The Yellow Bellied Eventer: How I Cried My Way to Prelim

Roo and I over our first Prelim table. I almost cried when my trainer asked me to jump this. Photo by my mom.

Over my vast years of Internet exploration I’ve come across some poignant memes, and some great cat videos, but nothing so much as a random Tumblr post that popped up one day amidst my aimless scrolling. I can’t remember the exact quote, and I have no idea who wrote it. It went something like: what if people who suffer from anxiety are on their first incarnation of life and they’re unaccustomed to the way the world works, and confident people have already been reincarnated several times and know how the world works?

It was one of those seemingly incongruous things that really resonated with me. It’s not that I believe in reincarnation necessarily, although I do think it would be awesome to come back as a house cat so I can openly judge people and knock stuff off the counter, but it gave a simple explanation to something that is not so easily explained.

In my mind there are two types of anxiety—there Anxiety (big A) and anxiety (little a). Little a anxiety is something everyone has. The cavemen used it to survive the prehistoric world, and it’s that stomach churning feeling you get before a first date or a big exam. It’s an important part of our physiology. But big A Anxiety is what people like myself suffer from. It affects everyday life. Innocent trips to the grocery store become hazardous minefields of sheer terror and heart palpitations. Need something from a tall shelf? Forget about asking someone for help. You’ll do without.

I once did a seven hour car trip with someone and I was so dehydrated but I was too anxious to ask them to stop. Seven. Hours. I can only say that it physically made me stronger. Or more prone to kidney stones. Either way, that was a fun side effect of Anxiety.

Without going too much into my life story, I will say I had a great childhood. I was raised by a single mother who gave everything: she worked full time but made it to every basketball game, lame school play, and silly party. She never even spanked me.

Despite an idyllic middle class life I did have my fair share of traumas. My mom was in the Air Force and we moved every two years. When I was seven, circa 2000, our apartment burned down—it was a total loss as far as material things, and we had to move to another apartment in the complex. Watching a home I loved burn to the ground wasn’t easy, but it was part of life. My mom took me to counseling but it soon proved unnecessary. I was an open child. I had no issue talking to anyone (and literally everyone) who was in hearing range, and seemed to take the loss well.

In 2003 my father (who I had only seen a handful of times in my life) deployed to the Middle East.

During this time I had begun riding. I took my weekly up/down lessons like a pro. I was fast falling in love with horses and my mom, who had ridden growing up, was only too happy to have horses back in her life. On the search for a horse we tried a chestnut OTTB mare. She was lovely and everything I wanted. On the trial I fell off of her and broke my wrist. It wasn’t a horrible accident; I got back on the next day with my newly signed cast and continued to ride.

Buby and I, age 9. Photo by my mom.

But something happened. Something I still can’t explain and defies any form of logic. I was suddenly terrified. It started slowly, but the once robust kid who shamelessly wore bright red velvet pants every day retreated to her shell. I was no longer outgoing, no longer brazen and open. It was the most apparent with the horses. I was the kid who insisted we needed a horse that was 16.3 or taller, the kid who hopped on bareback and galloped up the big field behind the arena with no fear. And now I stood on the mounting block hyperventilating while the ancient school pony took a nap. Some days I couldn’t even get out of the car and would watch the other kids ride while the windows fogged up and a feeling of hopelessness and self loathing took root.

It was shortly after my fall that my mom met and fell in love with another OTTB. His name was Battleground, and he was slowing down on the track and was for sale. He was 17hh, and his last race had been three weeks before we met him. It was a horrible decision, and looking back it’s a freaking miracle none of us died. New horse owners, a terrified kid, and a horse fresh from the track. What could possibly go wrong? But Buby, as he came to be known, was the best thing that ever happened to me.

In January of 2004 we got the news that my dad had been killed by an IED, and like that this stranger had faded from my life with no real resolution to the issues that were brewing. But it was no big deal, I reasoned, it’s not like he lived with us and it’s not like I saw him everyday.

Later that year we moved again, and my beloved Grandmother died. The only other figure in my life besides my mother, the one who had let me tie her up with scotch tape because I was playing pirate, and the woman who threatened to knock my teeth down my throat if I didn’t get in the bath.

During this time Buby was my only strength. I was too afraid to ride him, of course, but his soft brown eyes could see straight through me. He would always give mom hell during their ride, but when I could be coaxed onto him for a leadline walk he placed every foot quietly and took care of me like the best lesson horses.

At this point mom bought a horse for ‘her,’ a little mare that had inherited all of her OTTB genes and loved nothing more than to fling her head and shy left and right. So Buby sat in his stall and accepted our grooming and love, but wasn’t being ridden.

When the lesson horse I had been practicing on was taken away by his owner I was left horseless–all my dreams of doing Pony Club rallies were shattered and what little confidence I had ignited was snuffed out. But there was Buby, with his soft muzzle and patient eyes.

And the craziest thing happened … nothing. Nothing bad happened.

Despite my fear, despite the fact that he was a 17hh OTTB with virtually no training and I was a terrified 12 year old—on paper it was a combination made in hell, or medical bills, but in reality it worked.

Buby wasn’t anything fancy. He was over at the knees, long in the back, and never destined to go above Beginner Novice but his bright soul could outshine any other horse. We began competing in eventing schooling shows and Pony Club rallies. Buby faithfully took me around 18’ cross country and did semi-round circles in dressage. Seeing Buby was the brightest part of my day and the reason I woke up in the morning.

But things weren’t great outside of the barn. I was in seventh grade and things were brewing. On the surface I was a well-liked kid with lots of friends, decent grades, and an easy smile. Inside I was filled with constant anxiety that slowly turned to a depression that began to seep into my soul. It was a slow and insidious kind of torture. I didn’t even know it was happening until one day I found myself standing on the second story balcony of our home thinking what if? Would the pain end?

One day my mom finally caught wind and confronted me on a road trip. It all came pouring out—the self-loathing, the fear, and hate, everything that was sucking me dry everyday. I don’t remember much from the conversation but I can’t imagine that was easy for her to hear. My mom struggled with it, as any mother would, but she believed me. She heard my cry for help and did what she could. She pulled me out of school and began homeschooling me.

It was going well. I was still absolutely petrified of jumps but I was beginning to compete higher than I ever had before, and doing things I previously couldn’t.

My freshman year of high school came along and I was so much better that my mom and I decided I should try going back to ‘real’ school. I was excited about the prospect and my first two days went well. I made some friends, figured out my locker, and overall it was a success.

The second night I had a panic attack. I don’t know what brought it on, but I can say if you’ve never had a panic attack then consider yourself lucky. I was ripping the sheets off the bed, hyperventilating, kicking and alternating between comatose like silences and stares to threats and incoherent nonsense. My poor mother finally gave me a muscle relaxer to get me to fall asleep in the wee hours of the morning.

The following nights more panic attacks came. Again, she was at a total loss. Out of desperation she took me to the school counselor who began screaming at me that I was faking. Somehow he got to the root of my biggest fear: people wouldn’t believe me.

I erupted.

Running from the school and into the parking lot, with my shirt soaked from tears I took the car keys I had taken from mom and pressed them to the skin of my wrist. No one believed me and the pain was only going to get worse. I think logically I knew the key would never cut deep enough, and I didn’t actually want to die. I didn’t want to leave my mom, or Buby. He was the central thought in my mind.

My mom had no choice and she took me to a kids psych hospital. Again, I don’t remember much. But I remember they wanted to admit me. I even lied, saying I wasn’t suicidal, but the woman saw right through me. She told me I had two options: go into the hospital, or start taking medication and going to therapy.

Being admitted wasn’t an option because who would take care of Buby? Who would brush his thick tail everyday, and scratch his favorite spots? He needed me, and I needed him. So I agreed to try and get better.

And I did, to an extent. The medication helped. I wasn’t suicidal anymore, and I realized that dying wasn’t the answer. My mom watched me like a hawk for years. I will never forgive myself for putting her through that hell, that fear that any day she could wake up and I would have taken my
own life.

But any confidence I had from riding shattered. I would sit on my beautiful Buby hyperventilating over a cross rail. I shook and felt like I was
going to vomit.

And yet I went to the barn every day. I practiced. I tried to push myself. The small victories became to sole focus of my life: “Today I’m going to canter in the field.” “Today I’m going to jump the small log.” “Today I’m going to go through the grid.” I would still look at the kids on the cover of catalogs as they cantered through water jumps with wild abandon, a smile on their faces’ as they felt no fear. Why couldn’t I have that?

The depression was at bay but the anxiety reared up in full force. And with the anxiety came the crippling habit of comparing myself to everyone else. Why can she do it? Why doesn’t she feel fear? How come she moves up the levels so easily?

The anxiety kept me hyper vigilant of my flaws. It loved to whisper in my ear how everyone else was so much better, how they were laughing at me, judging me.

Buby eventually had to be retired due to a chronic suspensory. But he was always my number one. He was treated like the champion I truly knew him to be. I started riding a little Appendix with a heart of gold who took me from a terrified little kid, to a Training level rider. His name was Roo, and he was bug-eyed and swaybacked but he had a heart of gold and gave 100%. He took me from backyard rider to rated events, to the American Eventing Championships where we placed 12th in a field of 60+ Beginner Novice riders.

Roo had a heart that wouldn’t quit, but the arthritis he had forced our upward trajectory to stop. Eventually I sold him to a lovely family, and he took their middle daughter from Beginner Novice to Training, then their youngest from ground poles to Beginner Novice before being sold to an adult amateur who adores him and has no aspirations to go above Beginner Novice. He’s living the high life, like he so richly deserves.

And that’s how Doobie came into my life. He was long legged, floaty, and took my breath away. So much raw power it scared me.

Doobie came into my life and he was the first ‘fancy’ horse I’d ever had. It was like someone gave me the keys to a sports car when I’d been driving a 2003 Corolla.

Despite all my impressive flaws, the self-loathing, and the constant need for reassurance … I’m OK. With Doobie’s help I actually finished a season at Prelim.

Prelim.

Photo by my mom.

Imagine this, folks: I went from a kid who cried at Beginner Novice, to an adult who cries at Prelim but jumps it anyway. Every time I zip up my cross country vest I want to vomit. Every step we ride towards the warm up ring has my heart rate accelerating and my hands shaking. As the start box volunteer begins to count down I want to scream.

But I go.

I take a fistful of mane, close my eyes, and ride to that first fence.

Why?

Why would someone like me, do something like eventing?

If I want to be really honest, it’s because of the anxiety. It’s because every time I look at that start box and the anxiety whispers ‘you can’t do it’ and I shake my head, grit my teeth, and do it anyway—it’s a win. It’s one step closer to a new me, one win closer to being free of the anxiety.

At my first rated Beginner Novice, as my trainer was leading me to the start box I leaned down and asked her, “Why am I doing this? I’m so scared!”

She smiled up at me and said, “Because it’s fun.” And then pushed me out the box.

So yeah, I do it because it’s fun. I do it because I love my horses, because I love eventing, and because I’m on a journey towards loving myself. I’m not there yet, and some days it feels like I have a long way to go, but I’m keeping my feet on the path.

You can’t really tell but this was right after we crossed the finish line for a prelim and I was hugging him. It also kind of looks like I’m dying. 😂 Taken by my mom.

If I could go back in time, I’d hug that scared kid. I’d tell her I believe her. I would tell her that things are going to get so much better—you’ll get to meet some amazing horses, you’ll meet your soul mate and when you show him all your baggage he’ll smile and say, ‘let me help you with that’ and the weight won’t be so heavy, and you’ll go Prelim on a horse you trust with your life.

I’m still broken, and I’m still scared. Life isn’t always rosy, and the anxiety still cruelly whispers in my ear. I still want to vomit every time I see the start box, and I shake my head violently when my trainers have the audacity to suggest a bigger jump.

But I’m still tacking up.

So if you see the rider popping a Xanax before putting her left foot in the stirrup, if her belly is the slightest shade of yellow, and she looks like she wants to vomit … come over and say hi.

Because she’s fighting her demons, she’s riding great horses, and she’s doing OK.

Jacqueline ‘Jayke’ McCall is a 26 year old from Texas, living in Ocala, FL. While struggling through adulthood she works as a Realtor, specializing in Horse Farms. Besides eventing she enjoys crochet, reading, writing, and annoying her fiance. 

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