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Remember! It's supposed to be fun!

Michael Hillman

Ever have a student who's just too hard on themselves? Who gives his or her all but hasn't yet brought home that blue? Someone who needs a shot in the arm? Here is my advice to that person in my life...

Dear Bethany:

I was thinking about you as I drove home today, and while this note will probably not capture all my thoughts, hopefully, it will capture most of them.
I not sure who is looking forward more to your going training level--you or me. Whether you know it or not, the move from novice to training will be the hardest, but most important move you will make in your eventing career. As I drove home today, I found myself reflecting on your initial reaction to placing at the Novice Championships. You commented that you didn't think your dressage, and by that you inferred your riding, was good enough to do training. After you said that, I found myself reflecting on just how hard you are on yourself.

On many occasions, I have told you that you remind me of myself. In my early days of both school and riding, I too was hard on myself. If I got a 98 on a test, I was mad that I missed two points. Who cared that the next highest score was 65. I didn't get a hundred and because of that, I felt I had failed.
Like you, I took this same hard approach to learning to ride. I did everything in my power to take as many lessons as I could. I idolized my first instructor, much like you do Katie. I felt she could do nothing wrong and worked tirelessly to learn as much from her as I could. But it was my second instructor, John Simons, who had the greatest impact on my riding.

John was a friend of Ann's, and an eventer who learned the sport under the tutelage of the great eventers of the 60's and 70's. When illness struck Ann down, she asked John to help me. At the time, I had been riding for three years. Then again, reflecting on what I now know, riding is not the correct word. A better phrase would be "I had been drilling . . ."

I can still vividly remember my first riding lesson with John. We were out on a hack, as we approached a steep hill John turned to me with a smile on his face and said, "Beat you to the top." I had never galloped a horse before, let alone jumped a fence outside of an arena, but John didn't care. For the next ten minutes, I experienced every emotion from fright to elation. By the time I reached the top of the hill, I was a different rider. More importantly, I was a different person.

Later, as we hacked back to the barn, John told me that he had been watching me since I had started riding and that while I was an able rider, I had yet to learn the true meaning of horsemanship. In short, I lacked, and still lack, feeling.

"Riding is supposed to be fun, but every time I see you, you never have a smile on your face. When I ask you how your rides have gone, all you do is complain. Mike, you've got to change your attitude. God only knows learning to ride is hard enough without making problems for yourself. Lighten up and start having fun!"

I rode with John until I finished college. I still keep in touch with him, and consider him one of my dearest friends, and, every couple of months, I call him to tell him of my latest events, ask his advice, or just reminisce. My time in the Navy gave me some unique opportunities to tour the world and fine-tune the various eventing disciplines. Wherever I went, I always remembered John's advice and had fun, and, because I had fun, people were always willing to help me.

Like you, dreams of Olympic gold drove my early riding career. However, it soon became obvious to me that I would never make the team. Charmer, the horse of my dreams, and I were struggling, and as failure followed upon failure, I began to give up on my horse, and myself. The low point in my riding career was around 1989 to 1991. I'd be surprised if I got on a horse ten times in that two years period. Fortunately, I had a professional career to fall back on, and while I was doing well in it, I found life without horses lacking. So I picked up the telephone and asked Julie Gomena for help. A month later, I had Worf.

Novice with Worf was a cinch, but the move to training was nerve racking. Fortunately, I had Julie and my wife Audrey, who held my hand every step of the way. I can't begin to count the number of nights I laid in bed sweating over a jump I was sure would do me in. While Audrey and Julie did everything in their power to soothe my fears, I soon found myself back into the trap of trying too hard, chasing ribbons, and beating myself up for failures. Soon ulcers were the rule of the day. I was worrying so much about everything, that both Julie and Audrey even considered recommending that I stop riding. My demanding, unforgiving attitude also played itself out at work, and soon, people didn't want to work for me.

Then, one day, Julie took me out for a hack and we galloped up a hill. Like John ten years before, she reminded me that riding was supposed to be fun. That while it was OK to have high expectations, one must always remember that all goals are achieved one step at a time, not in one giant leap. Needless to say, I changed my attitude, and once again began to focus on having fun. Soon smiles and laughter were the order of the day. As the laughter and merriment grew, so, too, did my capacity to absorb Julie's insights and teaching. A year after that ride up the hill, Worf and I were ranked number 1 in Area II in Preliminary and I achieved a life long goal of completing a three-day.

Just as important, however, is the fact that I carried my new attitude to work. As I looked around my life, I realized that like my riding, I had built an island around myself at work, and yes, even at home. Much as horses do, people need to know they're appreciated. I never patted Charmer; as a result, he never jumped for me. I patted Worf all the time, and he jumped the moon for me. When I began to acknowledge those around me at work, I found they worked harder for me. When I began to acknowledge everything Audrey does for me every day, I found she would do more for me.

Which brings us back to you. When was the last time you thanked your parents for Lady? When was the last time you hugged your parents? When was the last time you let someone do something for you, and thank them for it? It's hard for me to realize now that all Charmer wanted was a pat, a simple pat, just three seconds out of my life. Yet, I never took the time to do it. It is too late for him. I'll never be able to pat him again. Instead, all I can give him is a nice gravesite. So when you see me toiling on his grave, realize what I'm doing is paying penance for not thanking him when I could.

Worf and I got through training, and flew through Preliminary because I had a good team behind me. You have Julie, Audrey, and me to help you, but that is not the whole team. Your parent's are not only an integral part of your team, they're the most important. With a team like that, and a horse like Lady under you, you are going to the top; all you have to do is start believing in yourself and your horse. The sooner you do, the shorter the trip.

So my advice to you is this: smile more, laugh more, and go hug your horse. Do this, and you'll not only set the wheels in motion toward an Olympic gold, but you'll also set yourself on the path that will assure you a successful career, a career that will keep you in horses the rest of your life.
But it all starts with believing in yourself.

Bethany, you're one of the best, most natural riders I've ever seen. Don't fall into the same traps I fell into. Never let your riding became a chore. When you are old and gray and sitting around writing a story like this to one of your own students, what you'll remember about your ride at the Novice Championships is not that you didn't win the dressage, but that you finished the day third.
When you're old and gray, and someday you will be, you'll reminisce that after 'flying' that second fence, you knew then that you were going to the 2008 Olympics...

Life is too short to waste time worrying. Now let's you and me find a hill and gallop!

Read other horse related stories by Michael Hillman

Read other stories by Michael Hillman