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Alexandra Arabak


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Success and Settling

Alexandra Arabak and Geez Louise at Surefire Horse Trials. Photo by Arianna Freeman.

When I first started riding competitively, I did hunter shows. Tiny, little local hunter shows. I rode pack-around ponies that were twice my age. I was a classic once-a-weeker who was lucky to ride the same pony two times in a row for my massive group lesson.

As I grew up and started to ride more, moving up to the more advanced lessons and adding in more rides a week, I started to gain confidence. No longer was I the little girl who would run to the Dons Jon outside the arena to “use the bathroom” for the last 30 minutes of my lesson because I was petrified of cantering. I would ride whatever I was told to and enjoyed every second. There was no stress, no great ambitions weighing down on my shoulders. I was just a girl who sort of knew what she was doing as long as the pony was older than dirt and slower than molasses and the jumps didn’t go higher than 2’3″.

Once I started riding projects and the quirky ones, taking them to shows and never placing well, but working my tail off to just get around, I realized that I had more of a drive for riding than I did when I was the kid riding in tiny in-house hunter shows on the pony I had ridden in camp the week before.

I started to develop the desire to win, to learn more about the horses I was on and how to them ride better. I started doing barn chores to pay for one of my weekly lessons so that I could take two or three a week instead of one. I learned how to muck a stall, how to sweep an aisle and how, with hardly any muscle or fat on my bones to weigh myself down with, to handle an animal over 1,000 lbs heavier than me as if it was nothing. I developed a work ethic, a passion for the sport and a camaraderie with the other camp helpers, the other working students, my trainers and of course my horses.

The funniest part of it all, is the fact that until I started to compete higher, I never understood the limitations placed on riders who “couldn’t afford the sport.” Spending $100 to enter a local jumper show every weekend seemed like pocket change compared to the hundreds of thousands of dollars I would have to try to convince my parents to scrape up to send me to Pony Club camps, rallies, championships, A-rated shows, events and other costly clinics, lessons and preps.

Here is where the real bitch of it all comes in.

When we are kids, we are taught that if we dream it, we can achieve it. You can set any goal you want and as long as you go for it, it is yours!

Unfortunately, this mentality does not bode well to instill in the minds of young riders whose parents are, as I have come to call it, “horse poor.”

It doesn’t take much to be “horse poor” in our world. Your parents can make over $100k individually a year, drive luxury cars and live in expensive townhomes in the city, yet still struggle to afford to pay for your upper level Pony Club ratings, clinics and entry fees. As much as I would have liked, the budget didn’t include training for Young Riders or winters spent showing in Wellington. Our lifestyle wasn’t meek by any means, but budget was spent on what we had, with little extra left to throw at “hobbies.”

It isn’t until you become a serious competitor, or more realistically try to, that you realize how limiting a short supply of cash is on your future.

One day, you’re just a kid packing around a 20-year-old pony in circles, dreaming of blue ribbons and big bows in your hair. The next, you’re jumping 5-foot oxers that scare the shit out of you but you do it anyways because your trainer’s watching and you had to work 12 hours last Sunday slaving away at the barn to pay for this. The days of blue ribbons and bows has been replaced with gold medals and Olympic podiums. You long to see your name in big letters on a screen above you as you canter into the arena, thousands of little girls cheering your name and posting your photo on Instagram with heart eye emojis.

The trouble is, unless you’ve got the money, the transition from blue ribbons and bows to gold medals and Olympic podiums isn’t as smooth. You sit stagnantly the middle of this metamorphosis forcing yourself to question how badly do you really want it? Should you just run track and field instead? It would help with college applications and at least I’d make more friends around school? Can I even ride well enough to get there? Is this really what I want to do? I probably won’t ride after I graduate college anyways … I don’t know.

These questions fester in your brain as you try to figure out how you can convince your parents to buy you the horse you know they cannot ever afford for you, or pay the entry fees for an event that you don’t have the money for. At some point, you start to lose interest in the sport, you start to wonder if any of it is even worth it. Why bother fighting with my parents over $300 entry fees? My horse won’t ever win anyways. Why bother leasing this horse? I won’t be showing anymore. Why bother taking lessons? I’m not even leasing a horse now. Suddenly, you’re deciding to take a break from it all. You’re leaving the barn you’ve ridden at since the very beginning. Ten years have flown by and this is where it’ll all end. With you stopping because it wasn’t financially feasible anymore.

One day turns into two, and so on until one day you realize you haven’t taken a lesson in three years. You haven’t shown in four. You can’t even remember what it feels like to ride a horse that knows what its doing because you’ve just ridden whatever has been thrown at you since you left your heart horse and your barn. You’ve stopped following along with the daily activities of all your old friends because it hurts too much to see them still showing while you’re stuck at home, or stuck on the green broke babies fighting over inside bend.

Now here’s where I’ll interrupt to address some of the comments you may be muttering at your screen at this point.

  1. A) I am in no way discounting the benefit of riding what you’ve got. Hell, Lord knows this has been my life for years now and it has got to be one of the most rewarding, challenging and downright emotional things I’ve experienced from the horse world. Flying over Intermediate cross country jumps feels great, but finally getting a greenie to pick up its knees and stop crashing through jumps, or accept a contact and come into the slightest frame, or even just walk forward on the lead for the first time, these moments feel like nothing else in the world. I have cried more over horses getting an inside bend than I have over getting a 2* horse to come together properly in a lesson with an Olympian, and for those of you that know what this is in reference to, you will know why the difference between the two is so significant….
  2. B) I know that there are plenty of people who have made it to the top of a variety of equestrian sports through sheer blood, sweat and tears alone. These kids, like me, lack even an ounce of the financial backing they need to pay for regular lessons or shows, let alone achieve their dreams. However, these remarkable people who go from grooming or mucking stalls or riding horses for people in their backyards are the exception, not the rule. There is an amazing lot of people in the horse world who’ve achieved top honors in their sports simply because of perseverance, but all the stars that have to be aligned just right and pave the way for these people to make these dreams happen is so few and far in between that it isn’t kind or fair to place this expectation of “destiny” and “fate” taking course and leading the poorest of the poor to the top of the sport on all “horse poor” girls and boys out there. I am not saying this in a negative way, I am just being realistic. Achieving greatness in this sport requires one hell of a sacrifice, whether that be in your family, friends, relationships, education, careers, your entire life is indebted to everything you’ve given up to be here, in this moment, chasing your dreams. There are no water breaks, no power naps, no rest areas to pull off on when you get tired after setting sail for your dreams. That sacrifice is something to really consider before you embark on an uphill battle that would give summiting Everest amidst an avalanche a run for its money.

So you block it all out, you learn to appreciate what you’ve got and ride what’s available to you. You make lemonade out of the lemons life has handed to you and you learn as much as you can from the horses you’re on instead of letting yourself get down and out over who you can’t take lessons from or what shows you can’t go to.

Then one day something happens, you get a new opportunity to ride a horse that can teach you something for once, you start to connect with all your old friends and taking lessons again. You realize how rusty you are and how many bad habits you’ve formed. Riding greenies teaches you a lot about patience but not a whole lot about how to hold hold your hands. You start to feel that bug inside you again. The gold medals and Olympic podiums start to hazily reappear in your dreams. You feel that desire burning inside of you again. You love it, you can’t wait to get back out there. You start to tell people about how grateful you are, how excited you are to be ending your four-year hiatus from it all. You start rationalizing the impossible, playing out in your mind the timeline of your future. You’re there. You’ve achieved what you wanted all along, the dreams you had pushed down for so long are starting to finally rise up from the ashes. Then it hits you.

You realize nothing has changed, you still cannot afford to go to the big shows, to buy the nice horse, or even the project horse at this point. Despite your best efforts, you have barely made it to the base camp of your dreams while everyone around you seems to be reaching the summit. You start to remember why you decided to stop all this in the first place, but now it’s harder. You’ve been given enough of an opportunity to see how far you could go, but now you have no way to chase it. You have to just sit and wait and pray to whatever God you believe in that someday things may go your way.

You try to overcome the mental road blocks you feel yourself putting back up. The ones that took four years to break down. You try to appreciate everything thats been given to you thus far and understand that unfortunately, all dreams do not come true. Sometimes, even if you work hard, there are some things that just aren’t meant to be. You work your tail off to save money for ambitions that far surpass any dollar amount you’ll ever be able to scrounge up. With a growing heavy heart, you go week to week, working each day to find something to be grateful for, to find something to be happy about, to find something to make it all better.

The most humbling part of this sport is the money. If you don’t have it, you don’t have it. There is no way around this. Unlike baseball or basketball or virtually any other other more widely accepted sport, there aren’t scholarships to take you from your shitty high school team to the Major Leagues. If you don’t have the funding, you either accept the reality of career by day, Adult Amateur by night, or you stop entirely.

Right now, I am trying to appreciate what I have, learn from the people that I once could have only dreamed of meeting in person, let alone learn from, and remain positively realistic with myself.

There is keeping the hope alive, and there is simply dreaming too big. It’s a delicate balance that I have been trying to find between the two and it’s tough, but it’s got to be done.