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.
After suffering from a freak fall on a Training Level horse at Chattahoochee Hills in late October last year, Jenny Roberts made an amazing comeback, helping Team USA clinch silver at the FEI Nations Cup in Strzegom just eight months later. I got a chance to talk to Jenny about this experience and some of the other mental challenges she has faced in her career as a professional eventer in this edition of Between the Ears…
Can you tell me a little bit about how you got into the sport of eventing?
I think I first got on a horse during my second birthday party, where my parents got me a petting zoo, and there was a pony and pony rides, and I didn’t want to get off the pony. I started crying every time they pulled me off.
I started begging for riding lessons and ended up at a riding school from when I was about four years old to when I was twelve or so. Around that time, I saw an ad for an O’Connor camp that used to run in December of each year so I tore out the page and told my mom ‘This is what I want for Christmas.’ At the time, I was pretty good at the riding school, but I had no idea the sort of depth that I was going into for the camp.
With my eyes and my mind wide open, I soaked up every second of the experience, and actually, David and Karen are the ones that convinced my mom to buy me a horse. I got a mare and started focusing on training for eventing, first with Mike Winter and then with Julie Richards, who was my biggest influence growing up. I moved out of my parent’s house when I was fifteen and lived with Julie for a while. Then I eventually made my way up to Pennsylvania, and now I’m running my own business in Georgia.
Can you tell me a time that you feel like you lost your confidence in riding or competing and how you came to overcome it?
I constantly struggle with this. So before, when I was kind of coming up through the levels with my Advanced mount, Fernhill Fortitude (Forty), I had confidence issues that were based on performance and the fear of not performing well. Specifically, I was afraid to have cross-country penalties. I wasn’t necessarily afraid of falling or getting hurt, or anything like but I was a constant fear of failure.
That fear shut me down, it was like I had beat myself before I even started, so to speak. I started talking to a sports psychologist, Abigail Lufkin. Working with Abigail, I was able to find a system that helped me manage my anxiety. She helped me set performance goals instead of outcome goals, because you can’t change the outcome. I learned you can’t just say, ‘I’m going to go win’ because you can’t control if you win or not, you can just do the best that you can. So it changed my way of thinking from ‘I have to get a really good score’ into ‘I need to ride a balanced turn’ or ‘I need to practice the test more.’
Looking back, the mindset I had on Forty was crippling, because I got so hung up if I didn’t have a low dressage score because I thought ‘Now I’m not going to win’ whereas now I’m able to turn that all into a focus and attention on what I need to do to get better.
So, the work I did with Abigail helped me manage my performance anxiety much better, but last year when I had a pretty significant fall, my confidence issues resurfaced differently. I was riding a Training level horse, and it was a completely freak accident. I had just been second at the Fair Hill 3*-L the weekend before and on that day I had already ridden four horses successfully around the cross country. Then over the fourth fence, my young horse misread the question and I ended up in the hospital with a broken pelvis and some pretty significant internal injuries. Luckily, the fall happened at the end of the 2022 season, but getting back into it this year I found myself being afraid of falling over and getting hurt and it started to manifest in not wanting to do anything or change anything in front of the jump.
I think the most successful cross-country riding comes from attacking the course, being confident, and being determined and I just wasn’t able to get myself to ride like that. Meanwhile, I was still getting opportunities to develop my riding through US Equestrian, and with that came the pressure to perform, all while I was still battling some of the physical pain of my injuries.
As I was getting back into competing, I started having 20s on cross country where I knew I shouldn’t have. And it was happening on multiple horses, so I know it wasn’t the horse — it was me. Eventually, I started getting nervous even getting ready for cross country. I would basically have a panic attack that I was going to fall down and get hurt — even at the lower levels. Once I got on the horse and started riding, it would go away, and show jumping was fine, and I was even fine schooling, I was just really struggling at the shows.
It had been a while since I had spoken with Abigail, so I decided to call her and put in the work. We began talking 1-2 times a week, as much as I could fit into my schedule, and we started to dissect how I felt about the fall that I had had.
The more and more we dissected the incident, the more I was able to realize that I wasn’t really afraid of the fall itself, it was fear of failure resurfacing because of the experience. I remember the pain of the fall and I even got knocked out — I was able to cope with both of those experiences as well as the rehab — it’s part of the sport and I know I can’t 100% prevent something like that happening again. But I realized I’m OK with that.
What I was most afraid of was indecision, or making a decision that could lead to a failure. We came up with ways to redirect the negative thoughts I was having into positive ones, and I started to be able to think more clearly in front of the fences. I realized that I don’t have to be perfect. There are so many ways to jump these jumps, and just because one horse and rider combination rides it one way, doesn’t mean you can’t do it another as long as you are being safe.
Realizing that my need to be perfect actually was causing some unsafe riding habits really freed my mind up to ride more confidently. Working with Abigail has always been super helpful for me, because she knows the sport so well having competed to a high level herself. At both Bromont and Strzegom, I tapped into that determined and committed feeling on cross-country that I’m looking forward to build the rest of the year.
Do you have any tips or strategies for managing burnout?
I think one of the most important things for me is realizing that even though I love horses and I’m so lucky to live my passion, it’s still a job- and everyone that works is going to experience burnout at one time or another. My dad is a cardiologist, and he’s very successful and he’s been working for many years and is absolutely in love with his job, but that doesn’t mean everyday is his favorite.
Another thing that I find useful is to constantly set goals. I was pretty burnout during Covid, because I didn’t really feel like there was anything I was working towards. Having that big outcome goal in the future really helps lay the blueprint for the day to day things that I am working on. For instance, if I want to take a horse to Maryland in the fall, I work backwards and decide not just what events I am going to do, but also how I am going to be able to perform the best at those events. So then that keeps me motivated because everything feels like it has purpose as you are building toward a performance.
I will admit that sometimes once the event has come and past, I struggle with the letdown but recently I’ve been better about giving myself and my horses some time off to relax and regroup. I think it’s hard to stay motivated when you don’t know what you’re working towards, so I always go back to goals.
When I’m really burnt out physically, mentally or maybe I’m just sick, I also remind myself that sometimes the horses are better off getting lunged for a day. Obviously there will be times that you need to go to the barn no matter what, and that’s fine — but sometimes it is better to not push through. I think the horses can tell if you’re enjoying it or not too, so taking care of your mental health is important.
What advice do you have for someone in the sport who’s currently facing adversity?
Surround yourself with good people and good friends that you can count. I think that’s always straightforward when it comes to the horses; you want the best farrier, the best trainer, the best vet.
It’s the same for humans, you need to surround yourself with people that help you and lead you in the right way. Both in and out of horses. I also think that knowing that everybody’s gone through it is comforting as well. You’re not the only one that’s ever felt that way, and no matter how bad you feel now, it will improve. Keep persevering and keep going because it’s a hard sport and, there’s a lot of knocks, so celebrate the good times and lean into your support system during the bad.
Looking at Jenny in the photos of Strzegom, you can’t see someone who has struggled with confidence. You can’t see all the physical hurdles that she went through in a short period and you certainly can’t see the hours of hard work that she put into working with a Sport Psychologist to set effective goals, manage fears and develop the ability to focus in high pressure settings. You just see the smiles and the ribbons. And that’s OK, just remember that when you see some else’s success, there’s a story behind it.