We’re Better Than Alright: Holy Cow, What A Year

Dec 4, 2014 - 4:22 PM
This year, my goal was consistency and I'm really excited that we made significant progress in that respect. Photo by Alison Hartwell

It’s been one heck of a year.

Things came together for me and for Nikki this year—we had a consistency that we haven’t been able to achieve before—and because of that, we were able to reach a lot of the goals that I set. 

My blogs have reflected that; it seems like every post I’ve written has been mostly me gushing about how wonderful Nikki is, with a few brief nuggets of struggles thrown in, but it was, overall, quite homogenous. I’m sorry we didn’t have more drama for you to read about, although I’m thrilled that our year went so well!

Now that the show year is over, I took Nikki back to New York to spend the winter with my mom. Although I juggled working two jobs and riding six days a week for the past couple of months, it wasn’t going to be sustainable once the winter weather kicked in: my Prius is no match for a Minnesota blizzard, and with the barn a solid 30-minute drive from my apartment, I didn’t think that I could give Nikki the time and attention that she needs.

I think a lot of her longevity is due to her fitness, and it’s not fair to her to expect her to perform at the highest level if I can’t guarantee that I can work her on a regular basis. She will spend the winter with my mom, and I’ll miss her terribly, but I know that logically, it’s the right decision.

I still am working on coming up with goals for next year, but before we talk about those, let’s take a look back at what we did this year, what we were able to achieve (or, more accurately, what Nikki was able to achieve despite me), and what I still need to work on.

Photo by Alison Hartwell

Consistency Is Critical

One of my major goals for this year was to be consistent. In previous years, we had a lot of shows where we’d have a few brilliant rounds and a lot of “OK” rounds with a rail or two down. This year, I wanted to aim for being consistently double clear often, hopefully culminating with a double-clear performance in a grand prix.

While we weren’t double clear every time, I think we only had five rounds over the whole summer where we had a rail in the first round—which suggests that Nikki was jumping great and that I was doing a decent job of staying out of her way.  We had one show where we were double clear in every class we did, including the grand prix, and had several others where we only had one rail over the course of a week. 

I’m sure more experienced people do that all the time and it’s not that big of an accomplishment to them, but as a working amateur with one horse, it was something I really focused on and am pleased about.

The Hunger Mental Games

One of my earlier blog posts mentioned how much of this sport is mental, and I think this is an area that I got worse about as the show season went on. I’ve always had a tendency to be too hard on myself, but thought that I would be better about that this year because I kept reminding myself that I was doing this for fun, not for the wins.

It’s a great sentiment and was easy to focus on…until I started winning, and started thinking that winning is pretty cool. At the beginning of the season, I was able to keep a very positive attitude, even when I made mistakes, but by the end of the year, I found myself slipping back into landing on myself with criticism and being non-productive because I was so fixated on the end result that I wouldn’t be able to see past the mistakes I made.

There were a few times where I wound up in Nikki’s stall crying at the end of the day because I was so upset with myself for not giving her the ride she deserves—and we didn’t have any round this year with more than two rails, so that was clearly an overreaction on my part. I still need to work on being constructive when I’m critical of myself, rather than beating myself up over little mistakes. 

I don’t think anyone puts pressure on me aside from myself, but I put so much on myself that I can be totally miserable after a decent performance. Finding the balance between being constructive and being too focused on what went wrong is something I need to work on for next year. Having a good partnership with such an incredible equine athlete is too valuable and special to be in tears over a rail.

Using The Tools In My Toolbox

This was the first summer where I was in charge of most of Nikki’s care; in previous years, Kip Rosenthal’s barn manager took care of everything from scheduling farrier visits to rationing feed and any supplements that Nikki might get. At the beginning of the summer, I was really nervous about everything being in my hands—I knew I had the knowledge to care for her, but similar to my experiences with riding a big course, having the knowledge versus making and executing a plan can be very different.

Nikki’s grain ration consists of a mixture of a high-performance sweet feed and a pellet. I didn’t change her feed much, although I had to gradually switch her to a different kind of pellet because I couldn’t get the same type in Minnesota as I could in New York. She doesn’t get many supplements; electrolytes in the summer along with a joint supplement, so I didn’t need to tweak those either. In that sense, she is quite easy!

However, Nikki is not, and never has been, a great hay eater. She’s a big fan of green hay that’s quite grassy (she loves green orchardgrass!). In New York, she got a bucket of dengie (chopped hay with molasses) along with free-choice hay. She would eat the dengie first and then pick at the hay when she felt like it. It was an easy way to keep her eating good forage when we were on the road and she couldn’t graze as much as she does at home.

That was all well and good until I struggled to find dengie out here, and she lost interest in the dengie I had. She was perfectly happy to eat anything else, but wasn’t terribly interested in her hay or the previously favorite forage. The local feed store suggested that I try giving her alfalfa cubes, and while she was dubious about them at first, she ultimately decided she liked them (as well as alfalfa hay, which I got for her at a few horse shows), so the potential crisis of finding something for her to browse on was avoided.

The Fitness Aspect

I firmly believe that in order to compete successfully in the upper levels of this sport, both horse and rider need to be super fit (readers, I am not saying anything about weight, but just about fitness, so please don’t get offended). If I’m going to expect Nikki to give 110 percent physical effort, then I need to expect the same of myself.

I won’t say that I’m a gym rat or that I only eat super healthy (I mean, chocolate-covered pretzels are totally a health food, right?), but I try to eat a balanced diet that works for me, and I do some area-specific workouts so I’m as effective as I can be. So much of riding relies on having a strong core, and keeping my core muscles strong is essential for my comfort after my back surgery at the beginning of the year, so I make sure to do exercises for that every other day.

Similarly, I plan Nikki’s exercise sessions so that she has the fitness and stamina to do what I ask of her. In New York, I took advantage of the hilly terrain and worked her out of the ring on the hills on a regular basis, both doing regular flatwork and doing gallop sets. Given Minnesota’s flatter landscape, I had to come up with a new plan for Nikki’s workouts to make sure that I was still working her hind end and getting that cardiovascular training in as well.

I ended up consulting with some friends who event and added some trot and canter interval sets to Nikki’s hacks a few times a week. As the summer went on, I increased the duration of the sets. It resulted in a noticeable difference in Nikki’s stamina from previous years (mine too!), and I think she came out of this summer fitter than ever. In addition to the endurance work, we spent a lot of time trotting poles or raised cavaletti—this worked Nikki’s hind end without stressing her joints from jumping.

Even with these targeted, planned workouts, I still try to get out of the ring as much as possible. It’s more fun for both of us to get out and not drill in the ring day after day, so we worked either in a field or just went for a trail ride at least a couple times a week. Nikki likes going out in the woods and exploring new trails, and it’s a nice mental break for both of us!

Thinking On My Feet

My job requires a lot of thinking on my feet to come up with solutions to problems or to decide what direction I want to go with an experiment.  I’m fairly accustomed to it at this point, but thinking on my feet in the lab, where I can check what I’m thinking online or with other lab members, is a bit different from thinking quickly either on course or immediately after finishing.

Nikki and I had a couple of blips on our radar this year where things could have spiraled downward very quickly; we had a rough go in our first national standard prix of the year in August and had an issue in the schooling ring at our final show, during which I fell off (landed on my feet and stuck the landing though). This was the first year where I had to draw on my experience and go off what I learned from the professionals in my life to decide what the best course of action was, sometimes without being able to consult Kip or Elzabeth.

Both times, we were able to regroup—I ended up using an extra class at both shows to make sure that we were back on track, but both times, I at least knew what I was doing enough to not cause a bigger problem. I’ve been very fortunate to grow up under professionals who are incredibly knowledgeable and willing to share that knowledge with me, and I know that this summer could have been a major struggle without a lot of help over the years.

The Road Ahead

With Nikki back at home for the winter, it’s time for me to plan out next year and to get things figured out for the next few months.

I’m not going out to the barn every day like I was when Nikki was here. The barn is a pretty good commute from where I live, and I’m spending a large chunk of my time working in the lab and serving as a teaching assistant for a couple of classes. Because I don’t have as much saddle time as I had over the summer, I’m making sure to find other ways to keep my fitness and strength up, both in workouts and in other ways that I can carry out daily. I’m walking to work since I’m not rushing off to the barn right after; I can afford the time to walk the 3 miles to work, which is good for me physically.

My goals for next year are similar for this year; I want us to be consistently clear and I want to work on the balance between being critical and beating myself up. We had a bunch of classes this year where we were second with a conservative double clear, so I want to step it up in the jump off. 

I know that we have the tools to be successful in the jump off; we run into being too conservative when we’re the first ones to jump off and so will be the first clear round. I need to get comfortable with taking those risks and recognize that while if they’re not executed well, we won’t win, I need to at least give it a shot.

I’m tentatively making going to the Pennsylvania National and redeeming myself a goal. I just want to lay down some clear rounds there to prove to myself that I can. I think, since we were successful in a national standard prix in a smaller ring this year, that we will be fine for the amateur-owners at Harrisburg next year. I just have to make sure that we get enough points to qualify if the cut-off next year is higher than it was this year.

I don’t make goals where I focus on the end result, in the sense of I won’t make winning a grand prix a goal. I would love to win a prix next year, but I can’t control how others perform. If we’re going to be honest, I can’t even control how well I perform sometimes! 

So while I would love to win a big class next year, I’m not going to fixate on it, and as long as we lay down consistent, clear, and fast rounds, I’ll be happy.

Emily Pope, 23, started her relationship with Seize The Moment, an off-the-track Thoroughbred and a chestnut mare, in 2006 and they began in the junior hunters. Emily quickly realized “Nikki’s” talents lay in the jumper ranks, and they worked their way from the junior jumpers to the grand prix. She rides with Kip Rosenthal and Elzabeth Lampert.

Emily graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2013 with a B.S. in animal science, spent a semester studying aboard in Madagascar, and now works in cancer research. Read all of Emily’s blogs.

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