Typically my winters are pretty awesome. I usually send my horses down to either Wellington or Ocala, Florida somewhere in late December/Early January and end up spending most of the first three months of the year riding outside and competing for two weeks on and one week off. I still work every day, and on the off weeks I go home, but it has been an amazing way for the horses and humans to escape winter, be outside and for me to ride my horses almost six days a week for several months in a row. That consistency tends to establish my confidence early on in my competitive year and I also enjoy living so close to the horses (my home is actually 47 miles each way from the beautiful farm that the horses live on in Illinois, so that trek, in traffic can often feel like a haul. I make the best of it by fitting in conference calls and such but it is still a ride. Pun intended). Typically by the time winter circuit (as it is referred to among equestrians) comes to a close I feel really confident with all of my horses. From that confidence, the rest of my season tends to unfold. And I find a way to seamlessly balance wedding weekends with horse show weekends and have managed to find my way to qualifying for Harrisburg and Washington for three years in a row (think of those horse shows as our version of “nationals”). It is a rhythm that I had down pat the last three years and one that I greatly enjoyed and found much fulfillment in.
My Mo and I in Wellington last year. (Photo credit: Collin Pierson Photography)
The interesting thing about riding horses and being competitive in the horse show world is that the consistency I write about above is often times the (not so) secret ingredient to success. I do not have the most expensive horses, or even the fanciest (please note: I love my horses and appreciate them immensely, but these divisions that I compete in are no joke, and the money spent on horses would probably make your hair curl. I have been in this sport since the age of 9 and I still react sometimes with a “that person spent WHAT?!”). What I have finally found with these horses are very confident partners, who are incredibly dependable and who are truly my partners in every sense of the word. However, the more consistent I am, the better I can help them to be their best selves, and ultimately get us the scores we need to earn the points that get us qualified for the big stuff that I love to go to at the end of the year.
Last July, I started to feel a little unraveling with my riding. I can usually see distances (translation, judge the take off in front of a jump) and get on a nice rhythm with my horses. It is actually one of my strengths as a rider (and believe me, when you are 5’5 with no legs and not a size four, you need any advantage you can get. Riders are typically tall with long limbs and have a thin build).
Thankfully, this perception of what an equestrian “should” look like is changing due to some really awesome conversations happening in places like The Plaid Horse and because of riders like myself who are not afraid to step in to the ring and show, regardless of not “looking like some norm”… but even with all of that confidence, etc, my riding was fraying at the edges. It was not the program, or my fitness. It was not the horses by any means. It was entirely mental. I have owned and operated my planning company for 11 years now (I have been so busy the last 16 months that I forgot to celebrate my tenth anniversary, so cheers to that). I have balanced my role as the chief planner at MDE with riding, and left plenty of room for my role within my family’s business as “brand manager” with little to no problem. I even planned my own wedding and attended indoors within three months of each other. Pressure is not something that throws me off. I actually love to flourish under it, and my friend and trainer Caitlyn is an incredible example of that.
The smile that comes with a good round and knowing I accomplished something with my partner. (Photo credit: Fine Art Horses)
None the less, back to the fraying. My role in my family’s business started changing, and initially there were smaller things that started coming on to my plate. Gradually the small things grew larger and by July, I was pretty spent. We had traveled 21 weeks on the road with the horses, I had produced 12 weddings and events, and was struggling to define what the additional responsibility meant from the family business. By August, when my horse Cassius was at International Derby Finals with Caitlyn and had the most incredible top 20 finish up against some of the country’s most revered horse + rider combinations, I was almost mentally just out of room to even celebrate it. But – OF COURSE We celebrated that moment, and I will forever be so grateful to Cassius and his massive heart. But the next week, I stopped competing for the year. Because emotionally I felt really at the bottom of my barrel.
Caitlyn & Cass at Derby Finals.(Photo credit: Shawn McMillen)
This last sentence is completely out of character for me. I love being on the road. I live for horse shows. I have since I was 9. I love seeing friends, getting up before the sun to ride, and competing. Going back to favorite restaurants and places along our annual tour. I actually live for the incredible hard work that is the traveling circus of campers, golf carts, horses, dogs, humans and I have a deep love for this sport. But I just could not bring myself to keep going. I knew my parents needed me close to home and I knew that my horses were tired. So I justified my emotional fatigue instead with other reasons, and came off the road. When I did in fact qualify for indoors last fall, I turned it down because I had been off of competing for a few months already and just knew that I could not get myself ready while being in the middle of my busy season with weddings. Typically the week before these competitions is New York Bridal Fashion week, which I attend with my husband, Collin. He photographs many of the shows and I work with a local bridal magazine, assisting with their social media coordination. It is a huge opportunity and one that I love having so I tend to go right from a rigorous training program to NY, and then right in to Harrisburg. And, have excelled at it. I have even written articles for equestrian blogs and magazines on the art of balancing all that I do.
But even with all that, I could not manage to feel confident about preparing myself for indoors. So I passed on going. And it killed me. I love being there and fighting those nerves and stepping in to those rings to really prove to myself that I can do whatever I set my mind to. For me, it is the ultimate test of my own insatiable tenacity and I thrive in it. But, I could not find that last fall. As the plate became more full of work obligations and life needed my full attention, the horses slipped in to a lower priority level. Throughout the fall and winter I rode. But I also enjoyed a life changing trip to Italy with my friends and family, and lived life a little bit outside of the horses now that the intense focus needed for indoors was not on my list. And I truly enjoyed all of that.
But, riding fell farther down on the priority list. And my goals got farther away. And that was tough for me – I feel it physically for sure. Riding is my main source of exercise because it does not feel like exercise. And I HATEEEEEE being in a gym versus being with my horses and quieting my brain while I break a healthy sweat. I know the value of a gym and a consistent regimen, but I have to be honest when I work 14 hour days and am trying to ride 5 days a week the extra hour of sleep is so much more enticing…I know, I need to work on this. Consider it a work in progress 😉
(Photo credit: Fine Art Horses)
After the holidays, I celebrated my 40th birthday and was supposed to be back in the tack and preparing for this year’s winter circuit. And I had some serious goals this year that I was ready to attack.I really want to get to a point where I can accurately and confidently compete both of my hunters in the 3’6 amateur owner hunters. I would like to compete with Serafina in the high adult jumpers and maybe even one day move in to the low A/O’s as well. But to jump these heights, and the technical accuracy that comes with that you have to be on your game. Or at least, I do. I cannot just go in and bomb around and feel good about that. When I compete, I need to exit the ring knowing I left my best efforts in that last round, and that I did so feeling really proud of the ride. The winning is GREAT, but you can’t count on that in this sport. One single judge could not like your horse and for the entire day you score ten points below where you should because of his opinion. So, I compete for myself to test my progress.
And with that, I began the road back to riding and had to work my way back up to being on each horse for 20 – 30 minutes a piece. And let me tell you, that hurt like a bitch. My ability to regulate my breathing, and really work on the flat with my horses had whittled down to maybe ten minutes on each of them. It was such a terrible feeling. I cried the first four days because of the pain I was trying to fight through (all my old injuries were saying hello because those muscles were no longer acclimated to riding and tolerating pain). But I pushed myself every day to add on 5 minutes. And I did this for several weeks in a row because 40 was going to be MY year. I was going to finally get to all of those lofty riding goals. I began preparing for a show in Ohio before coming down to Florida to knock off the cobwebs. And the week the horses left I felt so ready. Except that my immune system decided to go on strike and I became so ill that I was in bed for 6 days, with i.v. me showing up regularly at my house for visits. Understand when you live with PCOS and you live with autoimmune related issues you don’t just “get a cold.” You actually catch something that redefines the bubonic plague of the dark ages and it lays you out, sometimes for days. In my case, it was two weeks. And, with that, I missed Ohio.
And that was ok – I guess – because I needed to focus on my well being. And, after those two weeks my horses went down to Ocala. Originally the plan was to go to Wellington and then Ocala. Then we switched that because I would not be able to be down the first week or so that the horses were down there. And then, one thing lead to another and I was just not even able to make it down to Florida… So, Ocala was their destination, and it made no sense to spend the money to send them to Wellington if I could not even be there. And fast forward almost seven more weeks before I could actually make it down to see my horses, bringing the grand total of my out of the saddle time to over nine weeks. Adding in the months of inconsistent riding before that and the not competing since August? 40 was not shaping up to be my year at all…
Serafina in the early morning light…most definitely a unicorn.
NINE WEEKS. At forty. unfit and all kinds of stress in all the other areas of my life. Let’s just say that is less than an ideal way to step back in to my stirrups, but what other choice did I have? I was so behind schedule, and I was rusty. I had to start somewhere. And let me tell you – these last three weeks have been painful. I am still working every day, on conference calls, emails and anything else I need to be doing because that is my JOB, and I LOVE what I do. It is also why I have the privileges that I do. I say that on record because I am never going to be heard complaining about any facet of the many jobs that I have. I love my wedding clients. And I love my family’s business. However – riding takes a great deal of mental fortitude. What does that mean? It means that I cannot bring the emotional baggage of my day with me when I get in the saddle. It means that I have to be in the moment and hear my horse, and feel that rhythm, and not focus on anything other that what my horse and I are doing. And lately? That has been hard.
And guess what? I have struggled immensely with the very thing that I find most precious and most restorative about riding. I cannot find that quiet place to go to and focus. I have blown lead changes, missed distances, been left behind and found some really ugly jumps. (For my non riding friends, this all adds up to basically just riding like s@it ;-/).
Just in case you didn’t believe me – one of my truly “less than graceful” moments from last week. Thank goodness for my amazing horse ♥️
But guess what? I am still here. I am sore. I am tired and I feel defeated. I do, and I have no shame in saying that. Because I know that I have been here before. And I know that it took me three years to find what I no longer have in my hand right now. And, that is OK. During all of that, I won a class last week with Serafina. And yesterday I attempted and executed a really slick inside turn in my jump off and it felt GREAT. So there are glimmers in there of my old self. Actually I have so much gratitude for my Serafina because those jumper classes are literally giving me life these days, helping me to see that all I worked for is still there, it just got temporarily placed on some shelf, and now it is time to dust that sucker off and get back to the business of finding ME.
The longest walk is the one that happens when you come out of the ring after a mistake, when no one is clapping. This is me earlier today, trying to fight back tears after tweaking my back. (Photo credit: Fine Art Horses)
For a person with a voracious appetite for goals and an insatiable hunger for progress, it kills me to feel like I have back slid a bit. And then again in other areas of my life I have confronted some serious things, accomplished some wonderful work with my events, found some immense fulfillment in my wedding clients, and have learned so much about restaurant operations. Everything I have been doing has been necessary and needed. And I am so proud of what has been happening the last few months within my family’s business, and within my own. The revitalization of an 80 year old brand is not easy, but boy is it special to see when things start to show that glimmer of evolution.
So is where I am at with my riding life really accurately referred to as a backslide? Unclear. It really depends on the moment you ask me. Sometimes I am so fiercely proud of all I have done professionally that I almost dismiss the back slide and say “it is what it is, and I will get back where I need to be in time…” And then there are times when I sit alone, away from people and I cry in frustration of how far off I feel from my plan.
And why am I sharing all of this with you as I sit here with ice on my back and a literal pain in my ass? Because I think it is important to acknowledge that instagram and blogs are typically a “greatest hits” of life – mine included. And there are some really tough moments that we all go through and I am telling you this because I know those tough moments are what define us. They are what burnish us through the flame of adversity and challenge and leave us with more experience, more knowledge, and more tenacity. So if you are having a moment of challenge – keep going. Every. Single. Day. KEEP GOING. I hear you and I feel you – and I am in it with you. KEEP GOING.
…and about 25 or so minutes after that long walk with Cass, I sucked it up, climbed into the saddle aboard Mo and went right back to it, because I was not about to leave the day with that mistake. (Photo credit: Fine Art Horses)
All I know is this – I have shown up every day since I have been down here. Not always in a great mood, sometimes close to tears. But I am there. I am IN IT. I actually apply this mentality, and show up every single day of my life – know why? Because that is what it takes to pursue and reach these insanely lofty goals that I set for myself throughout my life. There is a fearlessness that you have to have, an ability to say, “No matter the obstacle I will keep going…” That is how dreams become reality. With hard work, and many failures that pave the road to that elusive feeling of success.
I have not quit. And I never will. It is just not who I am. My horses show up for me every day. My trainer shows up for me. Our grooms show up for me. There is no scenario where I don’t show up for them. Or for me. My life is one that I have built on my terms, and the beat I walk to is a rhythm that I arranged. Moments of evolution, moments of challenge, moments that ultimately define who I am are all welcome to join in to that drum beat.
Stay tuned, and I will let keep you posted on my progress. ♥️