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One Step Forward, Three Steps Back

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The biggest ongoing theme in my riding since rejoining the competitive equestrian community in the summer of 2016 has been this: one step forward, three steps back.

You may know from my first ever blog post (read it here) that I took about an eight year break from riding during and after college. When I got the competition bug back, I dove in headfirst. In May of 2016 I probably rode about 4 times, and then the switch flipped and in June I was lessoning every day and prepping for my first horseshow in years. By July I decided to step into the jumper ring, having previously never tried my hand at this discipline. And by September I had purchased a jumper mare who was WAY out of my league. Talk about a whirlwind!

I quickly rose from the .90 meter up to my first 1.30 meter class within about 10 months. I certainly wasn’t massively successful at 1.30m, but it was a significant feat to compete in that class without an utter disaster. Considering everything, my first year in the jumper ring was largely successful. Looking back on this, I would call it beginner’s luck. Or maybe it was that I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

I headed down to Ocala at the start of my second show season feeling incredibly confident. In the pre-circuit weeks I had my first double clear round at 1.30m, resulting in a top 3 finish in the Medium Jr/AO Classic. I was so happy with that result, and probably let it go to my head a bit. I even told a friend that my goal was to compete in a 1.40m class by the end of the circuit (Spoiler alert: nothing even close to that ended up happening. Like I said before: one step forward, three steps back).  

Let’s just say I was taken down a few notches over the course of the next three months in Ocala. Four falls off two different horses, two separate trips to the ER, and many missed weeks of showing due to minor injuries ensued. What caused this huge turn of events after such a successful first year of showing in the jumpers?

My conclusion is that my lack of basic skills finally caught up with me. When I came back after such a long break, and moved up so quickly, I relied mostly on instinct. I never really took the time to re-learn all the basic riding skills needed as a foundation for jumping at this level. It was a vicious cycle, really. I was having clear rounds and positive experiences as I moved up that first year, so I never really saw the need to take a step back. But after a nasty fall off my trainer’s sales horse in the 1.20m speed class in Ocala (read more about that here), everything changed. Not only was it obvious that I had skipped some steps, but the fear started to creep in as well.

Let’s talk about fear for a second, because it’s been a daily battle for me ever since that winter in Ocala. During my first year back showing, I really didn’t have any fear. I can’t exactly put my finger on why not. Perhaps after taking all that time away, I had forgotten what could happen around horses? Or maybe since I had this really amazing horse, and I totally trusted her, that fear was never really on my mind? Sometimes it’s good to be naïve. That first year, when I kept moving up, I never once got intimidated by how big the jumps were, or how technical the courses were. I just went into the ring and did it.  And we were largely successful. I trusted my horse and I rode off instinct. There’s a lot to be said for staying out of your horse’s way. I’m sure your own trainer has said this to you in a lesson before.

But after that winter and all the falls and ER visits, my riding changed. Now that I knew what could happen, I rode from a place of fear. Things unraveled pretty quickly and I realized that perhaps I needed to take a step back. I was starting to realize how much I didn’t know.  

The next year was a rebuilding one. My trainer identified all the gaps in my riding, and we worked really hard to fill them. This meant lots and lots of flatwork, canter pole exercises, and basically being taught like I was prepping for the equitation finals. I saw massive improvement in my riding and how my horse was going, but that didn’t immediately translate to the show ring. I was jumping fewer clear rounds, and was usually nowhere to be found in the ribbons. But I knew that’s what happens when you rebuild. My riding had been taken apart piece by piece, and it would take a while for me to figure out how to put it all back together.

We’re still working on that as we head into another winter season in Ocala. Pre-circuit unfortunately was plagued by intense weather, and due to some show cancellations and bad footing we really didn’t get to dig back into it. There were at least 2 days when the rain was so bad, we couldn’t even take the horses out for a hack. But the official circuit starts back up again next week, and I am really looking forward to it. I’m eager to improve upon last year, and hopefully see some positive results from my year spent rebuilding my riding.

Overall, the past year was such an important one for me. No, I didn’t have any big successes in the show ring. But I really feel like I made huge progress in learning how to be a decent rider. I’m hoping it won’t be too long before it all comes together again.

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