Confidence is a funny thing. While I have run into trouble with my confidence in the past, I feel like I have had more students recently struggling with confidence in their riding. I have a not-so-secret secret to tell you - everyone struggles with confidence.
Last year, I faced my own struggles with confidence. I had entered both of my (kind-of) Preliminary horses at Great Meadow International (GMI) for their second Preliminary level events. One of my horses, Unbroken, was moving back up to Preliminary after struggling with a mild case of EPM in 2019. He had moved back up to Preliminary a few weeks before and, due to a rider mistake, I took a swim in the water jump. My other, younger horse, Lotos, was doing his second Preliminary after a lovely but greener performance at the same event. My original plan was to do another Preliminary between the events but the lack of rain just made the ground a bit too hard for me to be comfortable.
While I have competed at bigger events like GMI in the past on different horses, this was my return to a bigger stage. I had done several FEI competitions as a junior, in both eventing and dressage, including representing Region 6 in dressage at the North American Junior/Young Rider Championships. My previous horse ran his last FEI in 2015 and it had taken a while to find Unbroken and Lotos and bring them up to this point. I was definitely nervous about riding around a course that was known for being bigger and more difficult at such a prestigious event. On top of everything else, an untimely spider bite left me at about 50 percent for my last cross-country school, resulting in a fall (off my horse that I had just come off of) and a less-than-confidence-building school. All that being said, my coach, Jan Byyny, told me that she knew that we were ready. As I plodded on, questioning about 75 percent of all my life decisions up to that point, it was like a sucker punch to learn Unbroken’s bridle number was 1. Now, on top of all my anxiety, my horse that I had fallen off of twice in the past month was going to be the pathfinder.
Dressage was less than ideal. Normally, I am quite comfortable on the flat, especially with Unbroken. We had an issue with his bridle and then a miscommunication about how to get to the arena and bam: we had two errors and a swap in the counter canter. Honestly though, I was thrilled with him. He was lovely, considering that I was riding at way less than my ability. It was fine, I was happy it was over with and ready to move onto Lotos. Now Lotos, a 7-year-old who has a lot of potential but was not quite broke enough on the flat, did not handle nervous Brooke quite as well as his older brother. We struggled through the test with a less than ideal score, but we did it. That’s supposed to be the hard part of eventing, right?
As I hopped off Lotos and ran to run my cross-country course, I saw the fences for the first time. They were big. Great. Everything was big. Walking the course, I didn’t have much to say because I was busy questioning my life choices. It was big, not horribly technical, but a lot to do. I knew we had prepped for this; I knew my horses were ready, but was I? Luckily, I found out that the CCI2*-S had the exact same course and they were running first, so at least Unbroken wasn’t the pathfinder.
A sleepless night and we headed back over to the event in the morning to run cross-country. There wasn’t much to be said while I tacked up Unbroken. He wasn’t the easiest on cross-country, but had been running pretty well. We had finally figured out his cross-country bit, so I was going to be fine. Right? While this is embarrassing to admit, I grabbed extra white clothes that morning in case I took another swim before my ride on Lotos. Could I do it? I think so? My confidence was not exactly in the place you want it before you head out on the biggest course your horse has ever seen.
In warm-up, I don’t think I could see a spot if you smacked me in the face with it. There is backward riding, and then there is what I was doing. With some strong, encouraging words from Jan, I somehow mustered to get a few good jumps to be able to go out.
With a tap of the whip, we were over the first. Bam, the turn to the second, right by the warm-up, and Unbroken gave me a clear warning that I needed to stop pulling and start trusting him, stopping in the turn, not even pointing at the second fence. Great. I can do it though. I got him back going and managed to hit a few nice strides over the next couple. The fourth and sixth fences were a little hairy, but we were doing it. We managed to get through half the course. The coffin was lovely, the angled cabins bending line to the corner was lovely, the first water wasn’t expertly executed, but wow, he felt like he could do this. The last water (the second-to-last jump) was probably the hardest water he had seen and, trying to be conservative, I took a little more than I should have, but he still jumped in. Between my ride in and my not-so-perfect turn, the bend to the corner out wasn’t quite right and I pulled him to a half stride. A quick pat on his neck for him being understanding of my mistake and a circle around and we were back on our way. I finished. We finished. He was truly a Preliminary level horse.
While I wasn’t as nervous to be heading out on "The Little Horse That Could," I was still riding a little more defensively than what Lotos likes. He was full of try and despite my slightly less nervous riding, he really stepped up. Feeling a little cocky as the little guy flew around the course, I took a chance at the first water that was definitely the wrong choice. The runout (another one of MY runouts), and I got my head screwed on straight again and we made it around the course. I'm proud to say that I was able to have a better ride at the second water.
Okay, I made it through the cross-country. While cross-country was always a bit more difficult on Unbroken, the EPM really had affected his show jumping. Now in last place on both horses, I was going to clobber through the show jump. As I rushed to go walk the course, my heart jumped in my throat as I saw how big it is. I made a last-minute decision to change Unbroken’s bridle, and I hopped on. While this might not have been the best mindset to go in with, I was not expecting him to be great. It was his first time show jumping after cross-country and one of the biggest courses he has jumped around. As I hurried over the first warm-up jump (that I was trying to squeeze in between other people warming up), it wasn’t that bad. Probably a fluke. There is no way he would be jumping this well, all things considered. Another, he was great. Another, he was better. My horse that had a less than ideal prep was showing up to jump like he was truly a three-day horse. I headed down to the arena and he was stellar. A handful of time faults but wow, he jumped amazing. I gave him the ride that he needed.
I quickly popped off and gave him a monster hug and hopped on Lotos. This should be easy, right? I just jumped around super on my harder horse. Lotos was good at show jumping and was feeling his frisky self. There was a little more left drift in warm-up than I wanted and I couldn’t quite get his canter together, but he was loving the springy footing. Not too many jumps and I headed over, maybe a little earlier than I should have. I might have used up most of my good jumps on Unbroken, but after a close spot and a rail at fence 2, Lotos showed his jumping bean self and flew around.
I finished second-to-last in both Preliminary divisions. But I finished. I have two amazing horses that I have trained to a point where I can ride with so many nerves but still get around the hardest course that we as a team have seen. While it may not seem like the most successful weekend on paper, that weekend is the event that showed me that my horses and I have what it takes. I could look at it as a confidence blow that I didn’t perform well, but in my mind that was a turning point in our training. I went back to the drawing board and was able to change minor training things that shaved over 10 points off Lotos’ dressage score at the next event and found a better way to communicate with Unbroken on cross-country. Both horses went on to finish the season quite strong with multiple top-five placings each, including Unbroken winning an event and Lotos being named the USEA Area II Preliminary Reserve Champion. Both horses have bright, upper-level futures and I am so proud to be their rider. I am so excited for our big plans next year and while I would love to say this is my last battle with confidence, I know it is not. I just now know, that even with everything falling apart, that we can do it.
I have told this story a couple times in my lessons recently. Maybe a rider who just feels like they aren’t good enough for an exercise or that they are never going to find a way to communicate with their horse or they're just having one of those bad days were nothing seems to be going right. Confidence is not something that is a given. I remember looking at other riders and thinking that there is no way that they feel as nervous as I do. Guess what? They do. Maybe not at every event, but every successful trainer, coach, and super adult amateur has allowed those doubts to creep in at some point. The reason why they are successful isn’t because they won this show or that, it is because they had rides that they weren’t sure if they were going to get through and still tried through every second of it. I am excited to feel the nerves again and know that it is only going to make me a stronger rider, horsewoman, and person. When that confidence monster creeps in, all I can say is keep trying, trust your people, your coach, and your supporters. You can do it - we are all learning and getting better.
Brooke Bayley is a professional rider and trainer based in Middleburg, Virginia. She has successfully competed at FEI in both eventing and dressage and coaches students of all ages and levels and is in the process of implementing an IEL team. In her own riding, Brooke is working hard to achieve her goal of competing at the top of the sport at an overseas CCI5*-L. In addition to her riding and training program, she has both a BA and MA in Psychology.
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