If you could write a letter to your younger self, what would you say? That’s the topic of an ongoing series by Equestrian Marketing Firm Athletux. Today five-star rider and U.S. Eventing Team rider Jan Byyny shares her letter.
Dear Younger Self,
Where do I start? It is 2020, and I’m living in a strange time right now, where a pandemic called Covid-19 has changed things for everyone. As awful as it is for so many in the world, it’s given me time to reflect on my life with horses — 37 years! — and to think about what’s important. Would I do it all again if I had the choice? Yes! There’s so much that’s happened, so much I’ve learned, so many people that have influenced me. Maybe my 52-year-old self taking stock will be helpful for you looking forward, and maybe I’m writing this letter as much for my current self as I am for you.
It is the people in your life that will be the most important thing to you. You will realize over and over how lucky you are to have the family you do, and to have your long-time partner, Tom, in your life. Your Mom and Dad taught you and your siblings, as small children, to have morals, have expectations, to be the best you can at whatever you do, and to try new things. This will drive you your whole life. They support your passion, even when they disagree with some of your choices! What an incredible gift that is. Tom will come along and pick you at a time when you are both going through difficult periods. He will be your best friend, and the one you can always count on.
You will be fortunate to know many wonderful people whose lives will keep intersecting with yours. Career-long mentors, coaches and friends who will help you when things aren’t going well, and when you are in need of inspiration the most. Lucky for you, you’ll celebrate the best times with them too. Look for these people, they’re the ones you can depend on through thick and thin.
You will never ever give up on your goals and your passion, no matter what happens. Be proud of that. Always find ways to keep going. You are resourceful and persistent, and those qualities will help you achieve your dreams.
Try to be open to new ways of doing things, like different training techniques and disciplines, as well as others’ opinions. You’ll find you can learn from everyone, and then you’ll figure out what works best for you.
You will work hard to not let anything stop you; if you’re passionate about something, you find a way. You’ll have lots of broken bones, and your whole world will be completely upended on February 28th, 2010 when you fall with your horse at Pine Top, break your arm, and wind up in the hospital seven hours later having had a stroke. Your whole way of living and riding will be turned upside down. You will have to re-learn how to talk, just like a baby learns. You will have much taken away from you but will have to dig deeper than ever before. Things you take for granted like teaching will be taken away. You can’t teach if you can’t talk. You will never sound like you used to before your accident. You won’t be allowed to ride for seven months, and you will never have a normal feeling in most of your right side or feel your right hand again. You will learn to work around your injuries for the most part, but it will be very, very, hard work. Giving up is not an option for you, and you won’t let it be.
You have decided early on that you want to make a life with horses. At 15, you recently groomed for Nancy Winter at Kentucky and got your first real taste of what will become your life. Nancy will be one of those people I talked about earlier, and she will incredibly supportive as an owner, friend, and someone you consider family always.
You will go to the Los Angeles Olympics with your family and it will be then that with absolute certainty and clarity you realize that this sport is what you dream to do and that these are your people. How many people know what they want to do in life, and want to be the best they can be at something when they’re only 15? Remember that feeling and the excitement with it.
You’ll be invited to work for Bruce Davidson when you are 17, even though he doesn’t usually take students your age, because you are able to convince him you are a hard worker. Bruce will teach you among other things, how to be a competitor, how to take into account your horse’s strengths and weaknesses, and get the job done. Years later, in 2013, he will walk the cross-country at Fair Hill with you, giving you the confidence to return to the top of the sport after your devastating accident. Your faith in his advice will come from knowing him for practically your entire riding career.
While at Bruce’s in 1986, you will win the Preliminary at Ship’s Quarters and be invited to train with Jack LeGoff for a week! You will find out how much you do not know! But after that, you will always be able to ask Jack for advice and count on his friendship over the years. At Bruce’s you will also meet Scott Keach, who is a working student like you. 25 years later, after your accident, it will be Scott who generously offers to help with your horses while you get back on your feet — a true friend. You will be amazed time and time again how things come full circle.
You will meet a woman named Corky Shaha in 1987 and work with her for the next year, learning about hunters, jumpers, and equitation, once again being reminded how much you don’t know. Corky’s best friend Joe Fargis will come out to her place to teach clinics and heavily influence your belief in the importance of equitation. Joe will tell Corky you look like a monkey when you ride, but at the same time, he will give her exercises to help you improve, which will be crucial in your qualifying for the USET finals. You will connect with Joe a decade later, in the late ’90s, to get help, and still see him at horse shows 30 years after that.
Jack LeGoff will encourage you to work with David O’Connor in dressage, telling you he will give your career a boost because his system is so good. The first time you ride with David is in Florida in 1998 at Sharpton when he and his wife Karen winter there. He will have all of you in pairs doing flatwork in the fields. You will use this from that time on to give horses confidence and aid in learning to communicate with the people around you, as you try to match each other’s rhythm and deal with people in front and behind. Before Fair Hill in 2013, you will go back to David for some dressage lessons, remembering Jack’s advice that David would make an impact. That year you will win.
You will start riding with a man named Phillip Dutton the year he has twin girls. He will change the momentum of your career, from being just another good rider to riding to make a team. It will be Phillip who restores your confidence about riding cross-county after a string of falls and problems. He will walk your first Rolex four-star (which will one day be called a 5*) with you, and he will be there for you after your accident, racing over to pick you up off the ground after your reins come undone at Sporting Days, your first event back. You will continue to ride under Phillip’s watchful eye for so many years, his twins will be grown. You will do this always knowing you will come away confident. Look for people who believe in you, and never discredit their importance.
You’ll be lucky enough to be coached by Mark Phillips at your first team event, the 2003 Pan American Games. You’ll always remember learning you made the team the morning we were headed up to Fair Hill. Mark will say to you that you deserve to be there and that he knows you won’t let anyone down, and you and Shared Dreams will deliver!
You are going to go so many places with this dream of yours, but there will be disappointments and you will never forget the moments that did not go according to plan, or the words spoken to you. In 2004 you will ride at Burghley when it is a grueling long-format event. When your horse Task Force and you fall at the second to last, it will be Mark who still tells you how proud he is of how well you rode. Like Phillip, he will help you to believe in yourself. He has a really good way of showing how to get the job done and you will always feel like you can talk honestly with him. This is one attribute of a great coach.
I cannot say enough how many wonderful people you will be lucky enough to have in your life. The timing of them being there for you will always be instrumental looking back on it. There are so many examples.
Nanki Doubleday is a friend who will take you and your horses in while you figure out what to do with your life after breaking off a relationship. Even though you will make her crazy because all you want to eat is Cocoa Puffs every morning, she will hugely influence your understanding of what a supportive friend is and be part of your life for decades.
Katie Prudent will be another mentor and friend. She and her husband, Henri, will help you before your accident, and coach you at Rolex. Katie will come back from a bad wreck herself, and she will take you under her wing after you’re hurt to make sure you have support. She will make it possible for you to go to Wellington for two winters, letting you live with her and Henri, giving you the opportunity to immerse yourself in their show jumping world. Take advantage of opportunities wherever you find them, you will not regret it.
Sue Lyman will be the one to introduce you to Katie. You’ll meet Sue when you first move to Virginia. She’s an accomplished hunter/jumper professional that really gets Thoroughbreds and is a big help with your horses Shared Dreams and Task Force, along with many other horses over the years. You’ll love that you can bounce ideas off of her and value her different perspective.
You’ll meet Sallie Spenard, a dressage rider, through your long-time student Skyeler Voss, who Sally teaches. You’ll take a couple of lessons with her and help her jump one of her dressage horses. Years will pass and you will reconnect with Sally. Like Sue, she will provide balance to your approach to training horses—it’s so important to look beyond the world you know.
Christy and Eric Stauffer will be another set of instrumental people in your life forever. You will share a house with them, they will help you with horses, and your business. Torrance Watkins will teach you to polish brass and eat French fries with mayonnaise. You’ll learn from Ann Hardaway Taylor, Anne Kursinski, Ralph Hill, Wash Bishop, Peter Green, Wayne Roycroft, Jimmy Wofford, Dr. Susan Johns, and so many others you meet.
It will be through those around you that you learn horsemanship, how to ride, how to teach, how to be a competitor, and how to run a business. You will find that some you meet will be better people than others. Some will be better teachers than others. Some will come and go from your life, and some will always be there. You’ll learn who you want to have in your life and who you don’t. You’ll learn what kind of person you want to be. You will feel you become a better teacher over time and a better rider. Try to be a better person every day.
You will be lucky to ride some phenomenal horses—Inmidair, Shared Dreams, Syd Kent, Task Force, Waterfront—they will make your career. You’ll have a lot of success and be named to U.S. teams, but for every success there will be a hundred setbacks, and that’s going to happen if you do this as long as you will.
You will understand the pain of losing horses early on. The first horse you pick out yourself, an Australian horse named Kibah Copper Mine, you’ll buy at the Roycroft’s while living with your family in Australia when you’re 16. You’ll be second at your first one-star at Essex that summer, but that winter, he will break his coffin bone, in turn-out, and have to be put down. You will lose other horses too, like Red Light, who will win the first selection trial at Rocking Horse for the ’92 Olympics, but at the second trial at North Georgia break his leg jumping up a bank. And Task Force, who will place 7th at the World Cup in Malmo, being the highest-placed American horse, and the following spring break his leg jumping a coop in the warm-up at Carolina and have to be put down. Just like the people you meet, you will learn from every horse, but there are also very hard lessons you may face, so be prepared.
In some ways, the horse world will cause you to grow up fast, to do things beyond your years, and then there will be things it will take decades to learn. You will have amazing experiences, and at other times feel incredibly defeated. No ‘woe is me’ though when through bad luck or bad choices things don’t go your way! No giving up because of broken bones or broken relationships or broken horses! Try every day to be true to yourself, and be a better, kinder person. You will learn so much, have such an exciting life, go to so many places, have amazing horses, and meet truly incredible people!
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