British actress Helen Mirren has had a film, television, and stage career that has spanned over fifty years. In her current masterclass, Mirren states that you must never act in front of a mirror. Acting, she explains, is never about the expression on your face, but instead it is defined by your internal process. The internal process is the one that produces masterpieces.

In sport, and in life, it is so easy to feel the need to act in front of a mirror — to look around and gauge yourself by your reflection or your ranking, and to wonder where you fit in. Earlier today I received a call from an event rider whom I met two summers ago while I was teaching in Minnesota. She is in Ocala for the first time this winter working in a large professional eventing program. She just arrived last week and her phone call to me was prompted by her having a moment of fear that she was in over her head.

Being a competitor takes an element of showmanship. As a young person I was raised, both in my home life and in the school that I attended, that people should be judged by the quality of their character. It was a shock to me as I stepped into adult life that many people judge others by what someone can do for them, or even more so by who is best at being the center of attention. As I observed this I came to realize that I was fine being myself and that being the loudest person in the room had it’s benefits, but it didn’t necessarily mean that you were the smartest person in the room.

Coming to Ocala as a horse person is something like being an actress arriving in Hollywood for the first time. Especially if you don’t know anyone, it is easy to feel overwhelmed. You suddenly become a small fish in a big pond.

In one of his many brilliant YouTube discussions about leadership, Simon Sinek speaks about social hierarchy and alfas. He explains that humans are social animals, and we thrive on the recognition of others, and that the system of alfas was developed to keep the group as a whole safe. He also notes, however, that alfas are dependent on context. Someone who may be an alfa in one situation may not be the alfa in a different situation. There is no set standard by which we judge our alfas. If you meet someone and you feel nervous around them, they are the alfa. If you meet someone and you realize that they feel nervous around you, you are the alfa.

My advice to anyone who is a student this winter is to be hardworking and humble, but to also develop and value your own strengths. No matter how independent you are, learn how to be a team player. If you are only a team player, learn how to be independent.  Be prepared to unravel at the edges a little bit in order to progress to a higher level.  Be open to observing the strengths and systems of your teachers, and apply everything that you can to your own system. Be inspired by the prowess of top horses and horsemen and use your talents to build lasting connections. It doesn’t matter if you wind up being a top Young Rider, an Olympic rider or an amateur, this sport is a passion for all of us and we are all alfas in different areas of our lives. Remember that your own path is not going to be the path of the person next to you, and bring your own gifts and qualities to the table, for the good of the whole.

Happy learning and happy competing! Welcome to winter season 2018!

Coming Up from Rock Bottom

I was talking with one of my students the other day about her realizing that she may be sabotaging her own success and progress as a competitor because she has a tendency to feel more comfortable coming up from rock bottom than winning. She recently moved up to the highest level she has ever competed, and after completing her first event at the level, she then got eliminated at her second. She realized that she felt a sense of relief at being eliminated because she felt that she had nowhere to go but up, and she reflected that perhaps it was time to move out of that mindset!

I think sometimes we do self-sabotage when we have big goals. We idealize them in our brains to the point that we start trying for the goal itself instead of trying to be the athlete who is capable of that goal. Quantum physics notes the concept of levels of energy or vibrations in our universe. Positive thoughts or motivations raise our own personal vibrations. Negative thoughts or motivations decrease our level of vibrations. We perform best when our vibrations are high.

In his book ‘Power vs. Force,’ Dr. David Hawkins explains that certain emotions and motivations kinesthetically hold a numeric vibration level. Emotions such as courage, love, honor, and dedication to excellence calibrate high on the scale. Emotions such as pride, the desire to defeat an opponent, or the desire for a specific end goal, calibrate low on the scale. He writes, “True athletic power is characterized by grace, sensitivity, and inner quiet.” He also writes that the inspiration we receive from a display of athletic excellence is an “intuitive recognition of the heroic striving required to overcome human limitation and achieve new levels of prowess.”

For myself, when I have been close to reaching a new threshold of athletic performance, I know that I have achieved my best results not when I have focused on the outcome, but rather when I have focused on performing at my personal best, or when I have focused on being grateful for my equine partner, my journey and the opportunity to compete.

I see the struggle of having the right mindset wreak havoc in both my professional and amateur students, and in both my adults and younger students alike. In a human and linear fashion, we outline our goals, and we idolize our heroes, and then we focus on the outward trappings of what that means. One student will tell me, ‘I want to compete at training level this year.” Another will tell me, “I want to compete at the 1* level by 2019.” Another will say, “I want this horse to take me up the levels and be the last horse I ever buy.” or “I want this horse to go to Kentucky.” Goals and aspirations are positive outlines, but leave them as just that — outlines. Instead, to assimilate those aspirations more quickly, look at your heroes and try to focus on being the horseman that they are.

The legendary basketball coach John Wooden stated it a different way. He said, “Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.” My advice to my student was to focus on what she knew she was already capable of, and to live in that mindset.  All of us who are competing are already a hero to someone else, and therefore we are already winning!  We will grow as athletes much more quickly if we acknowledge the athlete we already are.  If we perceive ourselves as being a winner, we will innately begin to win more, and the concept of a rock bottom will disappear.


“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.”

Polishing Your Pearl

Sometimes in life, all of the puzzle pieces seem to magically fall together in one wonderful moment or sequence of moments and amazing results occur. More often, however, we must polish our pearls. Pearls are created when a grain of rough sand becomes embedded in the interior mantle of an oyster, causing the oyster irritation. The oyster then deposits calcium carbonate in iridescent, concentric layers to smooth the rough edges of the grain of sand. Over time the pearl grows, with each layer creating more depth and luster, and making the end product more beautiful.

Read More

Born to be a Coach

I taught my first riding lesson when I was fourteen at a Pony Club clinic. To be able to move up to my next rating in the Pony Club system, I needed to know how to teach. Richard Lamb, who is still active in the United States Pony Club (USPC) today, was the clinician. I was absolutely horrible. I don’t remember what I taught, but I do remember being nervous and having no idea what to say to the little girl I was supposed to help. I knew I was bad. In the weeks and months that followed my mom encouraged me, and the necessity of needing to learn to teach for the sake of my rating made me press on. By the time I was sixteen I was good enough that people began to pay me to teach beginner riding lessons. By the time I was seventeen, I had passed my “A” rating through Pony Club and was a certified instructor.

Read More

The Best Lessons My Mom Taught Me

Both of my parents are amazing, and I am incredibly grateful for their love and support.  My dad has definitely taught me some big life lessons too.  I would never have wound up as a professional horseback rider had it not been for my mother though, so I wanted to write this blog about some of the things I learned from her.

Read More

Stride for Stride: Making Sport Your Business

Last weekend I got the opportunity to visit the beautiful Roebke’s Run Horse Trials in Area IV. There was a Town Hall meeting on Saturday night after cross country. One of the repeatedly voiced concerns was the sustainability of the sport from all perspectives. The equine industry is a tough industry. Horses are ‘the Sport of Kings’ As one of my friends says, ‘we will truly be financially successful when our barn managers can afford to buy a house from their salary.’ I am not to that point yet, but I do own my own farm, pay a monthly mortgage, and own two FEI (International Equestrian Federation) competitions horses that I pay to compete on my own dime. There is so much talk about prize money and sponsorship to help cover expenses in this sport. Frankly, that rubs me slightly the wrong way. The way that I see it, the business model at home needs to be working. I am certainly in favor of anyone who wants to be a part of my team, but I have never been one to feel that anyone else owes me something. I worked in the real world before the horse world which has helped shape the way I do business. Here are some of my thoughts.

Read More

Rolex CCI4

Last weekend Tactical Maneuver (a.k.a. Gucci) and I completed our first CCI4* at Rolex Kentucky. Being a 4* rider has been on my dream list for a long time. Competing at that level to me symbolized someone who is an elite horseman, because the sport of eventing at the highest levels takes not only being a good rider but also being a good horseman — a horseman who has taken years to condition and train their horse to compete in any weather conditions at one of the most difficult equestrian sports in the world. Earlier this season I took a step back to assess some things. I doubted myself. I wasn’t sure how the Rolex weekend was going to go. Competing at Rolex was something I had been close to several times but had never been able to actualize. I didn’t want to let my horse, myself, or my team down. I realized that in my mind I thought that by the time I got to the 4* level I would be supremely confident as a competitor and feel with certainty that my horse and I would complete the weekend well. Then I thought of the old adage, “Experience is what you have after you need it.” In fact, I think I was taught that saying by Jimmy Wofford!
I thought of the years of dedication and practice that I had under my belt, and I thought of Gucci, this tremendous thoroughbred athlete and partner I have who has journeyed with me through ups and downs since I bought him and took him to his first horse trials in 2011. I remember as I was cantering towards the last few jumps on his first beginner novice course, I thought, “This is my Rolex horse.” I loved how agile and brave he was. He was my Ferrari and I trusted him. Last weekend Gucci made one of my biggest dreams come true by showing up as an athlete and a competitor every day of the weekend to finish our first Rolex Kentucky CCI4* in good style.
It was a dream weekend! I did two things every day all weekend. First, I took a moment to feel grateful for all of the people who have joined me on this journey (some for many, many years), with their love and support of all kinds. The Chronicle of the Horse noted that I possibly had the biggest cheering section of the weekend at the Kentucky Horse Park, and I don’t doubt that! It was an an unbelievable feeling to know how many people were able to come to Kentucky to watch and cheer, including my parents and many friends, clients and sponsors. Still more friends watched us compete on the live stream. Several of my friends from childhood, who know nothing about horses, even took the time to watch! Second, I told myself that every step of the way through the weekend I needed to be the best rider and horsewoman possible because I owed that to my horse. I didn’t want to let Gucci down, because he has entrusted himself to me. I couldn’t be happier with the weekend. Now, we will rest for a few weeks and see where the next leg of the journey takes us!

EN’s Rolex Rookies: Ashley Johnson and Tactical Maneuver

Check out our EN Rolex Rookie article here:

Rolex Rookies: Ashley Johnson and Tactical Maneuver
By Leslie Wylie on Apr 18, 2016

Welcome to EN’s third annual Rolex Rookies series! We’re thrilled to be profiling the new faces on the entry list for Rolex this year, and we couldn’t be more excited for these riders taking their first crack at Kentucky. We’ll be bringing you exclusive profiles on each Rookie pair, so keep checking back to learn more about the competitors you’ll see at Rolex.

From the very first time Ashley Johnson galloped Tactical Maneuver around a cross-country course, she had a feeling she might have four-star partner on her hands.
“When I bought him I thought I would re-sell him as a project,” she recalls of “Gucci,” her now 11-year-old OTTB gelding. “But at our first horse trials together at Rocking Horse he was so athletic and balanced and fun I thought to myself, ‘This is going to be my Rolex horse.’ I thought of him as my Ferrari.”
And now here they are, counting down the days until the biggest event of their lives: Rolex 2016.

“Am I on Cloud 9 or ready to puke? Definitely ready to puke — probably every day from here on in!,” Ashley says. “I get horrible state fright. I keep telling myself I have to keep focused for Gucci. He is a fantastic athlete and he deserves this!”

The event will be the apex of a relationship that began in 2011 when Ashley purchased the horse from Ciaran Thompson, an Irish eventer who was working for Bruce Davidson. As noted in Allie Conrad’s “Meet the Thoroughbreds Going to Rolex” earlier this month, Gucci is an OTTB who raced under the name Shykees Thunder. By Thunder Gulch, out of Chelle Spendabuck, he was pulled off the track by Katie Ruppel after a milquetoast run of 12 career starts. He placed in the top three only once, in a maiden claiming race at Penn National, and collected a grand total of $4,500 in earnings.

“The interesting thing is that he was racing up north, but when I got him to Prelim level I decided to investigate his pedigree more and find out where he was bred,” Ashley says. “It was 2011 and I had bought a farm (Ashland Equestrian) and moved to Ocala, Florida full-time. It turned out that he was bred about four miles from my farm at a place called Runnin’ Horse Farm!”

Their paths were clearly meant to cross. The pair has been steadily climbing their way up the levels ever since, culminating in several solid finishes at the three-star level.

“The build as far as our training has really been a multi-year process,” Ashley says. Ashley has been training with Bruce Davidson, whom she calls “the Godfather of eventing,” for almost a decade. “He has an unbelievable feel for producing a horse,” she says. “The amount of knowledge cached away in his brain is unbelievable and I always call him when I have questions. One of my all-time favorite Bruce quotes is, ‘You’re not out there to look pretty, just ride the horse!’”

She has supplemented that training with help from other top professionals: “Two summers ago I worked a lot on show jumping with Scott Keach during the off-season. In the winter months I try to take full advantage of the fact that Linda Zang comes to Ocala. This year she helped me practice about five million flying changes! She is a saint!

“This past year I have started working with Clayton Fredericks because he is in Ocala full-time. Clayton has done a great job adding more polish to our ride and I look forward to working with him more.”
Getting inside Gucci’s brain has been half the battle. As his barn name would imply, he is a striking horse — burnished bay with a long, flowing forelock and beautiful face that is set off by a double swirl — considered by many horsemen to be an earmark of equine sensitivity.
“Gucci has always been an exceptionally clever and brave cross country horse, but he can also get extremely hot, which has come into play more with dressage and show jumping, but also with cross country,” Ashley says. “As with most hot horses, the better I ride him, the calmer he stays. He likes to know that I know what I’m doing, which will be a challenge for both of us at Rolex since we are both four-star rookies!”

She recalls a story from when he was a two-star horse. At the time they had been sitting out shows to work on their skills and get stronger at home.
“He got really calm,” she says. “One day some of the other horses were going to a show so I threw him on the trailer to do flat work at the show. When he got there he was extremely offended and difficult to ride. He always lets you know his opinion about things. I realized it wasn’t just that we were at a show, it was that I hadn’t TOLD him in any way that we were going to a show.
“That was when I realized that he has a process and he likes to know what to expect. He is almost like a girl who likes to do her hair and makeup before she goes out. I am not that kind of girl, so I had to learn how to think like that for him.”

This spring Ashley has done her best to prepare Gucci for the task that lies ahead: Rolex. Their most recent FEI run was the CIC2* at Poplar Place in March, where they placed 4th.

“As far as conditioning, I do a lot of trotting with Gucci and save the wind work for horse trials and closer to big competitions,” she says. “He is generally a horse with a lot of stamina and if I get him too fit too early he just gets totally wild, so it is always a balancing act.”
Other cornerstones of Ashley’s management program are good shoeing, well-fitted saddles, and regular bodywork. “Those three things are as important as anything else in producing a strong, sound, fit horse,” she explains.

Here’s wishing Ashley and Gucci all the best in their final Rolex preparations. Go Eventing!

USEA ICP Co-Teaching Workshop 2016

Peter Grey graciously organized six of us to do a Level III/IV USEA ICP Co-Teaching workshop this past week at Longwood Farm so that we could stay current in our teaching methodology. It was a beautiful day and there were lots of great perspectives. The co-instructors were Peter Grey, Leslie Law, Joe Meyer, Kyle Carter, Jon Holling, and me. We each taught a brief lesson about a specific cross country element and then we all did a critique and discussion of the lesson. I took something away from the perspective of every instructor there. A few of my students came to audit and Kat Richards and Jet represented Ashland as a demo horse/rider combo for the first two lessons.