crazy. They’re also contractually obligated to love me and have to put up with me saying “Francis was a very good boy” 2087 different ways over and over and over again.

So after Zones, I called my mom on my way home. I told her how we had a great warmup, then got buzzed out of the ring in our first class because I didn’t help my horse out through the combo. She patiently listened to me describe what happened, then asked:

“How did you feel when you left the ring?”

Which really made me think hard- I’m so focused on the physical fitness aspect of this sport, the mental toughness of lasting a whole long weekend, the planning and strategy of how to best ride the course. I’ve often thought about how I feel when I walk into the ring- am I nervous? Do I remember my course? Crap, what’s my jumpoff?!

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Sometimes I enter the ring giggling because I love riding my horse so dang much

I don’t often consider how I feel when walking out of the ring.

The short answer: I felt fine. I always feel fine.

Do I feel freakin’ fantastic and leave the ring with a giant smile when things go well? Obviously. I love when the pieces come together and I’m always thrilled when Frankie goes out there and struts his stuff like a total pro.

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Leaving the ring, spazzing out with happiness

But my options aren’t happy vs. sad/mad/frustrated. My two options are happy vs. focused. I can’t remember the last time I walked out of the ring without patting Frankie and telling him what a good boy he is and taking a deep breath for myself. And that’s for a couple reasons.

Nine times out of ten, any trouble we run into on course is my fault. On the odd occasion that he pulls a rail and it isn’t due to rider interference, it’s because he’s tired- and his fitness is my responsibility. So scratch that: legit 100% of the time that something goes wrong, it’s my own fault and not his. He’s a very hard worker and wants to do a good job, and will perform as well as I enable him to. So that’s why I never get frustrated with Frankie- I am beyond lucky to have a literal unicorn as my trusty steed.

But I don’t really get frustrated or flustered with myself, either. Do I wish I could do better? Yes. Absolutely 100% yes, it’s why I pour every piece of my soul into this sport. But I can’t go back and change that round by regretting the fact that I tried to add a stride when I should have left it out. All I can do is go back and practice and try again later. All of my energy is focused on making my next round better- I have the energy to understand what I did wrong in my last round so I can fix it, but I don’t have the energy to harp on it.

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Sometimes I collapse on my horse when I leave the ring

When I left the ring after getting buzzed out in disgrace, I was already thinking about how I could fix that combo next time. I was already talking to my trainer about what I wanted to try differently, what we could do in our warmup to set us up for success, all that jazz.

How did I feel? I didn’t feel. I wasn’t happy or sad or embarrassed or any of that- I was focused on making the next round better.

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Sometimes I look miserable when we leave the ring, but really I’m just sweaty as I pat my pony

So when we left the ring after our next round, with some sticky spots and rails, I smiled and said to my trainer, “we fixed the combo!”  My horse continued to work hard to do his job, and I was able to help him out a bit more than I did before. That met my criteria for being happy about a successful round- I don’t need perfection to be satisfied, but I do need progress.

After all, every time I exit the ring still on my horse’s back means I can check at least one thing off the to-do list. It’s all about having reasonable expectations, right?

How do you feel when leaving the ring after a good round? A bad one? 

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Speak Up and Ride Hard

I mentioned recently that public speaking is totally my jam. I love it, and I’m pretty confident up there! But this hasn’t always been the case- despite wanting to be good at public speaking, I wasn’t very strong at it.

I’d be so excited to get up to the podium, and I’d get up there smiling. And then my eyes would go wide and I’d get that wavery shaky voice we all get when we’re terrified. Cue the cold sweat.

I was able to speak in front of clients at a recent conference hosted my by company, and it was the first time I’ve ever gotten up there and jumped in without feeling like I needed my inhaler and a double dose of Xanax. I was able to pull up my slides, say good morning, and hop right into my topic.

And the more I think about it, the more similarities I see between public speaking and competing at a horse show of any level or discipline.

  • The preparation: you don’t present at a conference without thoroughly knowing and practicing your material. You go through your topic, update and refine your slides, and then practice practice practice until you know all of the details backwards and forwards. You study the information to be able to answer any questions that pop up. By the time you reach the podium, you’ve done your homework.

Just so with riding: you don’t get to a show and think “CRAP I NEED TO LEARN HOW TO POST THE TROT.” You do that at home until it becomes second nature, and then you go compete with your professional-as-hell posting trot. You learn the rules for your discipline, you practice your test, you practice HOW to learn courses to test your memory. You figure out what to do if something goes wrong- you do your homework so you can answer the questions.

  • The nerves: despite your preparation, you step up to the podium and realize your hands are shaking. You’ve done all the hard work and in theory everything should just fall into place, but suddenly you wonder if you can do this. But once you take a deep breath and pause for a moment, your nerves settle and you’re able to speak without stumbling. You find places to pause during your talk to catch your breath and it lends you the presence of mind to continue on smoothly even when you trip over your tongue.

You reach the show and realize that even though you’ve schooled 2’6″ courses at home a million times, the 18″ class you’ve entered looks HUGE. Everything is scary and overwhelming. But then you take a deep breath and pause, and you ride the way you know you can. You find places to stretch up and breath on course, and that lends you the presence of mind to continue on smoothly even when bobbles come up.

  • The audience: you look out on a sea of judgemental faces. “Ohmanohmanohman they probably know more than me and they think I’m an idiot.” Except no- they’ve shown up to hear you talk about the topic. You’re the one that has put in the work, and they’re choosing to listen. Suddenly you realize that they aren’t there to condemn you and pick you apart, they’re there to listen and learn.

You see the judge staring out of the booth with his judgey judge face, and pass a sea of unimpressed juniors and ammies. “They all think I’m such an idiot who can’t actually ride.” Except no- the judge will see a bazillion people that day and unless he’s a total dick, won’t actually think you’re a bad person even if you hit a rail or two. Most of those ammies have been in your shoes and genuinely want to cheer you on. Most of those juniors- well, they’re probably bratty teenagers- but WHO CARES. There are two groups of people at the show: people who are supportive and encouraging and push you to learn, and people we don’t give a flying rat’s ass about.

  • The aftermath: you finish up, say thank you, and leave the stage. Your heart is still pumping with adrenaline, but it’s in a good way. How cool was that! It may not have been perfect, and you may have said “sequins” instead of “consequence,” but probably no one noticed. You made it through in one piece and feel such a sense of accomplishment and pride that you did this.

You come out of the ring grinning and patting your pony, still trying to catch your breath. Sure, you put 5 strides in the 6 and 4 strides in the 3, but you made it through in one piece. You’re so proud of the progress that you and your steed have made.

  • The familiarity: you’ve given a couple speeches by now. When you get up to the podium, you smile at the crowd and launch right in. You know your stuff, you like your audience, and any slips of the tongue are easy to laugh off. It’s exciting in a good way.

This isn’t your first show anymore. You’re there to compete, strut your stuff, and learn. You know what you’re doing, you like what you’re doing, and a round doesn’t need to be perfect for you to have a good time. It’s exciting in a good way.

With riding, as with speaking, the only real way to conquer nerves is to prepare and then to DO IT. It’s so hard to get over fear of public speaking if you never speak in public. It’s so hard to get over show nerves if you never show.

I’ve been participating in a Toastmasters group with some coworkers, and I sincerely believe that strengthening my confidence with public speaking has a strong effect on my ability to think on my feet while in the saddle. I look at it as mental cross-training for the show ring.

As someone who has always mentally blanked-out a bit on course, I’m excited to put my new skills to the test this weekend for a strong finish to our first show season together!

What do you think of this metaphor? Do you do any sort of “mental cross-training?”