Between the Ears with Hannah Sue Hollberg

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.

Hannah Sue Hollberg grew up on the back of a horse. Her mom had a lesson program in Kentucky, so as a young rider, she got exposed to anything and everything- from Polo to working at Churchill Downs and of course, eventing. When she was old enough, Hannah made her way to Karen and David O’Connor’s, where she was a working student and where she met her long-time sponsor, Ms. Jacqueline Mars.

Hannah has had an exciting career in eventing, including being a member of the 2011 Pan Am Gold Medal team, multiple trips overseas representing Team USA, plenty of 5* experiences, and a recent third place finish in the MARS Bromont CCI4*-L. Amidst the success, Hannah shares that there have been plenty of setbacks and challenges along the way. So let’s dig in and go between the ears.

Hannah Sue Hollberg and Harbour Pilot. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Can you tell me about a time in your career when your confidence was the lowest and how you navigated through it?

“I think sometimes you don’t even know you’ve lost your confidence until you’ve found it again. At least, that was the case for me. At one point, I had a couple of horses that really made me doubt my eye to a fence. I was finding a distance that I thought was right and I would commit to it and it wouldn’t work out, and I ended up having some pretty bad falls that way.

Despite that, I was still getting sent overseas and I kept making mistakes on cross country and I couldn’t figure out why. In hindsight, I know I lacked the knowledge and experience to make changes but at the time, I didn’t know what to do but to blame myself.

That starts to weigh on you, and so I ended up in about a six-year period where I just didn’t think I was any good at eventing, or at least cross country. I was just terrified, and not even terrified of falling, just terrified of making a mistake. So instead of focusing on the changes I needed to make to ride more productively, I was focusing on all the stuff that I could mess up. It wasn’t a very healthy mindset to be in.

When I started to realize that my confidence really was an issue, getting it back was a bit of a two-fold process. On the riding and training side of things, I needed to break the cycle of just making mistakes and being frustrated about them.

I started riding with my now husband, Matt Hollberg and he changed the way I viewed the process. Every problem I would run into, he would help me find the answer and every mistake had a reason and a way to improve it. He was so systematic and nonjudgemental about it, that I started to be less judgemental and more solutions-focused myself. I don’t think there was anything wrong with the programs that I was in, but sometimes when you’re stuck in a cycle like that, it just takes someone saying the same things in a different way to help you get through it.

Then on the other side of things, I started working with a mindset coach, Natalie Hummel. I’ve known her since we were kids living in Kentucky, but we had lost contact for a while. I started seeing some of her posts on Instagram, and I felt a strong pull to contact her. I fought the urge for over six months, but finally, I realized that I needed to reach out and I’m so glad I did.

I had my first meeting with her while I was at the AECs about three years ago, and I was sitting in a chair in the cross-country field while they were running the Advanced and we just started talking through some stuff. When the subject of my suspension came up, I started crying — like really crying. And all these people were walking by, but that was the very first step to healing my trauma of being suspended and starting to heal my brokenness and all these things that I had told myself about myself that weren’t true.

I’ve been working with her ever since and she comes to the big events with me and she has completely changed my life. I feel like I can train my horses better, I’m not so hard on myself and I’ve learned how to manage my mind productively. I’ve learned that having a run out on cross country doesn’t define who you are and it doesn’t have to affect your confidence in the way that it does when you feel as if everything (including your self-worth) is riding on the results of an event.

It’s crazy how it had changed the way I focus. For the longest time, I was so afraid of all my mistakes and I was just hoping that I wasn’t going to make them, and then I would end up making more mistakes because I couldn’t think about the things I was supposed to be doing. Now I have the mental freedom to think and react to what’s happening in the present moment, which has made a world of difference in my recent results. The mind is so strong, it’s such a huge player in sports and life and if you’re not on top of it, it does have the power to ruin your experiences.”

Hannah Sue Hollberg and Capitol HIM. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Have you ever experienced burnout? How did you overcome it?

“I love horses so much, and I don’t think I could find anything else that I would want to do, but at the same time, going through all the low points in my career, I was miserable. Sometimes I would be successful randomly, but there was so much negativity that I was putting on myself it was a real challenge. For me, getting over the burnout went hand in hand with rebuilding my confidence and recruiting the help of Matt and Natalie, and countless other members of my team who have helped pull me out of the slump.”

Hannah Sue Burnett and Harbour Pilot. Photo by Abby Powell.

How do you handle the loss of a partnership due to injury or retirement?

“I had a horse get injured this winter that I’ve worked so hard on and just got going well at the Advanced level. Luckily enough, I haven’t had an injury such as that in a while, so I almost forgot the sting of it. And it is disheartening because you put so much time and effort and thought into the constant care of these horses and there’s so much emotion that goes into it. And then you have to see your partner locked up in a stall because you don’t want them to get worse, and it’s just hard to see. I don’t have a ton of horses, and there’s no easy answer for dealing with injuries, but, you kind of have to just roll with the punches. When I’m upset, I let myself feel upset and then channel the energy that I would have put into that horse into something that I can improve on.

As far as retirement goes, I know I’m lucky that I got to retire William after a very full career. I knew before I ran him at Maryland that it would be his last event because he didn’t owe anything else to me- and he was sound and happy. It’s strange not having him at the shows after such a long career together but at the same time, it’s now a little bit like I’m starting over without the baggage of the experiences that I had with him.

I think for any of these kinds of setbacks, it’s important that I allow myself to feel how I feel and don’t judge myself for it. Then I try to focus on something positive and go from there. For a long time, I would classically bury all emotions but then I’d be heading to the start box at a huge event and all the negative emotions would creep up on me out of nowhere.”

Hannah Sue Burnett and Harbour Pilot. Photo by Shelby Allen.

What about advice for dealing with injuries yourself?

“It takes a long time for your mind to let go of the possibility of feeling and being hurt so you have to give yourself a lot of time. I’ve gotten hurt a few times and every time I’ve had to go through this process of healing my brain along with my body. So many people try to rush back into the saddle or back to their next event and I think that hurts them in the long run.

When you come back from injury and you feel hesitancy towards riding, it’s a completely normal response. That’s your brain trying to protect you. I had to learn to switch from trying to bottle those feelings up to kind of marveling at my mind instead of being judgemental of it. It’s OK to feel a little off or uncertain when you’re coming back from injury because it’s just your brain trying to keep you alive. So give yourself as much time as you need to get back to feeling good and do it progressively instead of just expecting to be right back to normal because that’s not realistic.”

Hannah Sue Burnett and Capitol HIM. Photo by Abby Powell.

What advice would you have for someone in the sport that’s currently facing adversity?

“I mean, I think we’re all facing adversity at all times in this sport. So this goes for everyone. You have to find a good team and surround yourself with people that understand you and allow you to make mistakes and are supportive.

If you feel like you can’t make mistakes or that you’re worried about making mistakes all the time, I think you need to change your team. It’s not easy to do, but I think in looking around at all the people that are successful around me, especially recently, we’re starting to figure out you’ll be more successful when you’re with someone who brings out the best in you. And it’s multiple people. You might have the best boyfriend in the world, but if he stresses you out during a high-pressure situation, maybe he shouldn’t be in the barns when you’re getting ready for cross country. If you have a groom or help with your horse they should be someone that you enjoy being around.

You have to respect each other completely and complement each other. And I think it’s important to realize that even if a team or a coach or an environment is awesome, it still might not be awesome for you — so you have to go out and find the right fit!”

Hannah is working towards the opportunity to represent Team USA this year at the Pan Ams, with her new mindset on board. Freeing up the focus from past mistakes to new opportunities.

I think the biggest lesson here is that you make mistakes, mistakes don’t make you. When you can separate who you are from how you do, be patient, nonjudgemental, and self-aware, you will grow at a much faster rate than if you get stuck in a loop of negativity and fear.

Dr. Tyler Held EdD CMPC is a professional groom and Certified Mental Performance Consultant. You may have seen her over the last few years working for International 5* Jennie Brannigan or listened to an episode of her podcast, The Whole Equestrian.

Tyler started riding in summer camp at the age of 5 and essentially never looked back. She obtained her Undergraduate degrees in Animal Science and Equine Business Management from the University of Findlay in 2014. During this time, she spent her summers doing her first working student job at an eventing barn and quickly became obsessed with the sport. After experiencing some mental blocks in her own riding, she decided to focus more on grooming and learning more about Sport Psychology. In 2017 she moved to Chester County, PA to work as a Vet Tech and groom for Dr. Kevin Keane, which opened a lot of doors in the eventing community.

Just as she finished her Master’s Degree in Sport and Performance Psychology, she took the reins at Brannigan Eventing as head groom. Now partially retired from grooming, Tyler is focusing on growing her consulting business, Thought Quest Mental Performance Solutions, and helping Equestrian athletes navigate the mental challenges that come with the sport.

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