I jumped around my first preliminary combined test yesterday. Of my life.

I never had the fancy horses, or the 4* trainer. I never had the clinics with DOC, or the winters at WEF.

But what I did have was a severe hatred of showing. A huge pressure to be perfect. And a crippling anxiety of people judging me.

This has held me back in a variety of things, the most obvious of which is my riding. One stop on XC would leave me reeling. Two rails in stadium would bring me into a rage. And if I scored over 40 in dressage? Well that was it, I was done.

Showing had never been fun, and therefore I didn’t show. Last summer I went to maybe 3 shows all together, and had a good experience at all but one. But that one E on my record would leave me up at night. I couldn’t get past it. It didn’t matter that the same horse scored a 20 in dressage at another show, or got me my first level scores for my bronze medal. All I could fixate on was the negative. 

And it wasn’t healthy.

So this spring, I made the decision to stop. To stop crippling myself with this anxiety. To stop worrying if people were watching or judging. To stop caring what they thought, or the color of the ribbon, and instead focus on goals that were obtainable.

I can’t control if the dressage judge didn’t like my horse, or better yet, all thoroughbreds. But I can control if my trot to canter transition actually occurs at F. I can’t control if the course designer is going to put in relatable distances that my horse can actually jump from. But I can control the canter from which he jumps. And I can’t control if the XC course is going to have a full coffin, or a drop into water, or a massive pool table that scares the bejesus out of me. But I can control whether or not I enter at the correct level for my training, and school the crap out of those questions ahead of time.

And most of all, I can control if it’s fun. I can control who I surround myself with. And I can control the report card of the day–as long as the goals are able to be measured by metrics.

Surround yourself with good people. Photo by JJ Sillman


I went into the combined test this weekend with simple goals, and commiserated of them with my friend Courtney in the weeks leading up to it. I wanted a steady and well mannered dressage. I wanted leg yields that were clean, and a halt that didn’t pull. I wanted Mak to jump from a rhythmic canter and show minimal hesitation at the 1.10m height. But maybe most importantly-I wanted to fit in.

I didn’t want to be in warm up and be “that person”. I didn’t want to have the horse in the meltdown, or be the rider who was obviously not at her level of capability. 

And Courtney wanted the same.

She was also moving up a level, taking her talented and yet ridiculously fiery mare to her first novice. She was also worried about if she was ready or if her mare would get through the day. And just like mine, her goals were simple. 

The diva herself. Photo by JJ Sillman.


She wanted a rideable dressage. She wanted to not clear out the warm up. She wanted her mare to respect the fences, and more importantly respect her. And she wanted to have a confidence building ride.

We talked a few days out and acknowledged that there were over 20 people in the divisions and we just laughed. We weren’t in this for a $3 ribbon. We were in it for the lessons it would teach on the current state of our training, and the homework it would send us home with. 

And with that, we loaded up and were off.

And we both made it through yesterday; ticking off the goals as they met us. 

Courtney got her mare loaded in under 5 minutes: ✔️

Courtney warmed up without a meltdown: ✔️

Courtney went into her test and had a calm, steady, and gorgeous Harper, even in the canter: ✔️


Carleigh got both horses to the show: ✔️

Carleigh remembered her preliminary dressage test: ✔️

Carleigh got Mak to do simple changes AND a rein back: ✔️

Carleigh got Mak to jump around a 3’6 course without a moments hesitation: ✔️

Carleigh got Mak to jump around a 3’6 course without a moments hesitation because she didn’t ride like a chicken shit: ✔️


And we walked back to the trailers and high-fived each other, acknowledging how successful we had been in our pursuit to conquer this list, and happy to have done it together.

We hadn’t checked the scores, and we honestly didn’t care. The divisions were massive, our ponies were green for the level, and yet our smiles were wide.

We untacked and cooled down. Iced and drank a water, and then went to pick up our tests. And as I walked to the show office, a fellow competitor told me that there was a ribbon. I looked up at her and congratulated her, and she laughed and said “no stupid–YOU have a ribbon.”

In confusion I smiled at her and kept walking, unsure of what she meant. Until I got to the show office and checked the scores.

I had finished 4th in my first ever preliminary combined test. On a dressage score of 32. I’m pretty sure there was bourbon in the judges Diet Coke, but I won’t complain. And then I looked higher. I had also finished 2nd in the training level combined test.

And maybe even cooler? Courtney had won her move up to Novice on a score of 27. Out of a huge division, with a double clean stadium to boot.


It had been a good day–in so many more ways than one.

And yet as we texted back and forward last night talking about our rides and sharing videos, neither one of us acknowledged the ribbons.

Because we couldn’t care less what color hung from our horses halters at the end of day. We wouldn’t care less if people were stalking the scores or disagreed with the judge. We only cared about our metricable success, and the goals we had not only accomplished-but conquered.

It’s not about the ribbons. It’s not about the judge. It’s about you and your horse, and the homework you’ve completed and the homework yet to be assigned. It’s about a beautiful August day surrounded by the best people.

And it’s about accomplishing your goals. The smallest, most minute, to the greatest and largest. Because that’s the only way to win it. And I’m in it to win it.

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8 Comments on “In it to win it

  1. I got weepy just reading this. I love how you approach competing your horses and how your love for them shines through your writing! Well done!! The ribbons may not have been your goal but they are hard won and well deserved and the result of hours of hard work while always considering what is best for the horse.

  2. Brava on all your team’s successes. Your hard work obviously shows in your results, which says a lot in a sport that involves an animal with a mind of its own.

  3. so true! I haven’t competed in 13 years, I learned to ride at 30 something, competed pre-training on my coaches brilliant eventer back in 2003 ish, and made it back to the show ring for the first time this year, at 50!! my goals for last show 1) make the canters on the correct lead, 2) listen to caller/coach, and don’t go off course, 3) don’t talk out-loud to myself and lose points!! I made 3/4 of the canters, but nailed the rest!! didn’t matter ribbon or not! we made it back to the show ring, and we loved it!

  4. Love your outlook on getting back to the show ring. It’s too easy to get caught up in the anxiety of getting everything perfect, with the only end goal being a ribbon. It’s so much more important to set goals and work toward achieving them (much easier said than done!) than to worry about what others think and how you placed. I haven’t shown at all this year (I ride HUS), because it’s time to move up to canter classes, and I don’t want to be the one running around the ring, obviously looking like I don’t know what I’m doing. My horse is probably ready, but the fear of what others will think, or the possibility of what could go wrong has kept me out of the ring this year. Next year, I’m hoping to be ready mentally to tackle the canter classes!

  5. Basically your successes are completely based on the goals you set. You nailed it at BOTH ends! Bravo!

  6. Congratulations! Amazing how removing that pressure actually lets you shine. You said it all, the horses are the reason we are here with them 🙂

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