Austin Equestrian welcomes its newest blogger, Alyssa O'Connell. Alyssa takes a look back at her riding career, and in doing so, shares thoughts and feelings to which we can all relate, regardless of our age or the equestrian discipline in which we participate. Enjoy!
“I grew up riding horses competitively. The jumping stuff, not the barrel stuff.”
This statement, or variations of it, is one I utter at every horrendous “icebreaker” event when leaders ask their unwilling participants to share an interesting fact about themselves. (Brief interjection: I’m 22 years old. Can’t we move past these once we surpass age 12?) This answer is almost always unique in the room, and if it isn’t, I immediately bond with the person who shares my equine past. Horseback riding, and the hunter/jumper discipline specifically, shaped me as an individual. The laughs, the tears, the victories, the injuries, and the friendships are invaluable to me and always will be.
My sister Lauren, nearly three years my elder, began summer camp at a barn called Kings Bridge Farm the summer she was eight. Like any little sister, I wanted to be doing exactly what Lauren was doing, but seven was the minimum age for enrolling campers. I was therefore barred access from horseback riding for a couple of years. My parents, eager to get me started in some form of physical activity, signed me up for gymnastics classes. I was rarely a disobedient child, but the tragic unfairness of my horseless life led me to give my mother the stink eye during every gymnastics class for the year or so I attended. Sorry, Mom.
Finally, I turned seven, and I could start riding horses. Thank goodness. Everything went so quickly from there—I loved camp, started lessons afterwards, and began competing in local C-rated and eventually A- and AA-rated shows across Texas. I spent my entire youth, adolescence, and teenaged years riding at Kings Bridge Farm with the Hummels and co., who became (and still are) my beloved second family. Things weren’t always perfect or easy, though. Riding and owning horses is a decidedly expensive, dangerous, and arduous venture despite the perfection and aloofness we attempt to exude in the show ring.
Many great articles detailing what one learns from horses have recently circulated throughout the throngs of social media. I will not attempt to expatiate on the heartwarming truths offered by these writers. Instead, I would like to speak directly to the riders who are still in the midst of their equestrian careers, sometimes wondering what else could be out there besides walking horses in aisles when the ring is too wet or waiting endless hours for the children’s hunters to just finish, please!
I was one of those wonderers. When I graduated high school and headed to college, I was somewhat relieved to have a respite from riding. My sometimes self-destructive perfectionism made me anxious at shows even though I absolutely loved the sport and the animals. I wanted a more active social life where my conversations were mainly with people, not horses, and I wanted a boyfriend (I think we can all agree that there is a dearth of available men in the horse world).
So, I left riding behind. I did keep in touch with my KBF family, and I even went out to ride a few times, but since turning 18, I have never again been enveloped in that wondrous and frustrating sphere of horseback riding. This is not a tragic tale of woe in which I confess that my life is miserable because I left horses. I love my life. I realize now, however, that I should have enjoyed each day of riding like I enjoy each day today. Adolescence is such a difficult time, so it’s almost impossible to truly appreciate the moment when all one wants is to stop looking so awkward. But my time at Kings Bridge with Steve Hummel, one of the greatest people I ever have and ever will meet, was priceless. What could be better than getting to ride horses every day and interact with people who love and understand them as well as you do? Nothing. That’s what.
So, to all you current hunters, jumpers, barrel racers, etc.: Enjoy it. It’s so cruel that your most fun and eligible years as a rider come and go before you can even vote. But stop beating yourself up when you miss a distance at a jump, try not to be mean to your mom or trainer about having to be at the barn when you could be at some great party, and most of all, have fun. Kiss your horse. Relish the moment. Most likely, you won’t be able to do this forever, so love it now. Take it from me, a former equestrienne, that you’ll miss it daily in the future and will want to return to some special moment that encapsulates everything good about your time as a rider.
My special moment was my first show on my favorite horse ever, Braddock, when that jewel of a horse and I won the children’s hunter classic together in Tyler, Texas. I was the only one to wait all day for the pinning announcement, and thus I was the only one to perform the victory gallop (luckily I wasn’t cantering around by myself as 8th place or something… that would have been horrific). Steve was undeterred (of course), and he had me go around and around and around to that ridiculous music while my family and the KBF crew cheered and laughed at my solo, winner’s loops. I’ll never forget those ten minutes, as they capture the best parts of the sport: fantastic people, good laughs, great horses, and ultimate joy. Though riding is in my past, and both Steve and Braddock have passed on to be equestrian angels, that memory stays with me in the present. And that moment, and everything it represents, overtakes the frustration, sadness, and pain that horseback riding, and any sport, inevitably brings. It is perfect, and I am so grateful that I have actually experienced a perfect moment in my life.
So, find your flawless equestrian moment and treasure it. All regrets and anxieties, past and present, are trumped by such memories.