Confessions of a ‘Master’ Event Rider: Movin’ on Up?

Photo by Horse Life Photography.

I have a confession to make. I am old. As in, not young. As in, not bouncy. As in, on occasion, ouch.

Truth be told, in every sport there is an age at which normal mortals (Tom Brady versus Time excepted) have to face the fact that getting hurt, badly, is a real possibility. And that scares the crap out of me.  

I have a spirited (ok, unruly) OTTB that is now 11. I thought she would be over her “enthusiasm” by now, but nope, that’s just her. I got her at 4, when I was 48. After 30+ years of not riding, I thought, well, I’ve never had a Thoroughbred and there are so many that need adopting, and I want a horse.  

It was happenstance that I ended up with Sweetie. I was “just visiting” the Thoroughbred Retirement Center on an emotional Christmas Eve in 2011. The first horse I saw was being ridden by someone who was clearly a hunter-jumper: dressed to the nines with no dirt or scruff on her boots. (Eventers, you know we don’t go places without at least a peck o’ dirt on us at all times…) I took one look at the horse and said to myself, “that is no hunter jumper; that is an event horse.” Don’t ask me why I thought I was qualified to make that distinction, but like I said, I was emotional. It just so happened I had my helmet with me, so I hopped on the horse. BAM. I owned a horse. No matter that she hadn’t been ridden more than five times after leaving the track. I could handle it. Couldn’t I?

I brought her to my barn and began the long process of teaching her how to be an event horse. Why I thought I could do that is beyond me, but looking back, I think it was meant to be. Even the pet psychic (yes I am one of those people) said Sweetie was supposed to be mine and that loved ones who had passed over had helped bring her to me. So, while I was re-learning how to ride after so long, I had this young horse that I was supposed to bring along too. Green plus green equals black and blue? I had not heard that phrase in time to save me from my folly.

Don’t get me wrong. I have made dear friends, had wonderful coaches, and have reignited a passion long dormant. It has been an amazing ride with an amazing horse.  I just have one niggling little problem that I’m not sure anyone can help me with.  

I’m scared to move up. And I argue with myself ALL THE TIME about it.  

I have campaigned Sweetie through Novice at Area 1 events with modest success. I have pride that what she knows, I have taught her. I have done Training level height jumps at schooling shows and at home. She, without me on her back, has free jumped 4’3”. Clearly she has the chops to jump Training level, but do I?

As a kid I went Training easily. No fear. The bigger the jump, the better. I had a Morgan/Saddlebred that could and would jump anything. I suspect Sweetie, with another rider, could and would jump anything. I look at pictures taken by everyone’s favorite Joan Davis, and Sweetie is way over the jump. Speed also isn’t a problem. So what IS the problem?

I have had two really bad falls. The first required six weeks of pool therapy so I could move my knees again. The second involved me versus a jump cup bolt. The bolt won, and my thigh had a giant hole in it requiring 14 stitches. I physically recovered with just a scar (and I don’t care because bathing suits are so yesterday and I’m too busy riding to swim anyway). Emotionally though, the non-physical scar hasn’t healed despite my attempts at recovering my mojo.

So, I planned to move up to Training last year after becoming bored by Novice. I just. Can’t. Seem. To. Do it. I’ve told people I’m going to do it. I’ve assured my coaches I’m going to do it. I’ve told myself I’m going to do it. Next year, I say. Definitely. Pfffft. No problem. Except there is. It’s me. And I’m embarrassed by it. Even now as I write this, I’m teary. I had goals. I wanted to be Walt Gervais of Denny Emerson fame (for those of you who don’t know, Walt did his first Prelim at 70). I wanted to come off cross-country exhilarated that I had overcome my fears and made it over a Training course. I think, though, that I have to take a step back.

I have spent the winter thinking about this. It’s been too dang cold to ride, so I’ve had a lot of time to think. Revelation: Maybe it’s OK NOT TO DO TRAINING. Maybe I can enjoy being a “Master Novice Rider.” Maybe I can enjoy my time with my friends and not be terrified in practice or competition. It’s supposed to be fun, right?! Right?! So why do I feel I’m letting people down? Like I’m letting my horse down? Maybe as a type-A achiever I have to disappoint even myself. And that’s harder than I ever imagined that would be. At 55, I feel like I have only so much time left and I have to push it to the limit before I’m too old.  

However, I had another fall last weekend. I did not get hurt; I was just sore for a few days. But during the warmup around the jumps I had literally felt my legs shaking. Ultimately, my horse stopped and I rolled off. No big deal. But the demon reared its ugly head again – the Training Argument. I decided right then and there that it’s going to have to be ok not to go Training. I don’t want to be in pain. I don’t want to invite anxiety. Shows are hard enough without that added pressure. I especially don’t want to push Sweetie because of some goal I have that is not fair to her. She doesn’t care how high we jump. She doesn’t know Novice versus Training. It’s just about enjoying the ride, with my favorite four-legged fur baby. I have to find a way to give myself permission to be ok with it.  

With apologies to whoever I am letting down, and with a little tear in my eye, I am now publicly giving myself that permission. I thank you, gentle reader, for allowing me to confess my biggest fear about eventing, and I hope that I have given some of you permission to be ok with just who you are, too.

Go, be you, have fun and Go (Novice!) Eventing.