When I was fifteen years old, my trainer pulled my mother aside and recommended that I see a sports psychologist. She said that I was a much more capable rider than I gave myself credit for, and that my biggest road block was my own brain.
I was officially diagnosed as my own worst enemy – and fifteen years later, without the therapy that was recommended, I am still there.
I don’t like showing, and this has become even more apparent these past few years than ever before. And I have started to realize that I am not the norm. Many others lament over the price, and the time, the effort and the heat, and yet still show up weekend after weekend and commit to this lifestyle of being a competitive horse show-er.
Not me. I am fairly opposite. I lament over the same struggles, and the same problems, and yet at the end of the day, I find entering a show the most anxiety-inducing aspect of my life. Definitely worse than taking an exam in biochemistry, possibly worse than analyzing data on a statistical software. And I. Just. Don’t. Get. It.
I am a capable rider. I am fearless at home. And I am constantly trying to get better. To be better. But when it comes to shows, there is an anxiety that emerges from the deep depths of my soul, and lingers for days preceding the show. I lose sleep. I have nightmares about trotting down centerline only to realize I am naked. Or to go into two point only to realize I pooped my pants, or worse – I missed a fence.
I wake up in a sweat, and check my iPhone. I will realize it is only 3am and that I have two more hours to sleep before even considering waking up, but I wake up instead. And I pour myself a cup of coffee and sit on my couch, attempting to take a deep breath. I will pull on my breeches, tack up my horse, and head out to the dressage arena or the in-gate, and I will ride. And 99% of the time, I will do just fine. Only for me, fine isn’t good enough.
Because I have realized that there are two types of people in this crazy horse world. There are those who are afraid to fall, and those who are afraid to fail. And I am the latter.
Before I moved up to training level on Mak, I sent messages to those people around my that I respect their opinion the most. My trainer, my best friends, the man who owns my barn, and my mother. I lamented over my decision and gave them all the reasons why I should not. And each of them wrote back in exasperation that I was not only ready, I was beyond ready.
And I hemmed and I hawed. I skipped one event, and then another. And then I entered. I dotted my eyes, crossed my tees, and paid the million dollars to gallop around 18 fences.
And then I got so nervous I was nauseous. Only I realized that my nerves were very different than the nerves that my friends were feeling.
I wasn’t worried about getting hurt. I knew that the risk of me falling off and being injured were very small. Mak was amazing. He would do his best to take care of me, and I had the skills to stick onto him even in the case of a refusal. But that wasn’t what induced the nausea. That wasn’t what caused the anxiety. It wasn’t a fear of falling – it was a fear of failing.
And for me, it has always been pass or fail.
When I spend $300 of my own hard earned dollars, which accounts for about a week of working in the lab as I pursue my doctorate, I want them to be spent wisely. I set goals for myself, and am such a perfectionist that I am unhappy unless I have reached each of those goals successfully.
For Nixon it is about rideability and adjustability, being able to collect his canter to fences, and getting through the finish lines on Sunday. But for Mak, it is so much more. I want a softer and more uphill trot. A stadium round that looks like a hunter round. A double clean cross country. And a well behaved and well mannered horse – day-in and day-out.
And because the standards are higher, the risk of failure is greater. And because the risk of failure is greater, the pressure for perfection is almost palpable.
But because I am me, I choke in the worst way possible. Instead of tackling my demons, lowering my standards, and getting over this phobia, I just hide. I don’t enter the shows, even when I can afford them. Or I enter a level lower than I know I should be competing at. Instead of addressing the issue, I exasperate it by letting the anxiety build, and getting farther and farther away from that road block that becomes competitions.
I wonder if maybe this is why I enjoy riding young horses so much, and why I am so much more willing to compete them instead of Nixon or Mak. With a young horse, the expectations are lower. Pick up both leads, stay in the dressage ring, and jump all of the jumps in the correct order. If they accomplish this – it is the perfect day. But if they don’t – it is not the end of the world. We can write on social media of “baby moments” and no gossip will be whispered.
But that is not ok. In order for me to grow, I need to force myself outside of my comfort zone. So many people comment that I am the bravest person they know, without realizing the internal anxiety with which I am struggle with.
So here is my resolution. I will put myself out there. I will enter my horses in the next show. I will set reasonable goals, and I won’t beat myself up too badly if they are not met. I won’t worry about what people are saying as they check the online scores, and I will hug each of my ponies at the end of the event before loading them up and hauling them back to the comfort of their paddocks, acknowledging that we have both tried our hardest and deserve a pat on the back.
And maybe, just maybe, I will finally call that sports psychologist. I’ll let you know in a few years if I have finally been fixed, but until then, I will keep saddling up. That, I will never give up.
Anxiety is crippling. Totally crippling. I never realized it until I set my own demons free. You can do this but give yourself time to work into it.
You’re not the only one who struggles with a fear of failing and a crippling desire for perfection! I am not nearly as good a rider as you, but I have the same mental demons. Keep chipping away and surround yourself with good support people, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.
This post resonates in my soul. This is EXACTLY me. I can’t event anymore for this reason. I have the same nightmares and crushing anxiety. I much prefer training my green than competing my seasoned horse. Wow, this totally put into words my exact fears.