I can remember being 17 years old and sitting on my horse in the entrance to the arena in Harrisburg. It was 10 o’clock at night, and I was getting ready to go into my Working Hunter class…and I was petrified. I was staring off into the distance, as the course raced through my mind, and every worst case scenario played through my brain.
Someone looked up at me and smiled, saying “Oh good. Carleigh is focused. We’re ready.”
But my best friend Amy took one look at me and panicked, knowing that if I wasn’t talking and laughing, if my face was frozen in what some may consider a look of determination, that in actuality, I was panicking. She quickly grabbed my calf and pulled my attention to her, attempting to distract me from the course that lied ahead and focus on her. She rambled on about new tack and cute boys, anything to get me to relax. Her mother, my trainer Rose, looked up at me and shook her head. She repeated, for the 100th time to my mother, that I needed a damned sports psychiatrist.
Because, even at the age of 17, it was obvious that I was my own worst enemy.
Flash forward 13 years, and nothing has changed. Today, I fell off. It wasn’t anyone’s fault, but if someone had to take the blame, I would carry the burden. I committed only half-assed to a fence, and my sidekick Mak just didn’t understand what was being asked of him. Being the amazing horse that he is, he tried to get through the question anyway, and ended up tripping due to lack of momentum – sending me flying. Like any good cowgirl who grew up with a terror of a pony, I tucked and rolled, and turned what could have been a bad fall into what many would consider a bump on the road. I got up, rolled my shoulders to check for breaks, dusted the gravel off of my sleeve, checked his boots, and remounted. To the outside, we were perfectly fine. But internally, I was reeling.
Because I am not like other people. I obsess over my flaws and fixate on my bad days. Thirteen years later after being self diagnosed with “sports psychosis,” I still am my own worst enemy. I am constantly told that I am better than I give myself credit for, that I am more CAPABLE that I feel, but moments like today constantly make me question my skill.
Because I don’t believe them. Am I good? If good riders are measured on their success, and success is dictated by lack of stops, rails, and falls, things that we all equate with “good” then no. I am not good. I hit rails. I let my horses stop. And although not often, once a year, I go and have myself a really good fall.
For someone who is the least OCD/Type-A/Perfectionist person in ANY other aspect of life, I am exactly the opposite with my horses. My sink might be full of dishes, but my horses buckets are scrubbed. My bed is unmade, but my horses stall is immaculate. I can’t remember to submit a manuscript on time, but my horses coggin’s are up to date. And I could trip and fall in front of a classroom full of students that I am teaching equine reproduction to and laugh, but if I fall off of my horse in competition, I am devastated.
I called Amy, the same friend that I attempted to distract me at the age of 17, and instead of allowing me to lament and obsess over my failure – she laughed. She laughed, and laughed, and laughed, and then started to cry a little bit, and then laughed some more. Once she was done laughing, she asked if Mak was ok. Once she knew that Mak was ok, she asked if I was too. Amy has known me my entire life. She knows my psychosis as well as I do. She also knows that I have probably been bucked off of more ponies than we can both count – she has witnessed most of these bronc rides.
But she laughs because she knows me, and has watched me cowgirl up time after time. And laughter was exactly what my ears needed to hear. She knew that due to my obsession with being perfect on these horses that I didn’t need to micro analyze every step that was taken. She knew that the one thing I needed was to be told that this wasn’t the end of the world. That this didn’t make me a bad rider. That this didn’t make me a bad horse mom. That all I needed was a hot bath, a bottle of wine, and a new day.
Because lets be honest, while we might see Buck win 3* after 3* on Reggie, if you dig deeper, he is also having some stops at Novice. And while Beezie is winning grand prix after grand prix, I have seen her come off in the 1.3m’s. And guess what? I’m going to just put it out there – Charlotte has probably had a horse pick up the wrong lead.
So what truly does make the difference between these great riders and the rest of us? It obviously isn’t being perfect. You read through the records, or go watch horse shows often enough, and it becomes obvious that they have their bad days just as often as I do. So that can’t be it.
So maybe the real difference between us and them is that they are able to push those flaw’s aside. They’re able to get off of that bad ride and swing a leg over the next horse without holding a grudge or feeling resentment. Each ride, each fence, each stride is a clean slate. And maybe, just maybe, they laugh. At their horses, at their students, at themselves.
Maybe that is the greatest lesson I could learn. I will probably always be my own worst enemy. I will always think that I am a crappier rider than I really am. But maybe the skill that I need to work on the most isn’t my paralyzed left arm, my chicken wings, or my swinging lower leg. Instead, maybe I just need to learn to laugh.