They call showjumping the sport of inches, but according to Erynn Ballard, millimeters is the more appropriate term.
The Canadian rider has been riding out a five-star victory dry spell of late.
“For sure, I’ve been inconsistent in my results this year—I’m a bit the queen of four faults,” she jokes. “Somebody told me recently that the difference between clear and four faults is literally millimeters.”
On Saturday, the bad luck broke with her winning round aboard Narcotique v/h Dingenshof in the MLSJ $74,200 Cabana Coast 1.50m at MLSJ Thermal II, at the Desert International Horse Park. It wasn’t just millimeters that separated first and second, but a speedy time—Ballard and the nine-year-old Belgian mare were the only pair to complete the jump off track clear under the 40 second mark (39.75), crossing the timers over a second faster than runner ups Darragh Kenny and Chic Chic (40.71)
For Ballard, the win came down to a tricky turn to the jump-off combination, an approach that wouldn’t necessarily have been her first choice.
“Sometimes [winding] jump-offs like this are my weakest, because I like to really square up my turns,” said Ballard, adding that she received some last-minute encouragement from her boss and owner, Ilan Ferder.
“Ilan was like, ‘You have to slice the combination.’ And I looked at him, I was like, ‘I don’t want to!’ But you know what? Sometimes following instructions pays off, because it could have gone two ways. I slice it and [do] it right, or I slice it and [do] it wrong, but at least I was learning something.”
One thing Ballard has learned this year about herself? Confidence is an essential part of her ring game, especially when the “millimeters” in big classes aren’t going her way.
“[All] I wish for [this] Christmas is a little bit of luck—I don’t need anything else,” she says. “In [MLSJ] Monterrey, I had the last jump down in the grand prix. Just small things like where a millimeter difference and it would [have been] a clear round.
“In general, I ride such good horses right now,” Ballard reflects. “[The majority] of what I’m doing is [riding] nine-year-olds in big classes, so I have to keep in mind that they’re learning, too…nothing has [really] gone wrong, but nothing has really gone right.”
The Canadian rider said she was reminded shortly before MLSJ Thermal what works best for her: Showing a lot of horses—sometimes as many as 12 or 13 a day—in national grands prix or smaller level 1.30m or 1.35m classes, and winning.
“The downfall to coming to these really fancy shows is that there’s not always as many horses for me to ride,” Ballard explains. “My confidence is in success, even if it’s doing a hard turn in the meter 1.30, or [something like the win I had in the] 1.35m $10,000 in Palm Beach before I came here, on a seven-year-old.
“I got the cooler, and I got the neck ribbon, and I was like, ‘Yeah, I can go fast. Hopefully I can go fast in 1.50m.”
It’s clear from watching Ballard and Narcotique v/h Dingenshof (a sporty bay mare that Ballard lovingly calls “perfect”) that the pair can not only cover some ground, but also turn, slice, and make decisions on the fly. Ferder, for his part, reminded his rider of this piece in the summer.
“I think that any professional athlete can lose their confidence along the way, and they just need to find a way to get better. Ilan spoke to me this summer, and he said, ‘The one thing that you need to remember when you’re having trouble is don’t change everything. If it worked once, it’ll work again,’” Ballard explains.
“[Horses are] all individuals. You have to learn them individually, and understand them, and ride them their way. Maybe this summer, I got caught up riding one way that didn’t suit all the horses. [So I had] to go back to my roots, and remember that this is actually what I’m known for. Being able to get on different horses and adapt to them quickly.”
These are just a couple of lessons Ballard hopes to carry into the New Year, a season which will undoubtedly come with many new horses to learn, and hopefully, a fresh mindset to accompany them.
“[For myself], I haven’t had my best year, [so] I’m just really focusing on better riding, consistent riding, more confident riding—going in the ring feeling like I can improve on the last round.
“[I’ve] been begging for 2023, just because I feel like I need a fresh start. But there’s no better way to go into the New Year than to win.”