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 5* Rider, Will Faudree. Will found great success early on in his career with his mount, Antigua. The pair was a part of the Gold Medal winning team at the Pan American Games in 2003, the traveling reserve for the 2004 Olympic Games, and a part of the team at the 2006 World Equestrian Games. He was also the traveling reserve for the London 2012 Olympic Games on his mount, Andromaque.
In 2015, Will had a freak fall in the Advanced division at Five Points Horse Trials, where he broke his neck in two places. Will has returned to upper-level Eventing, competing in multiple international events and representing Team USA as the traveling reserve for Tokyo 2021 with Mama’s Magic Way. Through the highs, lows, and everything in between, Will has an interesting perspective on confidence, burnout, and sustaining a career in the equestrian industry. So with that, let’s go between the ears…
Can you tell me a little bit about how you got into eventing?
I grew up in Texas on a cattle ranch that my family owned, so horses have always been a part of my life. My earliest exposure was to Western riding, but I’ve always been a little bit of a black sheep in my family, so naturally I was more drawn to riding English. I actually saw a movie called Sylvester, where the main character turns a rogue horse bought from a livestock auction into a champion eventer, and that got me interested in the sport. That was in the early 90s, and I never looked back. In 2001, I was able to be a part of the gold medal young rider team and then went to work for Phillip Dutton for a few years before going out on my own.
What are some of the biggest accomplishments in your career?
I had a lot of competitive success early on in my career. I had represented the country and done most of the biggest and most prestigious events by the time I was 25, and obviously, competitive success is easy to track. In a way, it doesn’t feel like I’ve reached that level of success since I had Antigua, and frankly, I’m proud of the longevity of my career despite that. After the World Games in 2006, Karen Stives gave me some of the most important advice I’ve received, and that was not to expect my next horse to fill Antigua’s shoes.
That one phrase has enabled me to continue to stay passionate and engaged in the sport, regardless of the level at which I am competing. Instead of chasing the results, it allowed me to focus on the horses as individuals and develop partnerships with them. I am still striving for results at the top competition, but beyond that, I’m proud of the longevity of my horses’ careers and the obstacles I’ve been able to overcome.
I broke my neck in 2015, and getting back to the 5* level after an accident like that has been a success in and of itself. I also lost my sister in 2008, and I think it’s difficult to navigate a competitive life after losing a loved one. Instead of viewing success as a singular event or accomplishment, I’m able to take a step back, look at my journey, and be proud of it as a whole.
What are some of the tools you used to help come back to the sport after your neck injury?
I was laid up for such a long time after my neck injury and subsequent surgery that I had a lot of time to think about what it was going to feel like when I was finally able to go cross country again. I worked with sport psychology consultant Abigail Lufkin, who helped me be OK with not knowing what my return to competition was going to feel like.
I’m very goal-oriented, and I like to plan and visualize, and I found that after my injury, when I would start to visualize myself going cross country, I would fall and break my neck again. It was really hard for me to accept that it was ok to have these thoughts, and in a way, they were important in helping me get over the fear.
I learned to navigate the negativity with meditation, focus exercises, and breathing techniques. Ultimately coming to terms with the reality that another fall might happen helped me mentally prepare myself to get back on course.
Do you have any pre-performance routines for cross country?
I tend to be very quiet and internal when I get nervous, and I used to panic about that. I thought I should be pumped up, so I would try to listen to loud music. But I don’t like loud music, so I eventually accepted the fact that it’s ok to be quiet.
If I’m really nervous, I’ll sometimes pull up YouTube videos of Tony or Academy Award speeches, and I just listen to the gratitude that people show. The emotions of these individuals as they accept awards demonstrate the passion and hard work that goes into a big success, and that helps me get in touch with the mindset that I have for riding. It helps remind me that this sport is about my horses and the relationship that I have with them.
I also enjoy that everyone who wins an award is consistent in thanking their team, and I am reminded that I would be nowhere without the vets, farriers, grooms, owners, and sponsors that I have by my side.
Interested in dialing in to this attitude of gratitude? Here are some of Will’s favorite speeches:
Viola Davis wins Best Supporting Actress:
Kelli O’Hara Tony Acceptance Speech:
Have you ever experienced burnout? How do you navigate it?
Absolutely. And just like I think it is ok to have thoughts that things might not go well when you’re riding, it’s ok to experience burnout. We all need a break, and I think our horses need the break as much as we do. I used to be hard on myself when I was feeling that way, but I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older that it is important to make time to do things that I enjoy.
It would be very easy for me to fill up every single weekend with a clinic, and I’m sure my bank account would be very happy, but I know I wouldn’t be. So instead, I make sure I take time to go for a hike or fly up to New York to see a show.
What does the off-season usually look like for you?
The horses go on holiday after their last big competition of the year, and they won’t come back to work until about January 1st. I keep the young horses in work, but I try to make the atmosphere of the barn more relaxed and take time to unwind. I like having the quiet weeks at home, and this year is actually the first year in a while that I’ve taken a real vacation.
I spent a week this winter on the Queen Mary, going from New York to Southampton, England, by myself. Vacation or not, the off season is a great time to reflect and see where you can improve. If I had finished Burghley on my dressage score, I would have won- so I’ve been using that experience, both positive and negative, to make my plans and goals for next year.
What advice would you give someone in the sport who is currently facing adversity?
Whenever things get hard or stressful, I always tell myself to keep going. We have no choice but to move forward, even if that means moving forward down a different path. You have to be honest with yourself about what you’re facing and then make a plan. If it’s a soundness issue with a horse, figure out what the treatment plan is. If it’s a financial issue, brainstorm what actions you can take to overcome it.
It’s very easy to compare yourself to other people in the sport, and I’ve been guilty of that as well, but it’s important to remember that the grass is always greener on the other side, but you have to figure out how to play on the grass you’re standing on. Figure out what your situation needs, and start there.
When I was going on my trip on the Queen Mary, I had people ask me if the ship would stop anywhere. We sailed across the middle of the Atlantic, so there was nowhere to stop, and during the trip, for the first time in my life, I enjoyed the journey. That was such a good reminder for me.
This year is an Olympic year, and I would love to make the team, but I also know that that may not happen. Three people are going to the Olympics this year. I’m going to take every day one step at a time and enjoy the journey because the journey is all that is guaranteed. And the problem with focusing on the destination is, where do you go after that?
Embrace the sport for what it is, enjoy your horses, and just keep moving forward.