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.
Isabelle Bosley is no stranger to the international horse show scene. She’s spent the past 8 years working for five-star event rider, Lillian Heard Wood, as a groom, rider, and just about everything in between. After several overseas trips grooming for Lillian, Izzy got her first crack at overseas competition herself in the spring of 2022.
What started as a grant to compete at Bramham ended up as a double whammy when Izzy was named to the Nations Cup team at Houghton Hall (talk about pressure!). The experience proved to be less than ideal from an outcome-based perspective: at Houghton, Izzy had a fall at the water, and she ended up retiring on course at Bramham. When I asked Izzy about her experience, she said, “Honestly, in all the failure, I’ve probably learned more than I have in five years before getting to that point.” Hopefully, by hearing about Izzy’s journey and experience, you will get a chance to learn something too!
Can you tell me a little bit about your horse background and start in eventing?
“Both of my parents train racehorses so I kind of grew up from day one in the barn with them. They didn’t put any pressure on me to do horses, and I don’t think they ever wanted me to make it a full-time career, but I picked up the bug. Once I had my first eventing lesson, I thought “this is it!” and never looked back.
“I first worked for Lillian in a ‘gap year’ after high school, but my parents made me go back to take classes at a community college the following fall. That year made me realize that I didn’t want to be in school and that I wanted to do horses full-time. My parents have always been supportive of me, but with their own experiences of what life is like in the horse industry, they wanted me to be realistic about what I was getting myself into. They told me ‘If you’re going to not do school, then you’re going to have to start paying your bills and making your way in the sport because it’s going to be tough, so you should start learning now.’
“In hindsight, I’m glad that I did go to school for that year because I think if I had gone straight into horses I would have always thought ‘Should I have gone to school?’ But I know I’m where I’m supposed to be one hundred percent. This is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life.”
Talk me through your 2022 season. What roadblocks did you face and how did it affect your confidence?
“When I first moved Millbrook (Night Quality) up to Advanced in 2021, we had almost a fairytale season. He was going great, so I set my sights on getting a grant to go to Bramham the following year. I got the grant, and on top of that, I was named to the Nation’s Cup team for Houghton as a prep run. As a young kid doing their first trip overseas, I wasn’t as nervous as you would think, because I had done it so many times as a groom for Lillian. I knew the atmosphere and the competition would be intense because riders over there are insanely good. All I was thinking was, ‘This is going to be awesome for us.’
“The winter before my trip, I dislocated my shoulder, which put a little bit of a wrench in my plans. It was the second time I had dislocated that shoulder and I was feeling the physical effects of that and worried about my physical fitness. My prep runs didn’t feel quite like the runs I did in the fall before, which could have been partially my shoulder but I think maybe the difficulty of the level was just catching up with us. I was a young rider not seeing my strides all the way around and my horse was pretty green too. Looking back, I did progress through the levels pretty quickly and some of the gaps in my fundamentals just started to creep up on us.
“By the time we made it overseas, it was like the wheels just kind of fell off. We weren’t 100% confident and we were going around some of the toughest tracks that we had ever seen. When I fell off at Houghton, everyone on the team was incredible and supportive, but what was pressing on me was that 2 weeks later I was supposed to go to a four-long. Not exactly an ideal situation! But I had amazing support and connections through the team, so I pressed on.
“Another challenging factor was that I felt Millbrook wasn’t feeling 100% himself. I had to battle with this a lot because I constantly wondered if I was just overthinking things. I was overseas all day obsessing over my one horse when I’m normally staying busy all day with Lillian’s entire barn. I had to try to navigate my intuition with all of the heightened pressure of the environment that I was in. At Bramham, he gave one hundred and twenty percent around that course. And I mean, that course was extremely technical and challenging. We got ten minutes around the course and then got eliminated at the last water, where there was a monstrous drop in that I couldn’t make happen.
“Hindsight is 20/20. When I returned home, I got some vet work done and it turned out that he tested positive for EPM. Interestingly, EPM can lie dormant in a horse and be triggered by stress, which I think is what happened to Millbrook, with all the stress of the trip. Looking back, I feel like I should have trusted my gut a bit more when I thought he wasn’t feeling well, but that’s kind of just part of the learning game. The line between trusting your gut and overthinking is a tricky one! After getting the EPM sorted, Millbrook ended up having a pretty bad abscess that prevented us from having a fall season. It was almost like in a way, my whole year was botched and in another, I had learned so many important lessons I know I will take with me through the rest of my career.”
How have you moved forward from the experience?
“I ended up dislocating my shoulder a third time in the fall of 2022, so I had to get surgery that included a three-month recovery with absolutely no riding. I thought about it and the longest I have gone without riding since I can remember was three weeks when I dislocated my shoulder the first time.
“I’m the kind of person who feels weird when I’m not in the barn, so this was definitely a mental and emotional struggle for me. I was throwing myself a pity party, and then I realized that this, too, is part of the game. So I was able to rechannel that energy into positive reflection. I thought about everything I have done and where I want to go.
“I broke down my approach to riding and really took the time to refresh and refocus my mindset. I think the most important lesson I learned is that we can start to get selfish about our goals but we have to remember that the horse is a huge part of this too. I came into this year thinking we’d be so behind, but he’s come out this year feeling phenomenal. I think he needed the time to refresh just as much as I did.
“I feel really good about the way things have gone and now I’m just focused on getting both of our confidence levels where they need to be. I’ve just tried to go back to the basics with him a little bit and kind of establish our foundation a bit better, taking it show by show and not putting too much pressure on any year-end goals.”
Have you ever experienced burnout?
“I think the times I’ve felt most burnout and have questioned what I was doing coincided with not feeling like I was getting anywhere and being successful. I’ve always made the most of my time riding whatever horse that I’ve got. For a long time, I just rode whatever ex-racehorse I got from my Dad and these were great experiences but I wasn’t moving up levels.
“I worked for Lillian for five years before finding Millbrook, and right before he came into the barn was when I was most burnt out. It’s always helped that my parents are in horses and they’ve always given me good advice on those hard times and feeling stuck. Millbrook has been incredible for my career, but the reality is sometimes you’re just going to be the rider without the horse and you have to be able to keep perspective during those times. You have to take what you can get.
“You might get burnout from not having a horse, just like you might get burnout from going to too many competitions. You kind of have to roll with it. And when I am really feeling burnt out, just on the workdays themselves, I try to do something non-horse related. I have a lot of friends that aren’t a part of the horse industry and that’s been important to me as well.”
What would you tell someone who is facing their own adversity in the sport?
“Talk to someone. A friend. A professional. Even sometimes just reading an article is enough. You’ll find that any rider, even the professionals at the top of the sport all go through adversity and it makes you feel better about the fact that even if you are going through a low, you’re in good company. For me, thinking about the fact that all these great riders have all dealt with the safe stuff I am reminded that it doesn’t make me any less of a rider and it doesn’t mean I’m good enough or that I should quit.
“It’s just part of the game, you gotta just be able to handle it and keep moving forward with it. And that’s a lesson that will help you not just in horses, it’s in many things that you would do in life.”
Izzy’s shoulder is healed and she and Millbrook are getting back to competing, with a new timeline and new perspective. For me, hearing Izzy’s story highlights the paradox around goals. Of course, you have to have them, especially if you want to be on teams and ride at a high level — but sometimes it’s in pursuit of those goals that we lose sight of what is important.
We let the pressure of the future change the way we experience the here and now. Realistically, if you are in horses, you are going to go through struggles, so the more we can normalize talking about them and helping each other navigate the rough patches, the more our industry will benefit.