When Trying My Hardest Wasn’t Enough: How I Learned to Work Harder

Harriette Airhart is a 17-year-old aspiring eventer and working student. She currently care leases a 7-year-old OTTB named Jack.

Disappointments are a result of failed expectations. To have less disappointments, either expect less from other people, or demand more from yourself.” — Kevin Ngo

I remember driving to the facility that morning, my stomach full of coffee and butterflies. I was actually going to do it. I was going to ride in a clinic with my eventing idol. All the quotes, the coaching methods, the jump courses, that I had studied over the years on her social media accounts, I was finally going to see and hear them in person. Finally I was going to get to listen, to ask, to soak it all in. This was a day that I had been working towards for a month and a half prior, when I originally signed up for the clinic, but really it was a day that I had been working towards for all the years that I had been looking to this person for inspiration.

Having been a working student for my current trainer for over a year, I was also excited to venture into a working student position out of state, hopeful that I would get the opportunity to ask this particular trainer if she had room in her program for another groom. I was hopeful, hopeful and scared. Hopeful and determined. There was a lot riding on that weekend for me, and a lot of excitement and terror wrapped up with it as well.

I was riding a young mare beyond my skill-level, but she was what we had, and I adored her too much to see the flaws in the pairing. I remember worrying that there was no railing around the arena, quivering thinking about what would happen if she decided to bolt off after a jump. My mind was racing — racing with ideas and nerves and excitement. I hid how excited I was from my trainer and my peers, feeling slightly embarrassed that I was as excited to meet this trainer as my friends were to meet celebrities.

Flash forward a couple of hours to my ride time, and the mood started to fall. The caffeine that I wasn’t used to from the coffee that I never drink, mixed with the nerves that I didn’t know how to handle and excitement that could overwhelm me, turned my body into jello. My trainer that I would consistently lean on for moral support was already riding in her lesson, so it was just my thoughts, my horse, and me.

The clinic did not go as planned. My trainer ended up riding the mare because I decided that I wasn’t able to give her a confident enough ride in the moment. We decided with the clinician that I would do the second half of the lesson the following day, because the mare had learned very quickly and jumped everything confidently by the end. We also talked about me coming to work for her for the summer. I remember my heart skipping a beat when she delightfully said yes. It was all there. In that moment, my dreams were coming true. All of the nerves and jitters from earlier that day seemed to wash away with her words, as if she were speaking magic. It was real, it was happening.

The next day though, I went from my highest of highs to my lowest of lows. The mare  wasn’t quite confident enough around the course, so my trainer and the clinician gave me a choice. If I was sure that I would be able to give her a confident ride, then I could get on. But if I wasn’t sure, I should just sit this one out.

The pressure of this question overwhelmed my thoughts. Immediately my mind was racing with a million different questions: What if I ruin her? What if I make her lose all the new confidence that she’s gained? What if I can’t pull out a strong enough ride? What if I freeze? What if I fail?

I made the decision to sit it out. However, after she went around the course again, the clinician deemed her confident enough for me to get on, and so she had me mount up. “Don’t talk yourself out of something before you’ve even tried.” What if I fail?

I froze. It was like I had forgotten how to ride. My mind was taken over by a cloud of white fog, cloudy enough to block any confidence that I once had. Everyone was staring. Everyone was watching me fumble over jumps, not be able to stop her, afraid to canter, and not be able to do what the clinician said. I apologized, and dismounted. As I looked down, away from everyone, I heard the clinician say to my trainer, “I don’t have time for this.”

My trainer got back on, and I retreated to our trailer tack room, where I felt myself tear into a million pieces. It was right there. My biggest dream, my biggest idol, and my one shot. Just like that, in the time that it took me to jump four jumps, it was gone. Years of wishing, years of hoping. In that moment, I felt it slip through my fingertips. No, I watched myself let go of it. It was right there, and I let it all go.

Later, while driving home from the clinic with my trainer, I listened to the sound of my dreams bump into my reality. My trainer and I talked about many different aspects of the clinic throughout the two-hour drive home, but the thing that stuck with me most, is when she told me that she didn’t think that I had tried hard enough.

What she said made sense. It did. But as I let her words roll over my mind, I thought back. I thought back to years ago when I was little and afraid to touch a horse. I thought back to the first time I cantered. I thought back to my first jump lesson, my first time cross country schooling, my first show, my first horse trials. I thought back to all the times I came home and cried because I didn’t get something perfect in a lesson. I thought back to scouring the internet for videos and articles about new concepts that I didn’t understand. I thought back to the time I was throwing up with the flu, but still came to my lesson. Or the time that I rode through the pain of a pulled muscle and inflamed spleen, and went to the hospital after my ride. I thought back to 15-hour days at the barn working, and long weekends grooming at shows. I thought back to falling off time and time again, and getting back on every time.

I thought, what work do I need to do to fix this? What do I need to change? I realized in that moment that I didn’t know. I didn’t understand why my body wouldn’t follow my mind when I was told to put my shoulders back. I didn’t understand why even after all the hours of riding and working, how I had screwed this up so badly? I had tried my hardest.

That’s when I realized that trying my hardest wasn’t enough. Trying my hardest wasn’t enough because I was working on the wrong thing. I was focusing on the physical aspects of the sport, all the while not realizing that the mental game is just as important, if not more, than the physical. We had been working on my confidence in the past, but on that car ride home, it clicked that I needed to dive in deeper. This was rock bottom, and I needed to figure out the reasons behind my fears. My mental game was my weakest area, and I had been neglecting it.

In that moment, I promised myself something. I promised myself that I would work harder. But not just in terms of physically riding. I promised myself that I would work harder to understand my mental game and the limitations that I was facing because of it. I promised myself that I would learn what my fears were, what they meant, and how to overcome them, so that I would no longer have those limitations. I recognized that that moment was the lowest point for me in my riding, and that the next time, if there is a next time, that I felt this way, it won’t be as bad because I will know that I have worked harder. I will know that eventually, it will pass, and the next challenge will come. And eventually, it will pay off.