Taming Baby Dragons: Discovering Confidence in Discouragement

Erica Zaborac, an Area X eventer from Arizona, has been eventing for almost three years. She has a Bachelor’s Degree in Animal Science with an Equine Emphasis and is currently working on my Master’s in Creative Writing through Southern New Hampshire University. She kindly shared this story about her experience competing at the Coconino Spring Horse Trials in Flagstaff, AZ, last weekend.

Erica Zaborac and Goldee. Photo by Rosenheim Photography.

It was when I had my third young Thoroughbred on the lunge line at the Coconino Spring Horse Trials that I came up with my new job title: Baby Dragon Tamer. At two, four and five years of age they all looked like dragons with their heads straight up, manes standing on end in the breeze, and their tails draped over their backs as they enjoyed the cool pine air. It was then that I began to question my sanity.

I know it’s unusual for an adult amateur to have three baby horses. Believe me, it was never my plan. It just worked out that way. The first one, Goldee (registered name Goldee and Me), was a gift from my parents. She was my project horse in the University of Arizona Equine Sciences Program. In the program, students are assigned a baby to work with until they are sold as long yearlings, and my parents bought her for me. The second one found me. Zacharee (Be Still and Know) showed up at the barn I was working at. He also went through the U of A program. And the third … well, Fran (Lady Lokee) happened to follow me home when she didn’t sell at an auction. Not only do I have three baby Thoroughbreds, I have three baby Thoroughbreds who are all related. They are all by the same sire, Chelokee.

My actual plan for this year was to ride my “grown-up” horse, Cidney, at Training Level. Cidney was the Senior Novice Horse of the Year for Area X in 2016, and I was excited to move up. However, a suspensory injury that required surgery changed those plans completely. Cidney earned himself a well-deserved year of vacation and rehab, giving me plenty of time to focus on the baby dragons.

The Coconino Spring Horse Trials was our first outing of the year. Goldee and Zacharee both competed in the Open Intro division and Fran went along for the ride as a non-compete. We arrived on Thursday afternoon, which is when I titled myself the Baby Dragon Tamer. After being in the trailer for almost six hours and with temperatures about twenty degrees cooler than what we have been having at home, all three of them were eager to stretch their legs a little. My only hope was that they would settle in and have their thinking caps on for when the show started. I only had two goals in mind for them for the weekend: to finish with a number not a letter and to finish on our dressage scores.

Friday dawned cool, breezy and early. It is always run as a schooling day, with the opportunity for stadiums rounds and judged dressage tests. For the Intro horses this year, the show management ran an unofficial one day, allowing us to do both the dressage and stadium rounds, and a shortened cross country course. The order was a little different, as we did stadium first, then cross country, and finished with dressage. Both Goldee and Zach were great in both jumping phases. Dressage was a little bit of a different story.

As I trotted around the outside of the dressage arena on Zach, one of the horses in the stadium area laid down with its rider. Zach had a full view of the situation and it took a lot of convincing to get him to leave the spot he had nailed his shoes into. As we went down the other side, he decided that trash cans were horse eating monsters. Nonetheless, we made it down the centerline and completed the test. I knew it wasn’t great, but it was schooling day and the whole point was to get him in the arena. Goldee didn’t see any monsters that were going to eat her, but was quite fussy in the bridle. I knew she was mentally worn out from everything she had experienced in the first two days, so I gave her a pat and was thankful she tried her best. Again, I knew the test wasn’t great.

Even though I knew the tests were far from perfect, the comments from the judge were surprising and discouraging. Zach’s 50 and Goldee’s 48 made my jaw drop. There were no positive or encouraging comments. One test even said, “better luck next time.” I was also told that without a $50,000 horse that my only hope for a decent score was to have better circles and to ride more into my corners. Now, don’t get me wrong, I know my geometry is far from flawless and that there is always something to improve on, especially with babies, but the tone of these comments seemed harsh to me. I’m sure I took them a little personally, having brought up these babies and being nothing but proud of them. But it still didn’t seem quite right. I am used to advice or encouraging feedback from judges, even when scoring a four or below on a movement.

It was a confidence shaker. I was ready to load up and head home, to withdraw from the actual competition. I sat in front of their stalls fighting tears, convincing myself I wasn’t good enough to bring these babies to their full potential. How could I have the skills to produce young horses when I haven’t even ridden above Novice? I had myself persuaded that it wasn’t fair to Goldee and Zach, or Fran in the future, to keep riding them myself. They would be better off with someone else. As I sat there, calculating what time I could get home if I left right then, I felt two little sets of eyes on me. I looked up and saw my sweet babies looking at me. It was then I realized there’s so much more to this than dressage scores, comments from judges, and being “good enough.”

I have worked for many long months to earn the trust of these young horses. They have made me laugh and brought me so much joy, but they have also frustrated me to the point of exhaustion. This weekend, I learned that all of these moments are part of this beautiful journey they are taking me on. They can’t read, so they have no idea what the judge wrote about us. They are just doing their best to do as I ask. All they want is to be taken care of in return.

I had to change my mental state completely before climbing in the saddle for dressage on Saturday. I have been taught that my young, green horses get their confidence from me. They don’t know what to expect at horse shows. If I have nothing but doubt in my mind, they are going to be confused and nervous, even more so than they might inherently be. Changing my thinking was difficult, and the comments from the schooling judge kept echoing through my head. I decided to focus only on Goldee and Zach. If I expect them to give me their all, I have to be able to give them mine.

I’m happy to say I think it worked. I had much better dressage tests. Zach scored a 42.1 and Goldee earned a 37.4. These scores are still far from faultless, but much improved from just 24 hours prior. Both of my babies were relaxed and took everything in stride. That’s all I can ask. They both did well in stadium, with Zach adding a rail and Goldee going clean. Both had time penalties because I took wider turns than intended, but I was trying to set them both up for success. Cross country was fantastic. Zach went double clean and I could tell that he was loving every minute just as much as I did. Goldee went around like a superstar as well, besides a hesitation at the water. She did step back, making it a refusal, but she then jumped in and landed in the middle of the water. She didn’t spook, but trotted out like she owned the place. I was very proud of both of them.

Zacharee ended the show in fifth place and Goldee in eighth. We didn’t accomplish the goal of finishing on our dressage scores, but they both finished with a score instead of a letter.

The lessons I learned this weekend are much more valuable than any color ribbon we could’ve received. It would have been so easy to crumble under the comments from the judge, to pack up and give up. But that wouldn’t have been fair to Goldee and Zach. They have put just as much time into this as I have. They love their jobs and they aren’t affected by negative comments or feedback, so why should I be?

I have learned that I have two choices when it comes to criticism, and I hope that maybe this will be an encouragement to someone else as well. The first option is the easiest: to crumble and give up. The second is harder, but it is the one I will be taking from now on. The feedback caused me to doubt myself, yes. But once I got over that, I find it has motivated me more than anything else ever has. I can look at the comments and do everything in my power to do better, to be better, to make me and my horses better. Instead of upsetting me, these comments will inspire me.

I’m sure a lot of people think I’m in over my head with three young Thoroughbreds, but I want to see what I can do. I want to see what they can do. I have a daily front row seat to their personalities, and I get to see the heart and talent that they possess. I also have a passion for this sport that won’t be extinguished. I aspire to be more than an adult amateur one day, but that day is a long way off. For now, I have to take it day by day. One ride, one lesson, one fence at a time.  I’m sure there will be days I doubt myself again, when confidence is hard to find. But I won’t give up. I won’t give in. I’ll just focus on my current job title and be proud of myself for taming baby dragons.