Down time always seems to be most complexing mind game for eventers. In a world that literally revolves around “going forward,” taking time off to let the horses down can feel incredibly backwards and can have us wondering “Who Am I?” in a truly worrisome way.
Personally, I never agonize about what the meaning of my life is when I have back-to-back lessons scheduled and a string of horses to work, with a conference call in between and a dinner to plan and cook later that night. I can handle extremist multi-tasking without breaking a sweat and nary a second thought.
But give me a few extra weeks to myself, and I start the mind-blowing process of examining every facet of my life until I have no clue what direction the universe is taking me in and I become a puddle of nervous, uninspired mush that even Socrates couldn’t decipher.
I hope I am not alone in admitting that a certain void creeps up on me when I am not focused on one or more goals (that involve being on a horse) directly ahead of me. Maybe it should be called the “No-Show-Season Blues,” but as the initial novelty of having that all-important time to relax wears off, I felt an unnerving lack of motivation, and even more terrifying to me, a lack of inspiration and focus.
It was particularly agonizing for me this year because I had intentionally planned three weeks worth of non-horsey time with family during Thanksgiving and Christmas. At the time, I felt there would be plenty of time afterwards to get started on the 2016 show season preparations. I was thrilled to have extended time with my loved ones, and my horses were getting a well deserved rest.
But these blues were sneaky because they were just hiding around in the corners of my mind. They were careful to stay out the forefront but would take hold in the quiet times between laughs with my family and friends, and art projects with my daughter.
And then, all of sudden, the holidays were over and I was left alone with the fear that I knew I was off course, but had no clue what I had missed.
When I have extra time, like most of my fellow millennial eventers, I turn to social media. Mindlessly scrolling through friends’ posts is habitual when I catch a spare moment and can actually be a cornucopia of insightful articles and creative new exercise tips that can help me improve my craft (at least that is what I tell myself when I realize I’ve just watched 15 minutes of cats being scared by cucumbers).
The fact that I was on vacation gave me ample time to explore the web with guiltless abandon. But in the midst of my identity crisis, searching Facebook for laconic words from George Morris and funny quips from Jimmy Wofford was certainly the last place to find my drive.
Instead, all I found was performance anxiety in watching my friends getting a head start on me with videos of jumping their horses over the standards in December. What had my horses been doing?! Hacking and getting their feet picked out! Now I can add a lack of confidence to the No-Show-Season Blues.
The downward spiral was about to swallow me whole until I was mercifully saved by the end of 2015. The date arrived that my family planned to travel down south to Temecula to spend New Year’s with Gamal and Hawley Bennett-Awad, and to attend the Buck Davidson clinic at Hawley’s barn. At least the familiar actions of packing up the squad and piling into the truck were comforting. But I still felt badgered by this feeling that I can only describe as… icky. Ready or not, Earl, Taylor and I embarked on our journey to knock the rust off with freshly clipped horses and more than a little trepidation in my heart.
The first thing that Buck always asks in the beginning of the clinic is, “What’s your plan?” This was not a surprise to me—in fact, I had been dreading this simple question because I knew I had no answer.
My heart went immediately to my throat as I told him I was waiting to see what he and Hawley had to say after the clinic. SOUND THE BUZZER. WRONG!
His quiet disappointment in me made me feel like I was in second grade again with my name emblazoned across the chalkboard for an entire week after laughing at the boy next to me who had passed gas. With my dunce cap on, I explained that I just wasn’t sure what shows to aim for with Billy in 2016. Unconvincingly, I told him that I felt ready for anything but I just wanted to see how Billy would feel after his downtime and thought it was better to leave it up to my trusty coaches to decide.
Buck politely let me finish digging my hole before he responded to my wishy-washy answer. “You have to get a plan!” stated Buck, in his soft and personal voice that made it all the more scathing. He continued on to quote Antoine de Saint-Exupery and tell me that a goal without a plan is just a wish. And with that, I knew it was time to get ready for a tough clinic.
I’ve ridden with Buck long enough to know that his penchant for avoiding boredom and his obvious adrenaline addiction manifest as large jumps in challenging sequences and out of seemingly impossible turns. After my initial conversation with him, my hopes of easing back into competitive riding were obliterated and better left as whimpers to myself as I began our first series of exercises.
His mental leash on me was uncanny as he picked absolutely everything that I was uncomfortable with and pushed me to do it. Whether it was having plastic Billy-kryptonite under the fences, riding for longer distances on my babies, standing straight up in my stirrups for entire rounds, or taking the three-star coffin at Galway Downs as my first ditch practice of the season, Buck pushed me to my limits every chance he got.
But what Buck drove me to do was nothing that I haven’t already physically done; what he pushed me to do was to remember who I was and what I am capable of. He had deciphered where the universe was taking me, where it was always taking me. I was traveling on the path I chose to take. My inspiration and confidence were never lost, or even misplaced, I was simply looking in all of the wrong places. I just had to look to myself.
I left Temecula without an answer from either Hawley or Buck as to what my Plan A with Billy should be in 2016, but I felt as if I had. Like a really great episode of The Twilight Zone, I came to T-Town feeling lost and behind in my preparation for who-knows-what. Then a few doors are opened, a clock runs backwards and I open my eyes knowing exactly where I am going and how.
In one of my obsessive midnight YouTube stints the day we returned from the clinic, I happened across an interview with Ingrid Klimke after she had won Pau in 2014. When asked how she approached coming into stadium in the lead with the pressure of her first four-star win on the line, she responded with her mantra, “Wish it, Dream it, Now DO IT.”
After my experience last week, I am now existing somewhere in between Buck’s plans and Ingrid’s wishes, a fifth dimension defined by own desires.
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.