During this past circuit at the Winter Equestrian Festival I had to call upon myself to have a strong mental position. Half of our game is mental. To explain what I mean, here is what I went through a little over a month ago, during the last couple weeks of WEF.
Following our competition in the Battle of the Sexes, Splendor and I started off the season strong with a win in the low junior classic during Week 3. At the beginning of the circuit, I knew that Splendor would get mentally exhausted if he resided solely in Wellington. My father moves to southern Georgia in the wintertime, and we worked out a schedule where Splendor would trailer back and forth from my dad’s large farm in the middle of nowhere to the horse capital of the world. By doing this, Splendor stayed fresh and was able to have some well-deserved time off. When he returned to Florida, he picked up multiple second places in the classics and was leading in the circuit standings. Most importantly for me, we were having fun, and he was happy. I find that horses who enjoy their job are much more successful. So half of the mental preparedness within our team was taken care of. Then there was me…
I have always valued mental focus. When I was about 13, I started to visualize exactly how I wanted to ride each course, and I blocked out any distractions. Before then, I used to get very nervous and jittery, so it took a lot of time and practice to be able to stop time around me and just picture what I wanted to have happen.
I’ve always treated myself like an athlete. Most people in this sport put so much time, effort and money into keeping their horses in top condition and ready to compete. Why, then, do I see so many riders treat themselves poorly? If we want success, we need to make sure we are as equally prepared as our horses. Whenever I compete I don’t eat any sugar, and I try to stick to a very specific diet (i.e. pasta/protein) in order to be able to peak when I ride. I also get at least 10 hours of sleep the night before. Although these are great practices, it all comes down to how steady you are able to keep yourself mentally.
This circuit, I never expected to be able to hold circuit champion. The low junior jumpers at WEF are insanely competitive, and my main goal was to have fun. Slowly as the weeks went on, I kept my lead. However, an extremely talented rider and horse were quickly catching up to me. Coming into the final week, it all depended on who did better in the classic on Week 12. I have to say, I was very nervous. I wanted to do well, and although my main objective was, and is, to make sure Splendor was happy, I felt my competitive side getting very fired up.
All of Week 12, I was competing against this rider on different horses. We did the same schooling classes on young ones, etc. Constantly, we went head to head. As Sunday came closer and closer, I got more and more anxious and excited to compete for all the marbles.
On April Fool’s Sunday, it was finally the last day of WEF. Originally in the order, my competitor was supposed to go before me, but due to some conflicts, her round was pushed after mine. Funny enough, I ended up having some conflicts due to a catch-ride as well, and I got pushed back. Out of the 70-some field of junior jumpers, it turned out that she would go second to last, and I would go last in the final classic of WEF to decide circuit champion.
Earlier that day, I really had to get my head in the game. I was so excited and competitive that I had to remind myself of the real reason I do this, which is for the love of the sport. In hindsight, circuit champion would really not mean that much because no matter what happened that final day, no one could take away the fact that my horse had a phenomenal season and was at the top of his game. So my first step preparing to compete was making myself understand that a ribbon means nothing.
That being said, I was still going to try my best. I walked the course and watched two or three, which is my usual routine. Then I went back to the barn, sat in my car, turned up the AC, and took a good thirty-minute cat-nap. When I woke up, I visualized my round and how I wanted to execute each element of the course. I pictured my result, and I drained any negativity or angst from my brain. I took a couple of deep breaths and meditated. Then it was time for me to go, and I knew I was prepared.
The rider who I respect tremendously went in before me. I sat there at the gate, not watching but rather with my eyes closed thinking about what I wanted to do. She had a cheap rail, but I barely noticed because I was in my zone. I walked in on Splendor and did the course that I already “rode” about 10 times in my head. He was brilliant; I was prepared. We won by a whole second. To me, none of this would be possible if we hadn’t taken the steps to make sure both of us were mentally fresh and ready to do what we both know how to do best: have fun.
Caelinn Leahy is a teenager who foxhunts and show jumps. She earned her first grand prix win at age 15 on July 22 aboard Splendor, who also hunted all winter. You can read more about Caelinn in “Winner Of The Week: Caelinn Leahy Won The $50,000 HITS Balmoral Grand Prix On Her Foxhunter.” Read all of Caelinn’s COTH blogs.