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 get started, I spoke with 5* rider Emily Hamel, who just so happens to be one of my very best friends. Now, I think Emily is great about being vulnerable both on social media and in person, however, after coming off of a year in Europe and successfully completing both Badminton and Burghley, it’s hard not to romanticize her and Barry’s journey to the top. So let’s go ahead and take a journey between the ears…
Can you tell me about a time that you lost your confidence in your riding? How did you overcome it?
“The summer/early fall of 2019 was a rough patch for Barry and me. We were struggling to get our second 4*-L qualification after completing our first 4*-L brilliantly at Fair Hill in the fall of 2018. I went into Bromont that summer feeling great, but a few silly rider errors on cross country and the first E on our record.
I was pretty devastated by this mostly because I felt I should have done better. After allowing myself to be sad for a day, I promptly devised a plan and started training hard for Fair Hill in the fall. Again, I was feeling great going into the event, but unfortunately got launched out of the saddle at fence 7 on cross country when we disagreed on the distance to the Trakehner. This crushed my confidence in my riding and I wondered if I would ever get qualified to run a 5*.
Luckily, I had been through enough disappointments before and know there was no use dwelling on it. However, I give myself a day or two max to throw myself a pity party. After the party is done, I come up with a new plan. In this situation, it consisted of me extending my season and aiming for the 4*-L at Jockey Club in Ocala. Leading up to the event, I had several cross country lessons with Phillip to boost my confidence through competence which led to a great outcome and qualifying score.”
I love how Emily says “Luckily, I had been through enough disappointments” here. While there are certaintly events and circumstances that can shake our confidence, it is actually being able to push through difficult times that make us more mentally tough and in turn, more confident.
Emily’s belief in herself and her abilities have been able to help her push through mistakes and difficulties even beyond the struggles she experienced in the 2019 season.
After coming very close to taking a swim at Badminton, Emily went on to finish a beautiful cross country round. In those moments, there is no space for self-doubt, only trust in yourself and your ability to do hard things. In the sport of eventing, it’s so unrealistic to think everything is going to go perfectly all the time, it is however, realistic to expect yourself to get stronger with every obstacle you overcome.
Have you ever experienced burnout? Why? What tools did you use to get through it?
“Oh yeah, because working with horses is hard! I’ve worked in the horse industry for myself and other professionals since high school. Throughout the years, I have experienced varying forms of burnout. It happens most often when I’m working hard AND feeling like I’m not moving in the right direction. One can be manageable for a while, but both are a lethal combo.
Whenever I feel like burnout is coming, I know it’s time for something to change. That’s part of the reason I decided to go to England last year. Not only did I want to compete at Badminton and Burghley, but I also wanted time and space to focus on Barry and figure out my next step after our European adventure.”
What was one of the biggest obstacles you had to overcome on your way to one of your proudest achievements?
“I would say injuring my knee and having to have surgery four weeks before competing at Badminton was quite the obstacle. I was on a serious emotional roller coaster for a while there with being on the waitlist for Badminton, then hurting my knee, then getting the news I got off the waitlist, then expediting my surgery/recovery time so I could ride at Badminton.
I couldn’t have done it without the amazing group of people who took care of me and my horses while I healed. Shout out to Tyler for wheeling me out of the barn on a tack trunk! So when I completed Badminton it was a huge win in so many ways.”
I think the biggest takeaway here is perseverance. There are countless stories of individuals who overcome physical, mental, and financial limitations through unstoppable perseverance.
As I was literally carrying Emily around less than a month before she was supposed to head overseas, I saw her worry, I saw her question but I never saw her give up completely. She made a plan, and she found her way. I had joked with Emily a few months before when she rented her house out for the year before heading to Aiken and said “I guess you’re just going to have to make this happen, Badminton, Burghley the whole nine yards” — and she did.
Confidence is just the colloquial term for self-efficacy –- the belief that you can successfully do a particular thing. Maybe it’s wild to think, “I’m getting knee surgery and then getting on a plane to run my first overseas event at the 5* level”, but clearly it worked.
We don’t get to choose which obstacles stand in our way, but we do get to choose how we react to them, and in that choice, our experience can and will change.
What advice do you have for someone in the sport currently facing adversity?
“Welcome to the club! No matter how perfect someone’s journey may look, there is no doubt they have had to overcome multiple things to get to that place. I think knowing that you are not alone in the struggle is the most important thing and having a good support system to help you get through it is key. Also, I always like the think that it’s the adversity that makes for a good story. So as much as it may suck in the moment know that it will make the wins that much better in the end.”