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.
On this edition of Between the Ears, I caught up with Erin Kanara (you may have formerly known her as Erin Sylvester). Erin has ridden at the Advanced and 5* levels on several different mounts and currently runs her training business, ES Eventing, out of Cochranville, PA. Erin had a beautiful baby girl almost two years ago and is already getting back after upper-level competition. I got a chance to talk to Erin about her journey, how she is navigating motherhood, and her insights on how to mentally approach the sport of eventing.
Can you tell me a little about how you started your journey in Eventing?
I grew up in Massachusetts, in a town called Hingham, south of Boston. By chance, I took my first few riding lessons from Elizabeth Iorio. Elizabeth is part of the family that owns Apple Knoll Farm, where they hold recognized events in Area I. After learning a lot of my fundamentals from Elizabeth, I started taking lessons from Adrienne Iorio. Elizabeth and Adrienne are the ones who got me into Pony Club and eventing. I probably seemed a bit like a hooligan because I was pretty untrained, had my ponies at home, and just kind of found my way while taking lessons here and there.
When I got to college, I moved to Area II to go to the University of Delaware and to ride at True Prospect Farm. Riding with Phillip Dutton and then later with Boyd Martin, I started to ride and train more consistently than I ever did growing up. I have since stayed in the area and now run my own business, ES Eventing, in Cochranville, PA.
Has there ever been a time that you’ve lost your confidence in riding and competing?
I had a baby girl almost two years ago. I rode through a good portion of the pregnancy, but I stopped jumping about halfway through and just stuck to riding horses that I trusted and knew were safe. When I got back into riding after I had my baby, I started to lose some of my confidence, mostly jumping big jumps. My strength wasn’t where it was before I gave birth, and I didn’t realize it until I started to feel like myself again.
I honestly feel like it’s taken almost a year and a half to get back to my reaction time riding, which you don’t quite know is gone when you’ve lost it. I kept thinking, ‘What’s happening with my body right now’ and couldn’t seem to get my feel back until I started practicing more. Every cross-country course I went around began to feel a little better—a little better, a little better. Looking back, it makes sense because I ended up going almost a year without jumping big jumps, but as a lifelong equestrian, I was surprised at how I was affected by the time off.
As a new Mom, have you found yourself contemplating the safety of our sport any more than you used to?
I’ve always been someone who tries to practice safe training and safe competition, one hundred percent of the time. I think, if anything, my understanding and recognition of that have become more clear. When you’re leaving the start box to go around a five-star, you think for that split second of everyone you love, and that’s when I think about my baby girl. After a moment of appreciation, I switch to being on task because staying focused is part of what keeps me safe.
I have also always been a big believer in having the proper safety gear. I had a rotational fall forever ago on a training-level horse while I was wearing a helmet with a brim. The brim came down and broke my nose, and I had a laceration between my eyes, so now I always go cross country, even schooling, in a Charles Owen Skull Cap. I also never jump a cross-country jump without a body protector, and my body protector of choice is the USG Flexi Motion Body Protector! Having the right equipment, staying on task, and focusing on how I can ride safely helps mitigate most of the thoughts about danger.
How do you prevent burnout?
I think we all go through times when we feel like we can’t quite get ahead of the curve of burnout. I run a training operation on top of my competition horses, and I have my family too. The inherent diversity in my jobs and roles helps me to keep a little bit of balance. When something isn’t working out, I usually have other things to focus my energy and time on. Sometimes I think people get burned out because they do so much of the same thing. Of course, I have a lot on my plate, but it opens my life up to stay interesting, and I don’t often feel burnt out.
What do you think is one of the biggest obstacles that you’ve had to overcome in the sport on the way to your biggest accomplishment?
On a general level, I would say riding cross-country comes naturally to me, while my polish with dressage and show jumping is not as natural. I’ve ridden a lot of thoroughbreds, and it’s much different than riding a European-bred horse. So I’m always working on my skills in those two phases. I’d like to think that my greatest accomplishments are still yet to come. I have a few young horses that I’m excited about- so the challenge is to get to that point with them. I’m not big on rushing horses toward outcome goals. I want them to be super strong and confident at a level before I move them up. So I am staying patient with the group I have now and looking forward to the future.
What advice would you give to someone in the sport who’s currently facing adversity, be it a lame horse, an injury, or some form of setback?
I feel like I run into this a lot with the young riders that I help. When you are faced with a setback, you just have to kind of take a deep breath and take a beat. See what you can do with this time. Maybe focus on some younger horses. If you just have one horse, maybe you can take that moment and work for someone different or go to a different location and kind of make the most of what you have.
Sometimes, what feels like a setback could just turn into a silver lining for you and you don’t even know it. Disappointments are frequent in the sport of eventing, and being able to navigate disappointment is what makes the people who are great riders great. Things that people might consider ‘bad’ actually build resilience and the ability to be adaptable.
When I was just out of college, I had a sweet little Thoroughbred that I did my first advanced on. He was an angel, and I was super proud that we did it, but he had no business going advanced. At the time, I had another young horse, Potter, who was struck by lightning in the field and passed away. Within a couple of weeks, my other horse who was just getting up to preliminary, had a major injury that was going to set him back at least a year and potentially end his career completely.
I was devastated. I went from having a couple of exciting horses to suddenly feeling like I needed to start from scratch. During that time, I had a friend call me who had a horse that she had foxhunted a bit, and his owner wanted to sell him. She said he was kind of crazy but she thought there might be something to him. That horse ended up being No Boundaries, or Bucky, as we called him in the barn, who was owned by Jill Tallman and was my first five-star campaigner. Bucky had a very crazy streak in him, which was probably why he was sometimes so wild on the flat, but he was a cross-country machine.
I was beyond lucky to experience and achieve all that I did with him! To date, he’s been the best five-star horse that I have had, and he came up by chance when I was sitting there thinking, what the heck am I going to do? It’s so important in those moments to take a deep breath, keep your eyes open, keep connections coming, and something might just come along that turns things around for you.
When faced with adversity or disruption in your grand plan, I think it’s also important to remember that your mission is not only yours and that your support team, family and friends, owners, and staff are all behind you and share your triumphs and disappointments. I am so lucky to have an amazing core group of family, friends, owners, sponsors, and staff, and knowing that they are a part of the journey and supportive in the face of adversity helps me see the silver lining and find a path forward to strive for better riding and greater results!