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November 14, 2006

The Equitation Finals: Keep Them In Perspective

Like so many other young riders, the latter part of my junior career was devoted almost solely to the pursuit of winning an equitation final. It was a commitment of the highest level--physically, mentally and financially--on the part of not only myself, but also my family and my trainer.

Though I came tantalizingly close, it was a dream that I was not able to realize. For whatever reason, all the factors never merged at the moment they needed to, and it just didn't happen. Yet so much importance and expectation had been placed on the results of those few classes that everything I had accomplished in the years leading up to that point was almost lost as I worried more about what I had "lost" in those precious few moments. I had allowed myself to become so swept away with the notion of winning that my whole perspective had blurred.

I had a completely unrealistic scenario mapped out in my mind where a win would set me up for life, would serve as a seal of approval that could not be tarnished. That mentality, I now realize, overshadowed all that was truly important and set me up for such great disappointment. I recall going to bed the night after my last Maclay Final, honestly feeling as if the sun would not rise the next day.

I had been called back third for the second round and had been working on perhaps the trip of my life when my horse stopped at the third-to-last fence. I was so utterly devastated that I wondered if I would ever get over it, if I would ever be able to get back on track without that win I had deemed so vital.

I will be returning to the equitation finals this year in a very different capacity--as a trainer rather than a rider.

In the four years that have passed since my last junior year, my whole outlook on the finals has shifted dramatically. Time and experience have provided me with a certain clarity that I only wish I could have had as a junior.

In reality, the equitation division is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Equitation, in its purest form, is a format in which to develop stylish, effective riders. It is a stepping stone to higher pursuits.

Among other things, the division allows riders to set goals for themselves in terms of qualifying and promotes the work ethic necessary to reach those goals. The tracks require the accuracy of the jumper ring, combined with the style and finesse of a top hunter rider.

The finals provide an opportunity to learn how to deal with pressure and focus within an intense environment. In the end, the skills gained from the process are so much more valuable than the ribbons themselves. These are essential tools, not only in the show ring but also in all walks of life.

When you're 17, these skills may not be honed to perfection. But that is the beauty of this sport--there is always more to learn and there are always more challenges to pursue.

In the moment, the finals may feel like a climax and an end. And while every hard-earned victory should be savored, it is equally important to realize that in the grand scheme of things, they are only a start.

Dream big and work hard, but also try to maintain focus and perspective amidst the inevitable highs and lows. It is only now that I am on the "other side of the fence" that I can see how my journey as an equitation rider defined me so much more than just the destination itself.

The early morning lessons, the tough courses, the diverse group of horses I rode--those are the things I will carry with me when I enter the ring on a first year green horse or walk a course with a student. The work ethic and organizational skills I gained serve me well every day.

It is an ironic possibility that not winning an equitation final actually provided me with a strength that no blue ribbon alone ever could have. I learned about humility in the face of defeat and realized that sometimes, despite the best-laid plans, you have to take what you can from what seems like a disappointing situation and move on.

An equitation final is one class on one day. The race is long, and in the end, it is only with yourself.

Jennifer Berol Bliss competed in the 2000, 2001 and 2002 medal finals. Her junior career highlights included a second place in the ASPCA Maclay Northeast Regional, a 10th place in the USEF Medal Finals, as well as top 15 finishes in the Maclay, Washington International Equitation Classic Equitation Finals and the Monarch International Equitation Championship (Md.).