In my center desk drawer in my office at the farm, I keep a rejection letter from The Dressage Foundation. It was from the first time that I’d applied for the Carol Lavell Prize, and it went to two other people that year. I keep it because of the handwritten note from Carol herself on the letter: “High performance means never give up, never give in.” I’ve applied for her grant three times, and for other grants ranging from small to $25,000 at least 10 times at this point, and I have yet to receive one.
I celebrate each rejection.
Not because I wouldn’t like the money. Of course I would; it would be awfully nice to get a little help in this expensive sport. But each time I am told no, each time I am told that I am not good enough, that I lack the qualities they’re looking for, it only strengthens my resolve to prove them wrong.
‘Tis the season where we stop and think about the things for which we are grateful. Here in the United States, Thanksgiving is an entire holiday dedicated to it (as well as to eating a lot of complex carbs and celebrating tyranny over indigenous people, but that’s neither here nor there). Every year I host Thanksgiving for my employees who stayed behind, and for a few clients and friends who don’t head home to their biological families. Every year I make the same heartfelt speech about family being the people you choose to be with, rather than the ones you’re born into. Every year we talk about the good fortune we’ve experienced and the good times we’ve had, and every word is true.
But I don’t think nearly enough hay is made about failure, about disaster, and about the things we endure to become strong, resilient and resolved on the other side.
If you’ve been with me for a while, you know that 2017 and 2018 were trainwreck years. I have said much about the various disasters—health stuff, business stuff, money stuff, actual death, and so much more that I haven’t spoken publicly about. But I don’t think I’ve said enough about how grateful I am for nearly each and every one of them, if not for the thing itself, then for the resilience they collectively built, and the lessons learned from each mess.
From adventures in Puck’s belligerence, I’ve learned to be patient, to be brave, and to hang in there five more minutes than I think I can, because that’s when the magic happens. It’s still too early to say, but he might be one of the best horses I’ve ever had.
From Swagger’s earning a five-day hospital stay after whacking his leg in his first 24 hours in the United States, I learned that good insurance is crucial, and making sure the paperwork gets done promptly upon the purchase of a horse is of the utmost importance.
The working students who’ve quit after only four days, who’ve slunk off in the middle of the night, who’ve stolen things, and who’ve threatened legal action because of the long hours and low pay that they agreed to before taking the job? They’ve all taught me the value of a good lawyer, and to appreciate all the amazing employees I’ve had before them, and since them; they’ve inspired me to work even harder to make sure that I take good care of them when they have been good to me.
And when someone near to me dealt with a terrifying cancer scare, it taught me that the barn is a healing place.
And those were the relatively mild crises. I am grateful for every kick in the teeth, every time I’ve had my hand forced or my plan changed, every gut-wrenching disaster, every soul-sucking loss. I certainly can’t say I’m grateful for Fender and Danny’s deaths, but I’m grateful for what they brought me: a thicker skin. A bigger coping toolbox. A sense of wonder about how amazing people can be, when my internet community rallied around me to help keep me out of debt when Danny first got sick. Lasting friendships with the veterinary staff who tried so hard to save them and became a part of my family along the way. Sheer amazement at what an amazing human being my boyfriend is: Ravi never flinches when I melt down, and I’ve had a few in the last few years. And of course, Elvis, who brings me such incredible joy, and who has kept my spark alive.
I’m also certainly not grateful for my longtime coach and friend Michael‘s current situation, but it’s led me to two amazing coaches, and it’s shown me who my friends are.
And most recently, this broken hand certainly has done its damnedest to muck up a really beautiful plan for my year, but in comparison to the dumpster fires of the last two years, surgery and five-figure medical bills pale in comparison. I’m unlikely to get put on the Developing List? No problem, I’ll find another way to catch their eye. I can’t exercise, and I am slowly starting to regain the lost weight and lose the fitness I’d put on for the year? OK, I’ll work with my amazing physical therapist friends to correct asymmetries and be even more ready for the rebuilding process. I can’t ride? I’ll teach my ass off and hustle through the winter to recoup the funds, and I’ll watch my employees ride my horses in a way I can’t, as they’re both petite. My horses will be better for it. And I can’t try and win this year‘s national championships? Then I’ll try for next year’s.
The tragedies and train wrecks have made me tougher, grittier and more appreciative of the slow, quiet times, the victories and the good days.
I worked for Carol in my early 20s, and we remain friends. Last winter, she came and taught me a couple of times on a few of my horses, and just as she did when I was a kid, she reminded me of a brilliant genius Wizard of Oz on amphetamines: Her energy is incredible, she sees everything, and she’s about a million times smarter than I will ever be. Those qualities really intimidated me when I was younger, so I didn’t love riding with her. Now I do, because I see it as a challenge, like resilience and multi-tasking boot camp. When she tells me that I’m doing it wrong, in her brilliant but acerbic New England way, I feel my skin toughening, and I know that it’ll serve me well when, one day, I am sharing a warm-up arena in Europe with my heroes, because they won’t be warm and fuzzy either. When I can only focus on five of the eleventy thousand things she’s telling me, I am proud, because years ago I could only have focused on three.
With each fresh wave of chaos, I’m becoming the person who will earn that grant check. I’m becoming the person who can keep cool in spite of hellfire and mayhem. I am better capable now of never giving up and never giving in. Growing those calluses isn’t fun, but it’s crucial, and it’s beautiful, even when it leaves me bruised and battered and broke, with a hand full of surgical pins and iodine, finding silver linings in even the darkest of clouds, because there is no alternative. For that, I am incredibly thankful.
Lauren Sprieser is a USDF gold, silver and bronze medalist making horses and riders to FEI from her farm in Marshall, Virginia. She’s currently developing The Elvis Syndicate’s Guernsey Elvis, Beverley Thomas and her Ellington, and her own Gretzky RV and Ojalá with hopes of one day representing the United States in team competition. Read more about her at SprieserSporthorse.com, or follow Lauren Sprieser on Facebook and Instagram.