I have spent years in the doldrums about how terrible my results are and wondering how I was ever going to beat the uphill struggle of wanting to be as good as a pro but having to balance working full time while having no facilities. I am a competitive person and coming 16th in a BE100 or Novice was not exactly rewarding for all the time and effort I thought I had been putting in. This is how I have learnt to cope with the mental struggles of eventing and what I have learnt along the way.
One of my weaknesses in the past has been my goal setting and that I do not appreciate what I have managed to achieve and just move onto the next bigger goal. The problem with doing this is it leaves you unsatisfied, you stop enjoying the whole experience and you make life really hard because the next goal is usually something bigger and better and thus harder to achieve. I have had what I felt were terrible days, when in reality they were not bad as had an ok dressage, one down Sjing and clear cross country. Except I would be driving home beating myself up about the pole down. I have trained myself to think positively about the day and reflect on the bits that have improved and the bits that still need working on and what I am going to do about it. I set myself realistic targets rather than ridiculous ones like being able to ride like WFP. Instead now it will be about picking up extra marks I lost in the free walk or landing quicker on the cross country to save time.
I used to make my goals up as I went along, which also left me feeling like I was not achieving anything so now I write my goals at the beginning of the season. For instance last year’s goals on a horse that had never done any BE before and had jumped a few unaffiliated 90cms were:
- To compete at BE100 and become established
- Pick up a placing
- Do a Newcomers
I allowed myself two shooting for the stars goals which were goals that I would be stupendously pleased if they came off as they were possible but not that realistic. All my goals came off apart from the shooting for the stars ones. I actually had a sense of satisfaction at the end of the season that I had achieved my goals and enjoyed myself in the process. I will admit that I was hugely frustrated by my dressage, show jumping and cross country several times and can still give you a massive list of all my faults but hey it’s a rocky road to inner perfection and enlightenment. I would also be a bit bored if I had nothing to work on in the winter!
I follow Ingrid Klimke’s mantra of write your goals in concrete and your plans in sand. This just means your plans can be a little more fluid and it does not put you under such time pressure which I have also fallen victim to I the past.
I will at this point confess I am slightly obsessed with planning. It’s the only way I can deal with my life. I could not tell you a telephone number or a birthday and I am perpetually late but I can tell you my several plans depending on different variables.
Practice is what makes the difference between an amateur and a pro. However hard I try I am still going to make a mistake so I have learnt to stop beating myself up about it. I am not riding several horses a day, and riding in the dark after a bad day at work is sometimes not conducive to honing your skills! I have learnt to stop comparing myself to professional riders because I have made a lifestyle choice to work full time outside of horses and earn money to pay for my eventing. This realisation has not made me drop my standards and be happy about being rubbish but it has instead made me work cleverer and helped me to take the rough with the smooth better.
I have one horse, however much I would love to jump every day in order to never miss to a fence again; it’s just not going to happen. So I have learnt to practise smarter. I watch hours of online videos of people jumping. I love the USEF George Morris clinics. They are amazing for watching a true master teach and very insightful. I watch a serious amount of online footage to try and develop my knowledge and understanding of riding and the horse. I also do a fair amount of reading. I have a book case crammed with books which I keep referring back to. My favourites are Cross Country by Blyth Tait, Training the Showjumper by Anthony Paalman and Training the Event Horse by Ginny Leng.
Through reading books such as Bounce by Matthew Syed, Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell and Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin I feel as if I have gained a deeper understanding into what makes top sportspeople and how I can apply many of the principles into my life. When I did my UKCC, Bounce was on the recommended reading list which proves how far equestrian coaching has come in the last few years.
As well as stuff I can do at home in the evenings there are the other little bits that can add up to make a difference. I work hard on my own fitness. I feel a better rider if I am fit and I definitely notice it in my core. This week I was stood at running club wondering, why was I waiting to run 5 miles in the freezing cold at 7pm? But afterwards having survived, I felt better and I have noticed a difference. It has been proven that the heart rate while doing cross country will exert itself as much as 190 BPM which is the same as Usain Bolt during a 100m final. I would rather not go round a cross country feeling out of balance or flopping about at the end because I am tired.
One of the biggest things I noticed last year was how much my show jumping improved from jumping a lot of courses. I would make an effort to regularly have a lesson with a show jumper where we would jump a course. These lessons were normally at 7pm on a weekday and the last thing I would sometimes feel like doing but you know that every hard fought inch will make a difference. I got to push my limits, sharpen my skills and stop the anxiety of show jumping. I naturally get anxious if I feel under prepared. So now I make sure I do all my homework before going to an event so I can put in a good performance and this also helps stop those feelings of disappointment of if only I had done such and such! I practice riding in a 20 x 40m arena and I work harder on cross country where as I used to be a bit casual about it because it was always my strongest phase. I also aim to be practicing at home well above the level I am competing at because you will appreciate it once the nerves kick in. I have now got to the stage where I feel stressed if I have not done everything I think I should have done before an event but that’s another story! If you are moving up a level for the first time or doing something out of your comfort zone for the first time, I recommend having a friend who will support you and be positive about it. Even better if they have ridden at that level before or know you well to be eyes on the ground when warming up as a few positive jumps in the warm up makes a huge difference. Professional riders have a whole village of people working behind the scenes to help them and would rarely go to an event without someone assisting.
On the whole I try to be positive in my approach to things because this is supposed to be fun. I am hard on myself as a rider because I want to be the best that I can be and I think that is fine, but you have to also be realistic that you are not doing this sport for a living and that you will always be rustier than someone who has several horses to ride and compete. I believe it is possible for amateurs to achieve their goals however high set they may be but sacrifices will need to be made or the length of time to achieve them might be longer. So don’t stop dreaming about getting to your own personal Badminton but do everything in your power to make it happen through good planning, preparation and staying positive.