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.
Sydney Solomon just had her first crack at the big leagues, taking Laurie Cameron’s Early Review C around the majority of the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event CCI5* track before parting ways at fence 23, just before the 10-minute mark of an 11:26 minute course. So much pressure can go into the outcome of an event like this, so I wanted to get between the ears with Sydney to talk about her experience and her career in the sport that got her here.
Can you tell me a little bit about your background and introduction to eventing?
“My first experience of eventing was when a trainer of mine took me and some other girls from my barn to watch the Fair Hill three-star [now 4*]. We watched a PBS documentary on the O’Connor Event team on the way, so it really was a crash course on the sport. I got my first horse, Bella when I was eight and she was four, and as you can imagine, it wasn’t an easy partnership. Even when I was 10 and Bella was six, eventing the mare didn’t seem like a viable option. So I took my Mom’s draft horse around Beginner Novice and Novice, which was fun to watch because I was tiny and she was giant. Eventually, I got another horse, Lillian Pink, who is actually closely related to my upper-level mount today, Coco. Lily’s full sister is Coco’s mother. Lily and I did young riders and 30 or so Prelims together while training with Lillian Heard. Lillian Heard also helped me shape Bella into a Prelim horse, something that I wasn’t sure would be possible. So with both horses, I got a ton of mileage before I had even finished high school. When Lillian Pink had to be put down after a freak incident in her stall, I was so grateful to have Bella to keep me going.”
How did you end up running your own training business?
“After I graduated high school, I took a gap year to go work for Phillip Dutton as a working student. After two years there, I had three horses in training and Phillip was downsizing his program at the time, so at the age of 20, I essentially went out on my own, renting stalls at True Prospect farm for my horses. At the time, I was thinking I might still go back to school, so I didn’t want to commit to another program, and also with three horses, it’s difficult to go and work for someone else. I had this great opportunity to ride all these horses and I wasn’t sure I would get it somewhere else. In hindsight, maybe I should have gone down to one horse and been in a program, but one of the things I got from going out on my own so young was really learning to think for myself. It was terrifying not having help all the time, but I competed a lot, and had some really accelerated learning. There was a lot of failure but I also had a lot of success. I have to give so much credit to Laurie who trusted me throughout that experience. I did learn how to be very independent and I did come around to be more comfortable doing things without someone telling me every step of the way, although even now I wish I had people telling me what to do more.”
Can you tell me a little bit about your confidence as a rider?
“I definitely had plenty of horse shows that didn’t go the way I wanted them to. That being said, sometimes you can throw everything you have at making your horses go well and you’re still going to go and have problems I’ve had plenty of events where I’ve taken a ton of lessons beforehand but if the horse doesn’t like a ditch it’s not going to jump a ditch and at the end of the day those lessons didn’t matter, but also to be able to reflect back at those events and see that things did go well. I think I am constantly up and down in confidence, and maybe a lot of other riders feel this way as well.
“In 2021 my confidence was at its lowest, I felt like Coco and I would have one really good event and then we would have one really bad event and our best phase was cross country, and all of a sudden we weren’t getting around the cross country- and I was constantly questioning what I was doing wrong. We discovered that she was having issues tying up but it was still me saying ‘wow, I rode horribly’ and sometimes I still have events where I feel like that and sometimes I think ‘I have so much experience, I should be better at this than I am’ – I have probably done over 120 Prelims but it’s still not an easy level and taking any horse around Prelim is not easy.
“Sometimes you get on one horse one day and you can see every distance perfectly and you think that you’ve figured it out, riding horses, and then you get on the next one and they’re leaving the ground at awkward distances and you remember that you don’t.”
Have you ever experienced burnout? How do you handle burnout?
“The hard thing for me with burnout is that if things aren’t going well, I can’t stop. I feel like I can’t take time off because I need to make progress. The times that I am most burnout are when I feel like I’m just not good enough. It doesn’t have anything to do with the crazy hours or anything like that- it wouldn’t matter if I’m having easy days and getting done at 4 p.m. or a hard day and working until 8 p.m..
“When I feel this way, taking lessons usually helps me get out of it. I go into those lessons with an intention and I usually see results in those circumstances. I go to someone that I trust and feel comfortable with. I genuinely feel like I just have to get better at this, and that’s probably something that every rider feels for their entire career that they just have to improve their skills and for me, that’s the best therapy for a lack of confidence” Lessons give me actionable advice that gives me the plan to move forward with.”
OK, let’s talk about Kentucky, what emotions did you feel throughout the event?
“I was more emotional than I have been in a very long time. I’ve done a lot of four-stars and that’s pretty close to the top level of the sport but it’s nothing compared to the energy at the five-star level. Being at Kentucky I teared up a little as they said ‘Early Review, accepted’ [at the Horse Inspection] and that’s so not me. I’ve learned to separate from the emotions of the sport a lot, you kind of have to in order to survive because if you let yourself feel all the emotions and disappointments that come with this sport, you can’t live like that, because there’s too much. Even on a good day, I’m not crying tears of joy even if I’ve had the best show of my life. Going into the dressage ring, I also felt myself shed a tear. For my next five-star, I don’t think I’ll feel so emotional.”
What were you most afraid of?
“Going into the event my biggest fear was that I was going to go and have a rough cross country round and that’s exactly what happened. I knew I was going to be nervous about cross country because I’ve been nervous about that course for the past two years. I felt like my first few jumps I really attacked and that was great.
“But at some point in the course, my eye wasn’t seeing them forward anymore. I so desperately didn’t want to have something stupid happen that I wasn’t going to trust my eye to see a big open distance. At the coffin, Coco was amazing to get it done, but in my head, I already started telling myself ‘here goes my embarrassing cross country round in front of hundreds of thousands of people.’
“It’s one thing when you go to an Advanced horse trials and you’re in the back of the course and you have a bad jump and the only one who sees it is the jump judge but at Kentucky, there are so many people watching everything you, and maybe I should have ignored that, but it helped me at the beginning of the course and hindered me as soon as things started to get a little rocky.
“We were clean up until fence 23 — basically minute 10 of an 11:26 minute course, and when I fell, I was upset, but I felt like I deserved it and I was just happy that Coco was ok. I wasn’t upset that I fell off, I was upset that I hadn’t ridden better throughout the rest of the course, especially since Coco was so game for it, and she tried so hard. I kept saying to myself, what an amazing horse I am sitting on, but I’m just riding so poorly, and it was definitely worse in the places where there were tons of people watching.
“It was a great learning experience because I know focusing too much on what I looked like to everyone else took away from my ability to focus on riding better. Next time, instead of thinking about the fear of a bad round, I’m going to tell myself that ‘I’m going to go out there and do my best’”
What advice would you give to a young rider with the hopes of making it to the five-star level?
“Find someone who you trust and who is willing to put time into you and learn everything you can from that person.”
At Kentucky, Sydney was awarded the Richard Picken Sportsmanship Award, voted on by other riders at the event. This award was created to honor the late jumping trainer Richard Picken and was awarded to Sydney for her demonstration of a measurable feat of sportsmanship during the event. As a competitor, Sydney is probably one of the nicest human beings that you will find on the scene. It’s not easy to go to Kentucky and come up just short of finishing, but Sydney did so with class, and never for a second laid blame on her horse.
I am so glad that Sydney opened up about her experience and where her focus was on Cross Country day, because fear of other people’s opinions is common at any level.
While seeking the approval of others is a very natural phenomenon, it takes a lot of the rider’s power away. The more we focus on not embarrassing ourselves, the less we focus on the process of riding well and being in the moment. If I tell you “don’t think about a pink elephant”, I dare you not to think about a pink elephant. It’s almost impossible.
Similarly, when we tell ourselves “don’t mess up in front of all these people” all our brain hears is “you’re going to mess up in front of all these people.” Enter: the paradox of wanting to do well, without trying too hard.
I know Sydney will continue to crack on at her goals, and I am excited to see how learning from this experience will shape her mindset in the future.