Is disappointment a deterrent or an incentive? When faced with adversity, there are two routes you can take. You can allow the failure to confirm your self-doubts as reality, or the setback can give you the insight necessary to find the problem with your current approach.
Nobody escapes making the choice of which path to take, regardless of age, ability or circumstance. Personally, I had to answer this very question recently while competing in the CIC** at The Fresno County Horse Park (Calif.) in February.
Leading up to the competition, Billy (High Times) and I had taken a clinic with Buck Davidson off-property, as well as a clinic at home with my coach, Hawley Bennett. I had kept up my weekly dressage lessons as well. I then enjoyed a first outing with Billy at Galway Downs in the open intermediate division to let him get out his predictable enthusiasms for the start of show season, where even in his exuberance, he placed third. So, in my mind, there was no reason for me not to expect demand a top placing finish at Fresno.
This insistent approach to showing Billy seemed the natural progression for us in this circumstance. The CIC** level is very easy for him, I mean, he DID finish Rolex last year!
And, I had taken all of the steps necessary to ensure we were prepared to win. He could do the movements, he understood the test, and he went through it beautifully the day before in the practice ring.
And yet, as I warmed up on dressage day, he started to transform from the winner of the class to a dragon on a rampage looking to torch his next victim, in a matter of minutes. The meltdown was perfectly timed right before our entrance and it continued throughout the miserably long test. I was furious by the time I reached my final salute. I was miserably distant from the top score that I knew we were perfectly capable of achieving.
After returning to the barn area and calming down a moment, I noticed my dad had texted me to see how things were going.
Dad: How’s Fresno?
Me: Terrible. Billy is free to a bad home.
Dad: Just take the good with the bad, and stay focused on what’s next.
Me: Good advice. I still can’t stand to look at his face.
Dad: Try to learn to think like Billy. If you have a bad hair day, he would never think you are not giving 100%. He will always trust in you doing your best for the both of you. He will still love to be teamed up with you and compete another day.
In his mind, you will always be a wonderful rider for him. His love and trust for you is unconditional. Being able to be trained and cared for by you is all that matters in his mind. How well you place or anything else does not matter one bit to him. Like Khan (Dragonfire Kublakhan), being your favorite horse is his destiny and his purpose for being.
Me: Now I feel guilty. Thanks, Dad.
That conversation was the smack in the face that I needed and deserved. What my dad said truly changed my perspective on my Fresno performance. Instead of becoming discouraged and simply seeing our dressage test as “Billy letting me down and being bad,” it became the impetus to changing my approach. I needed to think like a teammate and stop thinking of only my interests in this partnership.
I had to accept that sheer competitiveness is the most direct way to make Billy perform at his worst. Furthermore, pushing to win would guarantee that we would be out of the hunt. But that didn’t mean that I had to sacrifice my drive and desire to do our best in competition. It just meant that I needed to see things from Billy’s perspective to get the performance part of his job to feel like the practice we do so well day in and day out.
At my next competition, which was the advanced at Twin Rivers on the last weekend of February, I came at it with a total attitude adjustment.
Instead of demanding Billy live up to his potential, I believed that he was good at what I was asking him to do. So good, in fact, that he could do it in his sleep. Of course I have always thought he was good enough to be doing what I ask, but I had to KNOW that we were fully prepared with nothing more to do but simply show. So, I warmed up without drilling, because why drill something you are already good at?
I simply trusted that we could perform without drilling, and guess what? We could! His dressage was quiet and obedient, his cross-country was one of the fastest rounds of the day, and he was listening in the stadium to finish on the best score we have had at advanced and a sixth place finish in a very deep class.
Watch Jennifer and Billy tackle the cross-country…
Certainly our training did not change significantly in the two weeks between the shows. All that changed was my mental approach. I had to find the balance between my drive and acceptance and admit that I had lost my way for a moment.
I had allowed pressure to alter my judgment. I forgot the true reason of why I do this… not only to win, but to deepen an extremely satisfying relationship that allows me to perform feats otherwise impossible to me.
Jennifer McFall started her riding career in Pony Club and showed her family’s Morgan horses on a regional and national level, winning many National and World titles in Hunter Pleasure, Western Pleasure, Dressage and Jumping. She and Dragonfire Kublakhan, a Morgan gelding bred by her family farm and her partner during her teenage years, are pictured on the cover of the Pony Club “A” manual and had an exciting career together. Her early years as a trainer/instructor earned her recognition on the national level and most recently the Morgan Horse Association honored her for her influence on the Morgan breed, particularly in the area of eventing.
Despite her success in the Morgan show arena, Jennifer has always loved eventing and remained an active competitor. Currently, she and High Times, a Holsteiner gelding she has brought up through the levels, have finished in the top 10 at multiple CIC and CCI*** events and successfully completed their first CCI**** together at the Rolex Kentucky Three Day Event in 2014. Jennifer runs Dragonfire Farm, a sporthorse breeding, training and sales facility, in Wilton, Calif., alongside her husband and fellow eventer, Earl McFall and their daughter, Taylor.