I left the ring with a huge grin on my face and signaled my student with a thumbs up as we made eye contact.

I knew she was nervous about my reaction as four of those pesky sticks had come down during our round. And for a horse who rarely has ONE rail, nonetheless FOUR, my friends were anxious to see my reaction. Four rails effectively puts you at the bottom of the pack. I had lost.

But where they expected tears, I was all smiles.

Sure, I should have kicked instead of picked at two of those verticals. Sure, I could have helped my horse over that first oxer that came down. Yes, I could have gotten him 6 inches deeper to the last.

I know, four rails seems like a lot. Sixteen penalties added to my score dropped me firmly into second to last—only ahead of a rider who had fallen off—but that didn’t take the smile off of my face as we sauntered back to the barn.

Big pats at the end of stadium. Photo by Claire Seals.

I was the happiest loser in the barn, and truly considered the weekend a victory. I started the year demanding that my student set realistic goals and stick to them, and in response, she asked that I set my own.

The goals would fluctuate based on the show, the climate, the horse, and the funds. But we asked each other to set goals that we could at least moderately control.

You cannot control the horses you compete against, after all. You can’t control if you are placed in the first or second division. You can’t control if the person who enters the ring before you had her parents import three horses from Europe. Nor can you control the fact that the judge hasn’t seen the trials and tribulations that lead to this minor success.

But you can control your riding. You can control your preparation. You can control your warm up, and the levels that you enter. I set goals for each of my horses this weekend that were controllable—obtainable.

For Kennedy, it was simple: this was his second real show and I wanted manners. I wanted relaxation and obedience. I wanted our walk/trot transitions to be smooth and our circles to stay round. I knew that he loved to jump and had very little concerns about the stadium portion, but for an almost 18hh horse, dressage-ing is hard. So our goals were mostly set towards that phase.

Dressage-ing is hard for the Elephant. Photo by Claire Seals.

For Mak, is was different: he’s a seasoned veteran, but one who had taken a backseat to his younger brother for the better part of two years. When funds were limited and time was short, Nixon drew the exercise stick and Mak stayed out in the field. But now was his time, and I had more specific goals. I wanted a dressage test that was rideable. I wanted him to make the minor adjustments asking for those incremental 0.5 points without fuss. In stadium, I wanted a relaxed horse that stayed in front of my leg. I wanted forward motion, good distances, and a lack of hesitation.

Kennedy warmed up for dressage in fussy form, and we did not come out victorious in any of the goals I set in the sand box. As I shrugged my shoulders while making a grimace to the judge, I began to wonder what I had done wrong, and how I could fix this. He had never been fussy, but spent the majority of his test flipping his head, effectively turning his mostly sedate Elephant-self into a self-proclaimed Giraffe.

Then, as we wandered back to the barn my friend Caroline reached for the rein and sighed. Kennedy’s noseband had somehow pinched his cheek and created a blister—one that was now bleeding. His anger and resentment to the contact had nothing to do with baby moments, but pain. I took a deep breath, cleaned the wound and put some calming salve on it and found my figure 8 for jumping. A goal not completed, but with a valid excuse. I knew our dressage score would be fairly miserable, but was excited to move onto the fun stuff.

Next was Mak’s dressage test. Mak had never been a tiara-weilding DQ, but when he was relaxed and listening he could hold his own. As I warmed him up through the paces my smile grew. I felt a Mak that I usually only felt at home, and knew that we would be able to put in a good test.

However, I knew that if I relaxed too much, or went into my normal fetal position, that this beautiful warm up would disintegrate instantly. I brought my chin up, pushed my shoulders back, and forced myself to RIDE.

And ride I did. I finally got through an entire test on that horse without shutting down. When he pushed his shoulder in I asked for it to move back out. When he resisted a transition I used well practiced aids to ask again. And when he grew tired and bored in the sandbox I was able to reinvigorate him with my seat.

Oh hey, fancy pants! Photo by JJ Sillman

We left the arena all smiles and felt proud of 90% of the movements within the test…only to see a score pop up that was about 6 points higher than I anticipated. I realized that yet again we were firmly in the middle of the pack.

But I didn’t get sad, because as I told my student, we were setting controllable goals. I can control my aids, and I can control my seat, but I can’t force the judge to wear beer goggles. I can’t bribe the scribe to turn 6’s into 8’s, and I can’t fudge the scores online. So my 38 might not have made anyone else whoop and holler, but it sure as hell made me smile.

Huge smiles for me. Mak is just happy its over. Photo by JJ Sillman

We moved onto jumping and as expected, Kennedy was a phenom. He’s really turned into a packer over fences and just exudes ease. Like an old equitation horse he finds a distance, has a lead change, and just guides himself to the fences. But I had never ridden him in that large of arena or that big of a setting, and therefore the ease with which he handled it made me smile even larger. It was a good day.

And then they set the fences for training level. This show is the first show for many of us eventers here in Kentucky, and most of us use it to brush the dust off our winter-weary bones, and the organizers typically set the courses as such. But not this time. This time the fences were a maxed 3’3 with spreads that gave me anxiety.

Again, I can’t control the course. I can’t control the lines or the spreads, but I can control the canter that I take them in. I can control my warm up and my horses instincts. And that is exactly what I did.

I went into the ring with a larger than normal canter and just tried to support Mak as much as I could. I attempted to give him help when he needed it and stay out of his way when he didn’t. Although I heard rails fall from tired legs and an exhausted horse who had sat all day during the first hot day of the year, I didn’t feel any hesitation.

And. That. Was. Awesome.

The fences were scary, but Mak had my back. Photo by Claire Seals.

My new tradition with my student, Claire, is to force her to list three things that she is proud of, and three things that she needs to work on at the end of a show. It’s an attempt to keep things in perspective and not just have “WE LOST” or “WE WON” feelings. As we headed back to the barn she asked me to do the same.

I told her I was upset at myself for picking to the verticals, but proud of Mak for continuing to stay forward even after I had made that mistake. I told her I should have rode deeper into my corners, especially up to a massive oxer that I winged to, thereby having Mak drop the rail with his unbalanced hind end. Yet, I was proud of myself for continuing to ride even as I heard the rails falling. Mostly, I was proud of myself for finally setting some goals, sticking to them, and not letting others’ opinions change them.

Kennedy finished 12th out of 14 horses in the starter division, and Mak finished second to last in the training…but I was ecstatic. We didn’t even earn a ribbon, but both horses earned respect. And for the first time in a long time, I feel like I am actually riding.

He can do this with his eyes closed. Photo by Claire Seals.

I know the keyboard warriors might be looking up the scores and going, “Oh wow, Carleigh had 4 rails on Mak, she must have ridden like crap!” Or, “That horse should NOT be doing training level right now.”

I know the expectations are high and the behind the scenes judgement is real. But as my student put it on Saturday, it is as though every one else has higher expectations for me than I do for myself. And my opinion of myself, and my riding, is all that truly matters.

I didn’t let the lows get me down, I didn’t let the rails set me back. I never once went into the fetal position, and for the first time in a long time, I didn’t care about the expressions on others faces as I left the arena. Because this game is a competition against no one but yourself, and on Saturday, I finally felt like I won.

Onto the next. Photo by Claire Seals.

About the Author

Carleigh Fedorka is a Ph.D. student at the University of Kentucky’s Gluck Equine Research Center. A Pennsylvania native, she moved to Kentucky after graduating from St. Lawrence University and has worked closely in all aspects of the thoroughbred industry. She spends her free time eventing as well as training, selling and rehoming OTTBs. Read more about her horse life at her blog, A Yankee in Paris.