“Everyone must learn to ride under pressure.” This is a statement made by legendary 20th century horseman George Morris. I was born a highly competitive individual, but I was not born a natural competitor. As a teenager I found my niche in three day eventing. I loved horses, I loved galloping cross country and jumping, and I loved that much of the time, to me at least, the sport was about achieving a personal best. I always believed that if I was able to ride to the highest level of my own capability, that I would be a competitive rider, but for many years as I entered the ranks of professional riders, I struggled with disheartening expectations during competitions.
The relationship that I had with horses was natural. I was drawn to them from a very young age, and I had an instinctive empathy for them. However, this instinct needed years and years of disciplined training before I began to feel any sort of mastery. As a junior competitor, I came up through the ranks of the United States Pony Club, achieving my ‘A’ rating while I was in high school. Pony Club taught me a structure. It taught me a breadth of horsemanship. It gave me a standard to strive for. Pony Club also taught me to fail, and failing was one of the most important lessons I ever learned.
I was a capable kid. I was at the top of my classes in school. I played varsity sports. I was in the school plays. I was elected to student council and generally well-liked. In my circle of friends, I was a good rider. The first time I went for my ‘B’ rating, my first national rating, I failed the show jumping and grid-work section. I was fourteen and going into high school. My first instinct was to be angry at the raters and think that they didn’t know what they were talking about. My second instinct was to not want to go for another rating. They were grueling, and you had to be judged the whole time. I hated being judged. It was emotionally exhausting for me. After the testing, I put all of it out of my mind for several months as I started my freshman year of high school. Why did I need to be any better in Pony Club anyway? I was already starting to compete at the preliminary level in eventing on my own.
Months went by. As Spring began to roll around, the option to pursue the rating again came onto my radar in the form of my mom bringing up. I always hated to walk away from a challenge. I asked myself if I believed I was a good enough rider to pass the rating. The answer was yes. Because of that answer, I realized that the failure, in fact, had been my own. It was hard to admit my own fallibility, but I realized that my seat and lower leg over jumps while riding without stirrups was not strong enough for the ‘B’ level the first time I took the test. When I owned this, I realized that it was up to me and only me to ride to the level that was expected, and it was nobody’s fault but my own if I didn’t pass. That summer I passed my ‘B’ rating.
This failure gave me confidence. I learned how to separate emotion from level-headed assessment. Without this self-assessment, no real improvement could be made. I also learned that I had more. I had to dig deep to overcome my own pride at failing, but that pride was overshadowing my own ability. There have been many, many times in my life that I have failed at things. I have failed at competitions, I have failed at goals, I have failed in relationships. Life does not go on a smoothly charted course. Each time that I have faced a major failure, after the emotion has settled, I start with one simple question. “Ashley, do you have more?” The answer is always yes. That yes may not mean I attempt the same goal again, or even approach things in the same way. It simply means that I will have the confidence to learn, to grow, to be open, and to try to walk in the shoes of my best self.
What I have learned is that often when we face challenges, if we start from a position of both humility and self-belief, if we start by walking in the shoes of our best self, the answer will eventually become simple. Often times it is easy to get wrapped up in the desire for a specific outcome, when perhaps the desire should be focused on producing the best product in the moment.
The other day, one of my adult amateur students asked me to write about confidence. She said that horses are big animals and sometimes she isn’t sure if she is doing the right thing. It is a valid point! I don’t remember feeling a lack of confidence in my aids as I was learning to ride, but I do remember struggling for years with my desire to be a good competitor. Even though I was riding at a very elite level, I would be so angry at myself for not reaching my personal competition goals. Then, one day as I was prepping for a major competition where I knew I needed to ride with confidence, I asked myself if I had more. The answer was yes. That ‘more’ was not that I rode better. It was that I decided to focus on being the best rider that I could in each moment of competition rather than focusing on the final outcome. I knew that if I rode to my personal best in each moment, that the outcome would take care of itself.
During lessons I often say, “Find the confidence to use your position to influence your horse.” This is my answer to my student who asked me to write about confidence. Take what you know and use it in the moment, then take that and use it in the next moment. Believe. Be your best self in each moment and let the moments teach you. Then, as the moments build upon one another, you will become stronger. As the famous mountaineer James Whittaker writes, “You can never conquer the mountain. You can only conquer yourself.”