The Ninja-Ballerina Quotient

Perfect balance! What we are all seeking in eventing. Photo courtesy of Holly Covey. Perfect balance! What we are all seeking in eventing. Photo courtesy of Holly Covey.

In all things, there is a season … so the famous old saying goes. In eventing, we too have seasons, but not just for competition and training our horses. We also have seasons of the spirit.

A human changes throughout their life; so a rider also changes from the early days of beginner awkwardness to middle years of competency and balance in the saddle and life. As we progress, we swing constantly from ninja warrior, fighting the battles in the ring with a green or reluctant horse, to prima ballerina, flexible and soft, creating a beautiful scene of harmony.

One of the reasons I think the sport of eventing attracts so many riders in middle life are the multiple opportunities to excel, the three avenues of sport to tackle and master and see through to the end. The phases work together to produce a horseman from start to finish line, and we get the experiences of competition, equitation, training, strategy, care and horsemanship along the way.

There’s a lot written about riders who work hard, nose to the grindstone, produce their own horses from first backing to three-star, and we admire their toughness and skill. We also admire riders who seamlessly ride many different horses well, taking on rogues and sensitive, difficult horses and producing beautiful cross country rounds from each — often in the same day.

It’s a balance we seek, the happy medium, the right amount of force and the right amount of kindness. In order to get a horse in front of your leg, you may have to carry a whip, and you may have to use it. That’s the ninja part. In order to get the proper lateral work out of your horse, you may have to sit very still and apply just a light aid to get the right amount of bend. That’s the ballerina.

For those of us in life who were just a little bit of dancer and just a little bit of warrior, eventing seems like a good fit. We don’t have to stand up to impossible expectations, fight for respect, mind political objectives, tiptoe around or wield authority in the flow of learning that is eventing. We can be good and not have to be great. We can achieve without specializing. We can tap into both our sword and our tutu to enjoy the sport and riding our horses.

So here’s the constant problem with this quotient: It’s an equal share of warrior and dancer that produces the sporting spirit. That last thing isn’t the most important thing in the world, and sometimes it’s not even important at all to some event riders. Not everyone wants to worry about competition, winning and all that. Sometimes, you just compete to check your progress, and in that vein, sporting spirit becomes all about FAIRNESS.

No one set gains more than another set. No one is seen as worse or better than another rider or competitor, no matter why they are there or how they arrive. All have equality, Olympic medalist to 60-year-old Beginner Novice eventer, 18-year-old young rider candidate to 8-year-old on the pony, professional on eight horses and backyard amateur on one cherished lifetime horse.

Some people in eventing confuse competitiveness with business. They do not want fairness; they want an advantage. Because they make their living in the sport, they equate competition with opportunity. When we give importance to this, we do a disservice to the balance, and I believe, we jeopardize the very attraction of the balance the sport gives us. If 30,000 people thought the ticket they bought to attend Rolex cross-country Saturday was to pad the pockets of the 40 or so pros that rode that day, they certainly wouldn’t be there to cheer them. Why do they come? You know the answer.

Having a great sport with balance needs its members to show up and bring the sword on occasion. We’ll fight for the right thing in our sport, and we’ll stand up to bullies who want to capitalize on wrong-headed aggressiveness. Yet, we’ll temper the competitiveness with sensitivity to our horses who are but willing animals giving us what we ask.

We’ll stand for those who aren’t talking or can’t make it to the meetings. We’ll argue for fairness, protect the weak, look out for the inexperienced and newbies. Aggression isn’t always the answer, whether in the warm-up ring on up to the highest levels of the sport. Sometimes tact and skill are more important than big bits. When we lose the ninja side to the ballerina side, the spirit of the sport suffers.

This balancing of spirit in the sport also means we’ll find solutions for the needs of upper-level riders living out of their horse trailers and eating ramen noodles trying to afford entry fees and travel expenses. We’ll take into account the hard work and care needed to keep top level horses in the game, in this country and overseas and seek funding to keep owners in the game. We need to keep all our great organizers coming back to year after year to let their land be a place of sport, and most important of all, increase respect of the volunteers who literally carry the sport on their backs. We need aggressive solutions to these concerns!

We’re ninjas AND we’re ballerinas. We all are. That’s why we’re here, why we ride, why we spend most of our non-working waking hours in the barn, on the horse, online or on foot at events, volunteering and cheering. We ride like warriors at the trakehner and yet have to put on the tutu and make fun of ourselves once in a while.  We seek the mixture of tough and soft, strong and sensitive, the balance of accomplishment over great tests yet the satisfaction of simply nailing that canter depart. This balance creates the spirit.

We check our spirit for this balance each day we ride, and it makes us whole beings and better people. Our horses create this opportunity for us, and we are never wrong to thank them and appreciate them for the education they provide us and the sport. How much our lives are enriched by their generosity and kind willingness, and how our hearts (and other body parts occasionally) ache to ride better and become the rider our horses need us to be. It is our mission.

How are you balancing the quotient? In your everyday riding and in your consideration for the sport you love? Here’s your challenge: Wear the tutu, but carry the sword, just in case. Keep an eye out for fairness in everything you see and hear in eventing this year. From the USEA Convention to winter clinics and seminars to lessons, competition, volunteering, and interaction with professionals and officials. Keep the balance. Seek the spirit of the sport, the balance of ninja and ballerina. Wear the tutu, but carry the sword!