Casey And Pentimento: Mental Prep For The First Grand Prix

May 1, 2012 - 5:14 AM
Casey Nilsson and the 8-year-old Pentimento. Ready for Intermediare II." Photo by Ida Sorvik.

Dear Rita,

All my life I have believed in excellence. Not in perfection, but in excellence. If you are pursuing perfection, you have already failed, for perfection exists all around us all of the time. Achieving perfection is simply a matter of perception.

Excellence, on the other hand, is something for which we should strive. It’s definitely worth pursuing and is defined both by the moments that bring us to now and by the moments that we can envision in our future.

One of my stellar team from Turnierstall Haddad in Vechta, Germany, asked me on the eve of her first Grand Prix, “What do I do if I’m about to go down the centerline, and I can’t find my stirrups because I am nervous?”

I won’t share my answer with you now because what is really important is not my advice but to know that my beloved assistant trainer/stable manager/social director/friend, Casey Nilsson, is the ultimate pursuer of excellence in riding. She has worked diligently and enthusiastically for me for the last 17 years on both sides of the Atlantic.

Casey worked her way up from “learning sweeping” to becoming the Master of the Order of Broom (oh, now that is a story for another time!) in my stable. She runs the place. She calls the plays. She puts out the fires. But mostly, she rides and trains every day toward excellence.

In 2007, Casey started in her first international show at the Balve CDI**** in Germany on a lively little horse called Le Charmeur. Her first international start and she placed second in both the Prix St. Georges and the Intermediaire I with scores over 70 percent!

Le Charmeur was sold shortly thereafter, and Casey turned her attention to a younger horse—one that I bred and one that we both wanted to keep. Pentimento is too small for me, but his 16 hands match Casey’s 5’2” height perfectly. He is a movement machine. Pentimento is 8 years old now, has been trained almost exclusively by Casey, has won numerous small tours last year, and was ready to do his first Grand Prix level test last weekend. How cool is that, Rita?

Casey was a bit nervous about her debut, but only because she was concentrating on the near future without considering the moments that have brought her to this moment. She came to Germany at the age of 20 without speaking a word of German—traveling only on the thin thread of her belief in me—to manage my stable for me. She worked her way up from groom and stable manager to rider and then top rider.

Casey has trained horses under my supervision from youngster to Grand Prix. She has learned from Maximus, Cadillac, Winyamaro and many lesser-known teachers. What she forgot is that ALL of her teachers—both human and equine—wish her well and offer their gratitude for such wonderful care over the years. You don’t have to be nervous when you have that kind of wind under your wings.

But history often fails to impress us when we are just a few hours away from that important start. On that night, Casey had the reins in her hands. She sat in the driver’s seat. She was about to show her very own creation—the first horse she trained and showed all the way to Grand Prix. That is in itself a HUGE accomplishment. I can rattle off a string of top Olympic competitors who have never achieved this level of excellence.

I knew on that night that Casey had a lot of reasons to be proud when she rode down that centerline. No stranger to the show ring, she had been down it hundreds of times. The woman KNOWS how to ride and, more importantly, she knows how to ride a test. She knows her own horse inside and out. And I knew she would ride that test to the best of her ability; I had no doubt in my mind. She would do it because in the end, she knows the excellence she has created in the past and she knows she is on the path of excellence in the future.

So why does it come—the sinking feeling in the stomach, the loss of coordination, the flailing legs, the feeling of physical disconnect that we get just before the test? All of us have experienced this particular set of show nerves at one point or another.

It doesn’t really matter what level you are riding or how big the show is. How do you swallow your fear at A and emerge a champion a few minutes later?

Like all successful riders, I have my own special technique for getting rid of those shaky limbs. That night, I shared my technique with Casey.

This is what I do: I look around me and try to find a source of light. It might be the sun bouncing off the bleachers, sunlight filtering through the trees, an aura around the scoreboard, a reflection in a judge’s eyeglasses. I inhale this tiny bit of light, let it burst into golden bright light inside of myself, and when I exhale, I surround myself and my horse in a fiery, golden orb that carries us down the centerline. Works for me.

When I am really Zen, I open my heart and let the light spread to the whole arena for everyone to see. Those are usually my best rides whether they score well or not.

(In my more ironic moments, Rita, when I am actually relaxed and entertaining myself, I think: “Please God, let the judges see the light.”)

I can’t tell you what goes on in Casey’s head when she is about to enter the arena. Every rider has to find what works for him or herself. But when I looked her in the eye and said, “Go for it. You have nothing to lose,” I knew she’d take a deep breath and ride with pride.

I’m Catherine Haddad Staller, and I’m saying it like it is from Vechta, Germany.

Training Tip of the Day: Inhale deeply. Find the horizon with your eyes. Exhale until you are empty. Nature will take care of the rest.



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