Sometimes the hardest voice to hear is your own.
Before I came to Tebogo, I was a big fish in a little pond. I had a false confidence in my riding because I didn’t grasp just how much I didn’t know. Within a few weeks, I was unceremoniously humbled. My dream horse got hurt. I was riding some very green beans that did not hesitate to highlight my shortcomings as a rider. And for once, I hardly knew anyone.
In one of my first lessons with my new trainer, he said something along the lines of, “No more of this Virginia Beach hunter princess crap; sit down and learn to ride properly!” I wasn’t offended; I was thrilled to have someone finally go there with me. And learn I did.
That trainer taught me so much about what it is to have a system to develop young horses in a productive and efficient way. And in order for me to have learned it, I had to be all in. Hook, line and sinker, living and breathing his way of doing things. Before I moved here I was very self-reliant purely because I did not have the means to pay for lessons. I had figured a lot out on my own and had been pretty successful at it. But I thought, ‘if I’m really here to learn, I have to be open to new things.’ So I bought into the process and set aside my old methods.
There are many “right” ways to do things. I am glad that I immersed myself in this trainer’s program. For two years I felt like I got an enormous return on that investment in many aspects, except one: my confidence in myself. I needed to be humbled, for sure, no argument there. But I started to notice that I had become too reliant on my trainer and I didn’t trust myself at all anymore. Things that had been no-brainers for me years before (what classes to enter, warming-up at a show, etc.) now felt like they required a congressional hearing to be decided.
After a particularly tough lesson, my trainer told me that I needed to “start thinking more like a professional.” And as usual, he was right, but I ended up interpreting those words differently than he intended. I went home frustrated with myself, shame spiraling in my head all the way down the driveway. If only I could get it together and ride better to the jumps, if only I could control my emotions, if only I could _______. Once the avalanche of self-doubt abated, I was left thinking that I never used to feel this way before I moved here. I used to feel like I could conquer the world, the bigger the jumps, the better, blah blah. What changed? What was different now?
For once I had all the opportunities I had only dreamed about before, and yet I was choking left and right. I realized that I had turned my gut off. For two years I had been a dedicated student, but I had stopped listening to my own instincts, and wasn’t making decisions myself. He was right; I needed to start thinking more like a pro. Time to take the training wheels off the bike and ride.
So I stopped knocking back the Kool-Aid and instead sipped it. I started to listen to myself and my horses. I didn’t abandon everything I had learned; far from it, but I integrated those skills into my own system that worked for my horses. My trainer is a great horseman and an incredible rider. But I realized that our dynamic had to change in order for me to move forward in my riding as a professional. I had to be accountable to myself and my own program, and not constantly worry about disappointing him if I made a mistake on course.
I’ve made mistakes—I’m not perfect. For example, I probably moved a horse up a level too soon last fall, and as horses do, he let me know. But instead of letting one not-so-great trip unravel me, we regrouped and jumped around a smaller track the next day, and he was ready for the move up at the following show. No shame spiral. No drama.
I know I still have a lot to learn. Over the last year, I’ve taken lessons, gone to clinics and tried to glean all that I can from the wealth of great riders and trainers in my area. But I do so now with a more critical mindset. Yes, I am happy to try new things, but I don’t take every word as gospel. I see how this method or that applies to my horses and my situation and then decide if it’s right for me. Because at the end of the day, I’m the one in the irons.
Chronicle blogger and hunter/jumper trainer Paige Cade works at Tebogo Sport Horses, a facility in Delaplane, Va., devoted to the re-training and sales of off-the-track Thoroughbreds.