Between the Ears with Alexa Lapp

It seems like these days we look at each other’s lives through the lens of a highlight reel. We get to see the incredible trips, the best jumps, and the moments that we’re proud enough of to put on social media. What we don’t talk about is how much pressure this adds to athletes on both ends of the news feed.

Riders, whether professional or not, are made to feel like they ‘have to’ post something that makes them look cool and successful. Then, as we consume this content, we are stuck with the disillusioned perception that the sport is easy and that if you’re not succeeding, then maybe you aren’t cut out for it. I would like to take this opportunity to go ‘between the ears’ of some of the riders that make up our Eventing Nation and work to understand some of the real challenges this industry presents.

To read more from the Between the Ears series, click here.

Alexa Lapp and Cambalda. Photo by Amy Flemming-Waters / AFW Photography.

Nearly every time I open my Facebook feed, there is a “help wanted” ad looking for working students, grooms, and riders. People who stay in a program for more than six months to a year are becoming an exception, not a rule.

From the outside looking in, a combination of burnout, confidence issues, financial issues, and unrealistic expectations are plaguing the industry. For this edition of Between the Ears, I decided to catch up with Alexa Lapp, who has spent over eight years working for Jennie Saville (nee Brannigan). Alexa is currently handing over the reins of her self-produced CCI3* horse, Pasco, to Jennie and going to take some time to explore the world outside of horses; however, her hard work over the last decade is something that can’t be ignored.

What are the main reasons you stayed in one program instead of “barn hopping” like many in the industry do?

I’ve been working for Jennie full-time for eight years but I helped her on and off for the two years before that. I think the main reason I stayed is that it was a good fit, I liked Jennie’s teaching style and her horsemanship. I also do think being loyal to someone will more likely give you opportunities. You can’t expect someone to take a chance on you if they think you may up and leave in a few months. That being said, you shouldn’t stay somewhere if it’s not the right fit; I got lucky that my first trainer knew Jennie and that we got along so well right from the beginning.

Alexa is right about putting the effort in to get the opportunities out. I think so many people think they deserve to ride and compete right away, but development as an equestrian athlete is a long haul. Alexa got to run her first Advanced on Jennie’s CCI5* mount Cambalda (Ping), but that opportunity was not just given to her — it was earned through hard work, time, and dedication.

Can you tell me about a time that you lost your confidence in riding or competing?

When I went to Young Riders in 2016, I was the trailblazer for my area because I had never had a stop on my horse ever and I ended up being eliminated. Jennie gave me some really good advice to help me overcome this. She said ‘it may feel like your world is ending at the moment but in a few months, it’s not going to matter’. We went home and schooled the same thing she stopped at, went to my next show and she jumped a similar thing. It’s good to remind yourself that they are animals, and you can always school them better or train them better when you make a mistake or one of you loses confidence. There’s also no shame in stepping back down and building yourself back up.

Jennie’s advice is aligned with something commonly referred to as the 5 by 5 rule: “If something won’t matter in five years, don’t waste more than five minutes worrying about it now.” In my experience, both as an athlete and a mental performance coach, I tend to give a little bit more than five minutes to process negative emotions, but the acceptance part of this advice is so important.

So many people think goal pursuit is linear and that if you put in the work, the performance will follow. While this is true in some regards, our sport is so variable, and pursuing a goal will all your heart may lead to success, but there will also likely be rejection, illness, injury, unfairness, and failure along the way too. As long as you can stay focused on the things you value in your pursuit, you’ll be better equipped to handle the setbacks when they come.

Alexa Lapp and Cambalda. Photo by Jenni Autry.

Can you tell me about a time you felt most burnt out and what factors you believe contributed to those feelings?

I think I was most burnt out when we stepped Ping down from the Advanced level and I was competing with just a few young horses at the Novice level, including Pasco. Young horses have a way of making you feel incompetent. In theory, I had this amazing opportunity to ride for the Gardners and had two of my own going as well, but I got stuck in a mindset where I felt like I wasn’t doing a good enough job producing them and it was pretty tough.

I had also just spent every penny I had on Pasco so I was working any job I could to afford his bills. When you’re working long, hard hours and still barely getting by it’s hard to picture life being any different. During this time, I had to remind myself that things aren’t always going to be perfect. I went to Jennie to talk about how I was feeling and she helped adjust my schedule and gave me more lessons on the horses I felt I was struggling with. She helped me remember why I was getting the opportunities that I was, and help me focus more on the good than the bad. It’s also good to have friends that are in a similar situation. Almost anyone that has a young horse is going to feel stuck or frustrated, so I connected with my friends that could relate.

Sometimes when things are falling apart they might actually be falling into place. Steve Jobs said, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.” Alexa is right in that it’s hard to see a future or stay motivated when all you have are young unpredictable horses that you put a lot of work into one day and that still try to buck you off the next. Being able to embrace the growing pains and trust the future really can help with burnout.

What was one of the biggest obstacles you had to overcome on your way to one of your proudest achievements (and what were they)?

My proudest achievement was producing Pasco to the CCI3*-L level. Honestly, being able to financially support him to this level was the biggest obstacle. Besides entry fees, there are cross country schooling fees, vet bills, farrier bills, and more. I had to ask for help to make it possible, which I was lucky to get, but it’s always a little bit uncomfortable to ask people for financial help.

Can you tell me a little bit about the emotions you experienced the weekend you moved up to Advanced for the first time?

I remember not believing it was going to happen — like something silly was going to ruin it.

My dressage went really well and then Jennie had a bad fall and I wasn’t sure that I should even run. I was so emotional finishing cross country because I was happy to have completed it but sad that Jennie wasn’t there for it. I went on to finish third, which was an incredible feeling. I was so grateful and everyone was so supportive and had so many kind words. I don’t think I’ll ever forget any details of that weekend.

This was actually my first weekend working for Jennie, and I remember Alexa grappling with the idea of scratching from the show. In the midst of a lot of chaos, she was able to produce an excellent result. Sometimes distractions actually make us narrow our focus and shift into a “get it done” mindset, but it’s all about how you chose to react. If you have a reason to fail, and you give in to it, you will most likely sabotage your own chances, but if you can reappraise the situation and remain focused in spite of distractions, you may actually set yourself up for peak performance.

Alexa Lapp and Cambalda. Photo by Leslie Wylie.

What advice do you have for someone in the sport who is currently facing adversity??

Stick through the tough part — it always gets better. Don’t be afraid to ask for help or talk to someone; everyone has gone through bad times in this sport. I also really think it’s important to have something that you love outside of the horses so that when things aren’t going great it doesn’t feel like your whole world is crashing down

How did you feel when you found out Jennie was going to be able to keep Pasco and what’s next for you?

I mainly felt relief. I’ve been so concerned about making sure he was going to go to a good person I was happy he’d be staying with a person and program I know and respect so much. Obviously selling him was bittersweet but this was a best case scenario! I’m going to get a “normal” job and then I am planning a trip to Europe to spend a few months there this fall. I still hope to help Jennie at the big events and come to visit the horses! I’ve known most of the horses since they were four-year-olds or younger than that so I’ll be keeping up with them and Jennie. In a year or so I’ll reevaluate and probably get another young one to produce if I haven’t already bought one by then.

I know I can’t wait to see how far Jennie and Pasco will go, and couldn’t be happier for all parties involved. Good luck to Alexa on her next adventure, although as she said, I’m sure we’ll still be seeing her around.

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