Being A Hero Vs. Being A Horseman

May 16, 2017 - 7:46 AM

I’ve been struggling with exactly how to start this one. Whenever someone tries to address a controversial hot topic or defend himself on the Internet, it inevitably seems to open Pandora’s box, and all the “experts” come out of the woodwork.

Some critics rest on the laurels of their previous experience and argue they were better competitors and horsemen back in their day. Those with less knowledge and often lacking first-hand experience seem to intensify the madness, and they often believe every opinion is worthy of posting on social media without truly thinking about how it may impact the sport.

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With Donner before the horse inspection at Badminton. Photo by Shannon Brinkman

Over the last week I have observed some healthy conversations about the United States riders’ performance at Badminton, but I have also certainly noticed many Internet trolls salivating at the chance to offer their two cents (or several dollars worth!). While I think some of their criticism is valid, much of it is marred by unhelpful negativity.

It’s easy to have an answer for everything while hiding behind a computer screen, but it’s much harder to back up that scrutiny face to face and accompany it with realistic expectations.

I believe that constructive criticism and difficult discussions are necessary to bringing about positive change, but not at the expense of mudslinging those who are trying to give it their all. So here are some musings from my own perspective, on my own performance, inspired by the backlash on the U.S. riders’ collective performance at Badminton.

Being A Hero Vs. Being A Horseman
Let’s be real, Badminton is a four-star and it will always be tough.

However, it seems I encountered a particularly difficult year to go to my first Badminton. Out of a field of 82 starters, less than 37 percent completed cross-country without jump penalties. Donner and I were in this minority who made it home clear.

I did this on a horse that missed his final lead-up competition due to a minor colic, tried to abscess just before we shipped, pulled a shoe just after the first minute of an almost 12-minute cross-country course on firm, greasy ground, and consequently (almost comically actually!) lost the same shoe halfway through his show jumping round. On a course that saw an abundance of top riders not make it around successfully, on a day with a considerable amount of rider and horse falls, Donner came home clear, sound and safe, but with entirely too many time penalties to be competitive.

There’s a fine line between being a hero and being a horseman. Even for the best riders in the world, they don’t always go hand in hand. As a horseman, I was delighted with my performance. As a competitor, I was not.

My horse tried his heart out. After the shoe came off, we were skidding through every turn on cross-country. At this level, lost shoes are not abnormal. We’ve jumped around in deep going with missing shoes and been fine. He’s jumped around on hard American soil and been no worse for the wear. But on the slick, greasy footing where horses with all their shoes and more than adequate studs were slipping abnormally, his jump and his confidence changed.

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Donner’s shoe flying past his face as we jump. Photo courtesy of Lynn Symansky

At that point I had three options: 1) ride for the win but possibly turn him over or ruin his confidence; 2) pull up; 3) get home clear.

We had just put in our best dressage test to date at the four-star level. I was sitting on a fast, experienced cross-country horse I’ve been partnered with since he was 5. We should have thrived on a difficult cross-country day and moved up substantially. But with the cards we were dealt, I had to change my initial plan and take several unplanned alternate routes. I chose option #3, sacrificed a tremendous competitive opportunity, and rode smart in place of being a competitive hero.

A Participation Ribbon Society Finding Its Way Back To Medals
I was fortunate enough to go to Badminton on a Land Rover competition grant, which helped fund my horse’s trip. However, similar to a quote from the ever-important Spiderman series, with great honor comes great responsibility.

Being sent to compete on a grant comes along with increased competitive expectations in addition to my own. It opens the door to receiving increased public scrutiny when we come up short in delivering a top competitive result. But I believe we should hold ourselves to a very high standard in order to be viable competitors on the international stage.

Little League gives out participation trophies. Elementary school grades are accompanied by separate marks for “effort” in performance. But on the podium at an international team competition, they don’t hand out gold medals for trying hard.

As riders, we play a very large role in our own success. However, I honestly feel some amount of unrealistic pressure from critics on America’s lackluster performance at Badminton last weekend.

I rode in the best interest of my horse on cross-country. He was jumping one of his best show jumping rounds to date, only to lose another shoe halfway around, and I consequently had to ride conservatively to keep him jumping well.

While I was not able to produce a top finish at Badminton, I don’t believe I should take the entire responsibility of America’s success upon my shoulders alone. There is a symbiotic combination of experience, horsepower, skill, coaching, true grit, owners, funding, and a support team that is crucial to ensure we produce consistently competitive international results. Those things have to work seamlessly to deliver top results time and time again. And you also have to have some luck!

As I stated in the beginning of this blog, I believe we have to address realistic expectations before slamming a rider for not delivering a more competitive result. No matter how much you study, how good you are, how prepared you find yourself or how badly you want it, as a country we need to be rational and reasonable in addressing and fixing our weaknesses before we can be expected to unquestionably produce winning results.

Add a bit of luck and persistence to that as well, as evidenced by Andrew Nicholson’s incredible comeback from an injury that could have ended his career less than two yeas ago to only winning this competition on his 37th attempt.

I was painfully close to leveling out my own hero v. horseman equation. Thrown shoes, a less than ideal lead-up, and a particularly challenging year are not excuses for underperforming; they are just the cards I drew on the day.

I rode in the best interest of my horse, which is the right decision in my mind no matter the ultimate end goal. While I lost the competition last weekend, I’m coming away from Badminton a much more educated rider with a more experienced horse ready to fight again.

Donner dug deep all week long, and I am incredibly fortunate to have a fantastic team behind us. I owe a huge thank you to Land Rover and the USEF for helping Donner and me successfully (albeit tardily) complete our first Badminton. I am deeply grateful to The Donner Syndicate for standing behind us, to Kendyl and Kelty for their impeccable care and tireless work, to the entire team that keeps D sound and healthy, as well as a wonderful group of sponsors.

It takes this entire village to keep even just one partnership going, but most importantly, thank you Donner…for trying my patience at every moment, taking me around the globe, and showing me what a quirky American Thoroughbred with a special heart can do.

One of the Chronicle’s bloggers, eventer Lynn Symansky was part of the U.S. team gold medal effort at the 2011 Pan American Games with Donner, then they competed on the Land Rover U.S. Eventing Team at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Normandy, France. Lynn runs her Lynn Symansky Equestrian out of Middleburg, Va.

You can read all about Lynn and Donner in her previous blogs.

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