Apr 09, 2023

Now On Course: That First Blue Ribbon Feeling with Emma O'Brien and FF Bugatti

Photo courtesy of Emma O'Brien

2022 was a challenging year—filled with both mental and physical setbacks, but after some time off, it was time to step back into the show ring! My horse, FF Bugatti (or "Ocho" as he’s known at the barn) had been working so hard since we first started our partnership back in 2019.

I had started 2022 out with such big goals and high hopes! I had planned out my whole show season starting with Spring Bay Horse Trials (Lexington, Kentucky), then the USEA Intercollegiate Eventing Championships in Georgia, and then back to Kentucky for Maydaze Horse Trials, followed by the MidSouth Horse Trials (Lexington, Kentucky) in May and June.

However, that plan got completely turned with what seemed like one injury or complication after another. At MidSouth Horse Trials, my own confidence issues got the better of me, and while Ocho and I completed dressage and cross-country, we ended up withdrawing from the event before the final day of show jumping. My confidence was shaken but thanks to my amazing coach, Lauren Ferguson, and the whole LF Eventing team, I kept moving forward, working hard, and we set a goal of just completing a USEA horse trial to gain confidence.

So fast forward to August 2022, and we had our eyes set on Hoosier Horse Trials (Edinburgh, Indiana). No expectations, just trying to get out there and get some competitions under our belts for 2022. Ocho and I spent the weeks before the show preparing. I got him as a 5-year-old, and I was 16 at the time. Now we were 8 and 19, respectively, and were finally ready to put all the pieces together.

Show weekend arrived, and I was a nervous wreck. Dressage was our biggest mental block—needless to say it isn’t either of our favorite phases. We both had some pre-existing anxiety, and it seemed to always be a struggle to get through a dressage test without some sort of hiccup.

Of course, that’s what comes with young horses, and it's something that we continue to work on today. But this day, the stars seemed to align for us. We got to dressage warmup, and Ocho was the most relaxed he had ever been. It was a great feeling. I felt I had a chance this time, to finally reach our goal of finishing a dressage test relaxed and calm. My name was called, and it was time for me to do my test. Still a nervous wreck, I walked over to the arena and waited for the bell—usually the moment when Ocho realizes he’s about to go into a dressage ring and his anxiety starts to come out. But, about halfway through my test, I realized that Ocho was staying relaxed. I couldn’t really believe it; he had never been so calm during a dressage test before.

Scared I would jinx myself, I continued, focusing on my job as the rider and guiding him to stay relaxed and supple. By the end of the test, I was smiling ear-to-ear. I couldn’t believe what had just happened. The look on my coach's face when we exited that arena was pure joy for us! We did it! I didn’t even care what the score was, I knew it was our best test yet. We were finally making progress. I never check my dressage score until after the show—I try to maintain my focus and not worry about scores or placings. But this time, my teammates couldn’t resist sharing the news! With a 26, Ocho and I were sitting in first place after dressage. I couldn’t believe it.

Cross-country was next. This has always been a strong suit for Ocho, most definitely his favorite phase (and of course mine too—we're both adrenaline junkies!). So, I wasn’t too nervous about it but of course, after finding out I was in first, my emotions stirred up a little bit of anxiety. But by the time I was called to the start box, Ocho had his game face on, ready to go. He was perfect, not blinking an eye at anything. We were still in first!

Photo courtesy of Emma O'Brien

On the final day, all Ocho and I had left to conquer was show jumping. I love jumping but have had my share of mishaps in show jumping, and getting that clean round never seemed to fall in my favor. I’m sure everyone feels some pressure walking into that show jumping ring but this time, I was really feeling it. Ocho and I have a pretty good record in show jumping, but there’s always that chance that something could go wrong, I’d lose my focus, or we’d knock a rail. We started warming up, and by the time it was my turn to go, I was sitting at the in-gate, my stomach in my throat, praying at that moment that I didn’t throw up.

I think I held my breath the entire course, but we did it. Ocho and I went double clear. Ending the weekend on our dressage score of 26, securing our first horse trial win together, and my first win at a USEA-recognized event.

The moment that ride was over, I had so many emotions and they all came out through tears. After many years at the Novice level, with my previous horses and Ocho, I had never won a USEA event. We'd come close several times but never quite got the blue. I tried not to let it bother me. After all, winning isn’t the main goal of riding and competing. I just kept trying to better myself and my horse. As my mom, my coach, and my teammates all came running over to me, I had no words—just tears of joy and accomplishment! The moment when I got to lead that victory gallop is one of my favorite memories to this day.

Photo courtesy of Emma O'Brien

After this show, I took some time to reflect on the whole experience, the trials, tribulations, and the joys that led up to it. Does this mean the setbacks are over? No. Does it mean my struggles with anxiety and confidence are gone? Nope, not a chance. Now, new goals are set, bars are raised and Ocho and I just keep working hard to do what we both love to do—event!

The USEA is made up of over 12,000 members, each with their own special horses and experiences. The USEA's Now on Course series highlights the many unique stories of our membership. Do you and your horse have a tale to tell? Do you know someone who deserves recognition? Submit your story to Lindsay Berreth to be featured.

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