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.
I think everyone remembers the first time they fell in love with horses. For Zoe Crawford, it all started at her grandparents’ cabin in New England and a memorable trip… to get ice cream.
As the story goes, across from the ice cream stand was a ranch offering pony rides. Little Zoe threw a temper tantrum when she was told to get off of her pony and her parents thought, “This kid needs some riding lessons!”
Growing up in the city of Boston, Zoe had to start at a local hunter/jumper barn, where she was involved in Pony Club but didn’t have access to real eventing until after she graduated high school. After graduation, she took a gap year to be a working student for Jeannie Clark in Ocala, where she finally got her first taste of eventing.
Throughout college, Zoe learned and rode as much as she could. By the time she graduated, she had three horses and went right into building her own business. Now a CCI5* rider, Zoe has a lot to share about what she has learned in the industry and all the ups and downs along the way. Let’s go between the ears…
Can you tell me about how you built confidence throughout your college years while not being in a program full-time?
“I was able to compete at Young Riders the summer before my sophomore year of college, and in doing so, I was named to the U25 Team. This opportunity, and getting help from Leslie Law were crucial to navigating the waters of upper-level competition. A year or two later, I was awarded the Essex grant, which was another huge boost to my confidence. Here I was, juggling school, competition, and training- and getting the validation that someone else saw my hard work was awesome. That summer, I came up to ride with Phillip Dutton, and I learned a lot from him as well as other professionals in the area. At that point, my confidence was very high.”
When was your confidence at its lowest? How did you get it back?
“I think the biggest thing that really rattled my confidence was following my first year at Kentucky. [K.E.C. Zara] had been so consistent on cross country, so I just really didn’t expect to fall off. Luckily, we both walked away fine, but the experience affected both of our confidence. It was the first time that I had a fall like that. Coming off of the event, I was lucky enough to have two other horses, one going Prelim and one going Intermediate, so I got to get right back out there. I did go quite slow on cross country while I was getting back into the groove of it and trusting myself again. But I think the confidence just came back with time and practice.
“When I got to go back to Kentucky with Zara, we made it through cross country, but that show was not without its challenges either. I had to face a huge mental battle when I was held on the cross country right before the exact spot where we had fallen before. Over the loudspeaker, I could hear it was Ashlynn Muechel whose fall had caused the hold on course. Ashlynn and I are friends, and we had driven up to the show together and were sharing a tack stall, so it was really hard to not think about her on top of all the other emotions I was experiencing. Zara is quite hot at events, which proved to be a welcome distraction. I had to use all of my concentration to keep her calm during the hold. I also took the opportunity to think about my game plan and realize that if I had to take some of the longer routes, that would be OK because my goal was to get through the finish flags.”
Zara and Zoe were ultimately spun at the second jog after their successful cross country completion at Kentucky in 2022. Luckily, it was just a little bit of soreness and the pair was able to compete at the Maryland 5 Star later that fall, complete with a double clear cross country ride and a top 20 finish. While gearing up for their Kentucky redemption this fall, Zara sustained an injury and is now enjoying retirement with Zoe.
How are you dealing with Zara’s retirement?
“When I found out that Zara was injured, it was obviously bittersweet. I caught the leg right before we left for Stable View, and she wasn’t even lame on it, so on one hand, I was disappointed about the future but on another, I was so glad that I know my horse so well and trusted my gut to have her looked at. So I’m glad she’s ultimately OK, and she’s still here with me in my barn and I get to see her everyday. She’s 17 now and I’ve had her since she was six, and with all she’s given me, I just don’t think it’s fair to try to make her come back to compete at that level again, even though her prognosis looks great.
“Now that she’s retired, it’s almost like I’m starting over again. I currently don’t have any other horses competing at the upper levels, which is something I have to wrap my head around. Zara took me around Advanced for six years and now I don’t even have something going FEI. So now I’m just focusing on the lessons that I learned from her and how I can produce the horses that I do have now.”
Have you ever experienced burnout? How do you overcome it?
“I’ve been burnt out a few times on different levels. Sometimes it’s been when I feel like the horses haven’t been going as well as they should be, and sometimes it’s when I feel like I’m working away and not a whole lot is changing. The last time I was really feeling it, I had a conversation with my Dad and he asked me if I wanted to do something else, and that kind of snapped me right out of it. Even when the day to day stuff gets hard, it’s still what I want to be doing. I can’t see myself working a desk job and I know that there are going to be struggles everywhere you go. Zara helped put things in perspective for me, because the challenges that I’ve faced with her have given me confidence to handle other setbacks.”
What advice would you give for someone in the sport that’s currently facing adversity?
“Sometimes you have to be one of your own biggest cheerleader, which can be really hard, but you have to be able to believe in yourself. I also feel like you have to have a few people that you can call and vent to, just so that whatever you’re going through, you can get it off your chest. The reality of the horse industry is that you might not be able to change the situation that you are in, so you have to have those people that are going to help you process your feelings.”
Zoe is working on rebuilding and refocusing her goals for this year, growing her business and building her team. One of the most unique things about our sport is that it’s so dependant on our horses, and sometimes they have their own needs and plans.
If you make the Olympic team for basketball, you don’t have to restart at the pee-wee game just because your basketball deflated, but when you’re an equestrian, you are going to have to constantly rebuild horses and partnerships from ground zero as part of the process. This is where separating yourself from results is an important part of mental health, from Beginner Novice to Advanced, and everything in between.
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.