It's supposed to be fun!
a student who's just too hard on themselves? Who gives
his or her all but hasn't yet brought home that blue?
Someone who needs a shot in the arm? Here is my advice
to that person in my life...
I was thinking about you
as I drove home today, and while this note will probably
not capture all my thoughts, hopefully, it will capture
most of them.
I not sure who is looking forward more to your going
training level--you or me. Whether you know it or not,
the move from novice to training will be the hardest,
but most important move you will make in your eventing
career. As I drove home today, I found myself reflecting
on your initial reaction to placing at the Novice
Championships. You commented that you didn't think your
dressage, and by that you inferred your riding, was good
enough to do training. After you said that, I found
myself reflecting on just how hard you are on yourself.
On many occasions, I have
told you that you remind me of myself. In my early days
of both school and riding, I too was hard on myself. If
I got a 98 on a test, I was mad that I missed two
points. Who cared that the next highest score was 65. I
didn't get a hundred and because of that, I felt I had
Like you, I took this same hard approach to learning to
ride. I did everything in my power to take as many
lessons as I could. I idolized my first instructor, much
like you do Katie. I felt she could do nothing wrong and
worked tirelessly to learn as much from her as I could.
But it was my second instructor, John Simons, who had
the greatest impact on my riding.
John was a friend of
Ann's, and an eventer who learned the sport under the
tutelage of the great eventers of the 60's and 70's.
When illness struck Ann down, she asked John to help me.
At the time, I had been riding for three years. Then
again, reflecting on what I now know, riding is not the
correct word. A better phrase would be "I had been
drilling . . ."
I can still vividly
remember my first riding lesson with John. We were out
on a hack, as we approached a steep hill John turned to
me with a smile on his face and said, "Beat you to the
top." I had never galloped a horse before, let alone
jumped a fence outside of an arena, but John didn't
care. For the next ten minutes, I experienced every
emotion from fright to elation. By the time I reached
the top of the hill, I was a different rider. More
importantly, I was a different person.
Later, as we hacked back
to the barn, John told me that he had been watching me
since I had started riding and that while I was an able
rider, I had yet to learn the true meaning of
horsemanship. In short, I lacked, and still lack,
"Riding is supposed to be
fun, but every time I see you, you never have a smile on
your face. When I ask you how your rides have gone, all
you do is complain. Mike, you've got to change your
attitude. God only knows learning to ride is hard enough
without making problems for yourself. Lighten up and
start having fun!"
I rode with John until I
finished college. I still keep in touch with him, and
consider him one of my dearest friends, and, every
couple of months, I call him to tell him of my latest
events, ask his advice, or just reminisce. My time in
the Navy gave me some unique opportunities to tour the
world and fine-tune the various eventing disciplines.
Wherever I went, I always remembered John's advice and
had fun, and, because I had fun, people were always
willing to help me.
Like you, dreams of
Olympic gold drove my early riding career. However, it
soon became obvious to me that I would never make the
team. Charmer, the horse of my dreams, and I were
struggling, and as failure followed upon failure, I
began to give up on my horse, and myself. The low point
in my riding career was around 1989 to 1991. I'd be
surprised if I got on a horse ten times in that two
years period. Fortunately, I had a professional career
to fall back on, and while I was doing well in it, I
found life without horses lacking. So I picked up the
telephone and asked Julie Gomena for help. A month
later, I had Worf.
Novice with Worf was a
cinch, but the move to training was nerve racking.
Fortunately, I had Julie and my wife Audrey, who held my
hand every step of the way. I can't begin to count the
number of nights I laid in bed sweating over a jump I
was sure would do me in. While Audrey and Julie did
everything in their power to soothe my fears, I soon
found myself back into the trap of trying too hard,
chasing ribbons, and beating myself up for failures.
Soon ulcers were the rule of the day. I was worrying so
much about everything, that both Julie and Audrey even
considered recommending that I stop riding. My
demanding, unforgiving attitude also played itself out
at work, and soon, people didn't want to work for me.
Then, one day, Julie took
me out for a hack and we galloped up a hill. Like John
ten years before, she reminded me that riding was
supposed to be fun. That while it was OK to have high
expectations, one must always remember that all goals
are achieved one step at a time, not in one giant leap.
Needless to say, I changed my attitude, and once again
began to focus on having fun. Soon smiles and laughter
were the order of the day. As the laughter and merriment
grew, so, too, did my capacity to absorb Julie's
insights and teaching. A year after that ride up the
hill, Worf and I were ranked number 1 in Area II in
Preliminary and I achieved a life long goal of
completing a three-day.
Just as important,
however, is the fact that I carried my new attitude to
work. As I looked around my life, I realized that like
my riding, I had built an island around myself at work,
and yes, even at home. Much as horses do, people need to
know they're appreciated. I never patted Charmer; as a
result, he never jumped for me. I patted Worf all the
time, and he jumped the moon for me. When I began to
acknowledge those around me at work, I found they worked
harder for me. When I began to acknowledge everything
Audrey does for me every day, I found she would do more
Which brings us back to
you. When was the last time you thanked your parents for
Lady? When was the last time you hugged your parents?
When was the last time you let someone do something for
you, and thank them for it? It's hard for me to realize
now that all Charmer wanted was a pat, a simple pat,
just three seconds out of my life. Yet, I never took the
time to do it. It is too late for him. I'll never be
able to pat him again. Instead, all I can give him is a
nice gravesite. So when you see me toiling on his grave,
realize what I'm doing is paying penance for not
thanking him when I could.
Worf and I got through
training, and flew through Preliminary because I had a
good team behind me. You have Julie, Audrey, and me to
help you, but that is not the whole team. Your parent's
are not only an integral part of your team, they're the
most important. With a team like that, and a horse like
Lady under you, you are going to the top; all you have
to do is start believing in yourself and your horse. The
sooner you do, the shorter the trip.
So my advice to you is
this: smile more, laugh more, and go hug your horse. Do
this, and you'll not only set the wheels in motion
toward an Olympic gold, but you'll also set yourself on
the path that will assure you a successful career, a
career that will keep you in horses the rest of your
But it all starts with believing in yourself.
Bethany, you're one of the
best, most natural riders I've ever seen. Don't fall
into the same traps I fell into. Never let your riding
became a chore. When you are old and gray and sitting
around writing a story like this to one of your own
students, what you'll remember about your ride at the
Novice Championships is not that you didn't win the
dressage, but that you finished the day third.
When you're old and gray, and someday you will be,
you'll reminisce that after 'flying' that second fence,
you knew then that you were going to the 2008
Life is too short to waste
time worrying. Now let's you and me find a hill and gallop!
other horse related stories by Michael Hillman
other stories by Michael Hillman