My first introduction to horses was very casual. My aunt was a horse trainer up in northern Arizona, so whenever my family would take summer vacations up there, I got put on a pony and led around. The first time I ever sat on a horse was when I was about three years old, and it wasn’t until a few years later that I got “the horse bug”.
How it All Began
When I was nine, I spent the summer with my aunt on her ranch and absolutely fell in love with everything to do with horses. I loved riding, I loved grooming, I loved feeding them, I even loved cleaning stalls!
After that summer I told my mom that I wanted to quit every other activity I was doing in order to put all of my energy into horses. She was skeptical at first if my bout of horse craziness was just temporary, but it soon became clear that I was serious. My parents generously got me a pony to learn on and from then on, I was hooked.
“…our love of riding often stemmed from just a pure love of horses.”
When I was young I of course loved riding, but my real joy came from just getting to spend time with the horses. My first pony had been abused and was very shy, so I would spend hours just sitting in his stall, feeding him one handful of hay at a time while singing to him. Horses were just such magnificent animals to me, and I felt so lucky to be able to form friendships with them and take care of them. I think many of us can relate and, looking back, our love of riding often stemmed from just a pure love of horses.
A Passion for Dressage
However, the more I began riding the more it became clear that I was actually pretty decent at it. I had naturally good balance and rhythm while riding and I caught onto new things pretty quickly. Almost right away I started to develop a passion for dressage. Pretty uncommon for a little kid, I know. But I loved the precision, the finesse, and the perfection of it. Soon I began competing at local shows, and my fire for competition awoke inside me.
“I loved the precision, the finesse, and the perfection of it.”
I’ve always been a naturally competitive person, and for the first
Over the next four years I moved from Training Level to
Over the next few years, I would make it back to the USEF National Championships twice and the North American Youth Championships four more times, winning a Junior Reserve National Championship, a Young Rider National Championship, and eight medals at the North American Championships.
The Pressure of Perfection
However, throughout my competitive
“We often lose the concept of self-care, of realizing that a day off is good for us and our horses…”
But I also think that the dressage industry feeds off of people with this perfectionist mindset and we all find ourselves in this cycle of constantly needing to be better and do more, often to our detriment. I feel like there has become a stigma in the dressage industry that whoever rides the most horses in a day or works the most hours or goes the longest without a day off is the best and most dedicated person. But what’s lost in translation is having any semblance of healthy balance.
We often lose the concept of self-care, of realizing that a day off is good for us and our horses, of understanding that you don’t have to work fifteen hours a day just to prove you want it. I’ve seen so many people, myself included, lose themselves to the competitive side of the sport while forgetting that our true love stemmed from just enjoying our horses and the special relationships we have with them.
“I had so much pressure to succeed put on me from both myself and others that I no longer loved the thrill of the competition arena but instead just hoped that my results would be good enough.”
By the time I was twenty-one and had just capped off my young rider career, I was burnt out. I had spent so many years spending numerous hours in the dressage court with intensive lessons and training sessions that I missed just going out on the trail for a good time and some fun with my horse. I had worked so many fourteen to fifteen-hour days that the barn just became my workspace instead of my happy place.
I had so much pressure to succeed put on me from both myself and others that I no longer loved the thrill of the competition arena but instead just hoped that my results would be good enough. I was so willing to do whatever it took to be “the best” that I struggled with eating disorders for years because I thought I had to fit a certain body type to do well.
The final straw for me was losing my best friend and horsey soulmate Chance to colic at the end of 2015. That threw me into a deep depression where I could no longer find my purpose and had lost all of the drive and the fire that I once had. I knew that something had to change.
Finding Joy in Horses Again
After a lot of soul-searching, I realized that even though I was burnt out I still did truly love horses. From then on, I knew that I needed to find a way where I could rediscover my joy for riding again. Since the age of nine, I had my mind set on being a professional dressage trainer. However, as I began to piece myself together again, I decided that I should pursue a different career outside of horses and keep riding as my personal passion.
“Overall, through focusing more on my love for horses I began finding the fun in riding again.”
In this way, I could always put my horses first and not have to worry about choosing either what I thought was right for a horse or continuing to earn a paycheck. As I began this new transitional phase in my life of starting college and slowly scaling back my dressage training business, I began to ride much less intensely. I tried to listen to the horses more intently and be a more open and sympathetic rider.
I pushed less and praised more, I included more hack days and
From what I’ve heard from my friends competing in high performance or even on a smaller scale, my story is not an unfamiliar one for many people. It’s so easy to lose sight of what’s truly important to us when it takes so much time and effort to succeed in this sport. You have to give so much that sometimes we don’t fully realize what we’ve given away until we feel the emptiness of something missing.
“It’s so easy to lose sight of what’s truly important to us when it takes so much time and effort to succeed in this sport.”
For me, I gave up my joy, fire, and passion for riding trying to be good enough, and I’m so glad that I’ve been able to find those things once more. After all, often times in life we have to learn from our mistakes. And at the end of the
X, Halt Salute
What I have learned so far in life is that you have to find a balance. You can work tremendously hard but still take care of yourself. You can be super competitive but also realistic with your goals. You can push for intense high-performance goals but still put your horse first. And you can still be a very competitive rider while making it a priority to find the fun in riding every day.
As I said before, our love of horses often came before our love of riding. If we stay true to that feeling and keep it a priority to keep finding the fun in riding, then I know one thing for certain; our horses will thank us.
Catherine Rose Chamberlain