“I hauled him back and tacked him up, hesitantly walking to the warm-up. I was petrified of even the most minor error. A bad distance. A downed rail. Or GASP, a stop.

But even in my blind terror, in the back of my mind I knew I had the greatest ally. The greatest team.

I went into the Novice division with my shoulders hunched and my eyes down. I glanced around at the fences wondering how they could possibly be only 3 feet tall. I kicked my horse into a canter, mumbled a prayer to the Horse Gods, and tried to keep my hands low. I told myself that as long as I didn’t tell Mak to stop, he would go.”

–an excerpt from Vicious Cycles, published February 2017.

This was my life only 9 months ago. I was scared of jumping my horse. I was scared of showing my horse. I was scared of what people would see, or think, or say.

I was scared of the very essence of my sport, and because of this, I had stopped competing him. I had placed him directly in the epicenter of the swirl that is a vicious cycle, and due to it, on a scale of 1-100, my confidence was at a -15. 

I had entered him in one combined test in 2016: Octoberfest at the Kentucky Horse Park. Although we had competed at training level successfully in 2015, we had crumbled in the confidence game due to time off, harsh winters, bad schedules, and more importantly my inner psychological devilish banter. 

I told myself over and over that people were judging. That people knew he was for sale and therefore even a small blemish like a rail was laughed about or sarcastically spoken of over dinner. I thought everyone was watching, and I couldn’t take the heat.

So I entered him in the novice level combined test, too scared to even do XC. And I warmed up for the dressage last year thinking “he’s tense, this is going to be terrible” and “if he scores a 40, no one will want him.”

And then I trotted down centerline, tracked right, and raised my hand. 

The judge stuck her head out and asked me what was wrong. He was sound. He was steady. I needed to carry on.

But my mental instability had gotten too great. My anxiety too high. My need for perfection too much. And I withdrew.

That was a year ago. 12 months. A short time by anyone’s count, but a million miles away for me.

Because, with the encouragement of an amazing group of friends, I decided to kick my own ass this year. 

I needed to get over myself. I needed to get help. I needed to remember why I used to love this horse, and I needed to remember why riding and competing was fun.

Finding our rhythm at small jumper shows. Photo by JJ Sillman.

So we did those low pressure jumper shows all winter and I got my mojo back at 3′, and then 3’3. I saved my nickles and dimes and tried to take more regular lessons with amazing 4* riders who could help every level of my riding. And I asked friends to come XC school with me, and get my gallop back.

And in May, I entered Mak into his first event in two years. At training level.

It didn’t go perfectly. Our dressage wasn’t phenomenal, and we had a rail in stadium. And when I came up on a large table on a half stride, I pulled him off of it, resulting in a big fat 20 on our record.

Having fun, even with a 20. Photo by XPress Photos

But I came off the XC course with a smile instead of a tear. I had remembered why this sport was so fun in the first place. And for the first time in a long time, I didn’t really care what everyone reading the scores thought.

Smiles. Photo by Claire Seals

So I entered him in another, and another, and another event. I took another, and another lesson. And I worked my ass off, week in and week out. 

I worked on our dressage-something that we have always struggled with. Mak is not the fanciest mover, and his conformation encourages him to fall on his forehand. But this year we got him more supple, more forward, and more accurate. And my 38’s and 40’s were replaced with 33’s. I even shaved it down to a 31 at Flying Cross.

Shining our tiara with Lillian Heard coaching. Photo by JJ Sillman

I worked on our stadium–something that has never historically been a problem for him, but one which is psychological warfare for me. I always ended up with ONE rail, and knew that he was too tidy of a jumper to deserve that. But Mak is a soft and cadenced jumper with a flawless 12′ stride, so I always just kicked and prayed. And this year I decided to instead ride. We taught that stride to constrict, for me to ride to the base; and also the begin the lesson of staying out of his way over the jump instead of doing my happy release: the praying mantis.

Photo by JJ Sillman

And finally on XC, we worked on loving it again. Mak is a careful horse, one who thinks about things as he approaches them, as he goes over them, and as he gallops away. He will never be the type that runs blindly at a jump and then just hops over. Instead, he needs a confident ride, a forward ride, and an accurate distance.

And this led to a stop here and a stop there on my record. Two of which were 100% my fault, two of which were his. All of which I decided were justifiable and not the end of the world, because a 20 doesn’t seem so bad when you stop riding for your record.

Because if you looked on my record on USEA, it wouldn’t look great. You might not think Mak is a packer or perfect.

But what he is? And what I love him for? He’s safe. 

Photo by Xpress Photos

He will never take a jump from an unsafe distance that he can’t clear. He will never blindly run at a jump without knowing he can safely jump it. And he won’t dart off the side at the last minute, or stop sliding into it. And I might have some 20’s, but I also have that.

I also know that my horse has my back.

And this weekend, he definitely did. 

I decided to end the 2017 season on a highlight. So we entered that same Octoberfest CT, only this time at the preliminary level. A vast improvement from being scared at novice. Preliminary, a level that for the last 31 years I didn’t think would be plausible. 

I have always owned the horses that would either do the dressage and never jump that height; or vice versa. But I have never owned the horse that could do both.

Until now.

Mak went into the dressage test with his ears forward and a studious face on. His leg yields were flawless; his trot work earning him 8’s. He stayed on his correct lead during all of the counter canter work-something that I never thought would be possible. And in his lengthening, he actually lengthened. 

And then we went into stadium and I looked around the jumps, assessing the fact that they still looked massive.

The oxers looked wide, the verticals looked tall. The triple looked daunting, and the turns looked tight.

But unlike 9 months ago, I wasn’t scared, I was excited. I knew I had an amazing horse underneath me who was ready. I knew I had an amazing team of friends outside of the in-gate to cheer me on. And at the end of the day, I knew that this show was just the cherry on top of an otherwise goal-cracking season.

Making light work of Prelim. Photo by Claire Seals.

And as we cantered around this massive course, ticking off fence by fence, I realized just how much each represented an individual small goal that I had achieved.

1. Improve his canter work.

2. Find comfort in combinations in stadium.

The middle of a triple. Photo by JJ Sillman.

3. Improve suppleness.

4. Learn not to pick to big tables.

5. Get comfortable on drops into water.

6. Actually lengthen his stride when asked.

7. Stay centered over his back over fences.

8. Improve gallop and find his happy speed.

Photo by Vic’s Pics

9. Do 10,000,000 transitions to improve downward transitions.

And 10. Have fun.

Having fun! Photo by JJ Sillman

I left the ring feeling like Mak and I were 100% in sync with a massive smile on my face, because all of these goals had been accomplished if not improved, and I was FINALLY having a blast again.

I had gotten over my own mental issues and found my horse again. I had found a way to afford multiple competitions and then forced myself to enter them instead of letting money, or time, or energy be an excuse. And I had learned to love this sport…again.

2017 was an amazing season for me and Mak. My record might look mediocre, but my record is not my brain. It’s not my heart. It’s not my truth.

My horse is back. My mind is better. And my season was amazing. I kept my goals small and obtainable, and because of that, I accomplished them one after another.

Photo by Photography in Stride

I hope you did too.

7 Comments on “The cherry on top.

  1. CONGRATULATIONS!!!!! Awesome!!!! OMG Carleigh! This could not have come at a better time. This is an inspiration for me. I would love to know how you got out of your head and gained confidence in yourself. My head is a dangerous neighborhood that I need to get out of. Bear with me. Lol. I have a wonderful mare. She is safe, has no naughty habits, well trained and a beautiful disposition. The problem is with me. I have no confidence at the canter. I know how to canter and can canter other horses but when I am on her, I fall apart. I’m more focused on the outcome and making sure everything is perfect instead of just getting it done and having fun. Even my trainer says I could canter any horse in the barn but my confidence is so low on this that I can’t make it happen. Just the other day she suggested I take her out of training and just go ride her for a month and see what happens. I was in tears over it. Like you, I worry about what everyone will think. Like you I would like to compete but my mind is holding me back. Would love to know how you did it because if I can’t change it I will most likely give up altogether. Your thoughts and input would be appreciated.

    • Oh gosh, without knowing the whole scenario–I would say TAKE HER OUT OF THE RING (if she is safe). I find that when I’m on Mak, my issues are in the arena where we are confined. Go find a large pasture, or a field, and get up off her back and just let her go. Realize that you can bring her back to the trot if you get scared. But don’t worry about leads, or carriage, or frame-just CANTER! Take a friend with you who has a packer if you’re scared! But just go straight and relax! Think about your weight being in your heels and your shoulders being back. Think about your chin being up. Focus on you, instead of her!

  2. Have always loved Mak. So glad you and he had such a breakthrough season and that you have the horse you love back.

  3. Great story! I am so happy that you punched your fears in the face and overcame them, one by one! That shows strength and character. You are an inspiration!

  4. This is exactly how I feel my year went as well. Might not have been great on paper, but I’m enjoying myself again, having fun, and loving my horse!

  5. Thanks for sharing yet another inspiring blog! You pretty much nailed all of my thoughts on how I want 2018 to go. Thanks for the inspiration and congrats on your successes!

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