Road to the Finals: Nervous Nellies UNITE! Part II


Lysa Hodgson and The Usual Suspect
Region 1

By Jennifer Keeler

Many equestrians suffer from some degree of anxiety related to riding and showing, and this is no different for Lysa Hodgson. “I struggle with all kinds of fears when it comes to competing, including of course concerns for my physical safety, especially the older I get and the more financial responsibility I have. In the past, I’ve read non-horse self-help books about dealing with anxiety and they always say something like, ‘imagine the worst case scenario….take it to its final conclusion’ and I think to myself, “I’m dead or paralyzed and the horses are at the slaughter house…..who writes this stuff?? I don’t feel any less anxious!” she laughed. “I’ve tried a lot of things over the years ranging from meditation, coloring books, sports psychology help, breathing techniques, etc. etc. etc. Sometimes I think it helps because I can find that ‘zone’ and ‘stay in my bubble’, but other times I’m a complete wreck. I feel like it’s a constant process of moving forward, falling back, and then trudging forward again.”

Another common concern that so many riders can relate to is a fear of failure or of disappointing trainers, family, horses or themselves. But conversely, Hodgson also admits to one more unlikely fear: of success. “Sometimes it’s easier for an introvert when you DON’T do well because then there’s no attention on you, no expectations, and you can just hide in the crowd,” she explained. “For instance, it’s much easier to cheer on all of my friends and their successes while telling myself I did great just for participating, than it is for me to walk up on stage and accept a Horse of the Year award at our GMO’s awards banquet, even though I’m proud of our hard work. So while I’m somewhat embarrassed to be showing at Training and First Level again this year, we have no business showing any higher. I can’t sit the trot and Bogey struggles with lengthening, so the work continues.” Hodgson says keeping perspective is important. “When I start to throw myself a pity party over the glacial pace of our advancement, I have to stop and remind myself that it’s a true First World problem.”

Lysa and her horse The Usual Suspect along with her husband Terry.

On top of everyday fears, many riders add on a hearty serving of insecurity in their pursuit of the seemingly glamorous sport of dressage. “My horse and I don’t ‘look’ like your typical dressage dream team,” Hodgson admitted. “Let’s face it, I don’t look good in white breeches and Bogey clearly isn’t a well-bred dressage mount—he’s a ‘6’ mover, maybe a ‘7’ if the judge just finished lunch that included wine, and a ‘5’ if the wine was cheap. I really question my sanity when we get to a big show like Regional Championships where we stick out like a sore thumb. But that’s when I try to remind myself that every person at the show is on their own personal journey with their own personal limitations and roadblocks, and their own personal history of successes and failures. Bogey and I are simply writing our next chapter just like everybody else, and we’re nowhere near the end of the story.”

Hodgson’s and Bogey’s story and their Road to the 2016 Finals continues thanks in part to their having eight USEF-licensed/USDF-recognized competitions within 20 minutes of their farm, and for them, more is definitely better. “For us nervous types, I think repetition until something is boring is a very important concept,” said Hodgson. “It’s hard to replicate all the scary things about a show without actually going to a show. I can turn down centerline a million times at home, but we all know it’s completely different when someone’s kid is playing on the bleachers, the wind is howling, the loud speakers are crackling, there’s a loose horse, you don’t like three of your braids, the person in front of you just scratched and the judge is hungry! That kind of experience and pressure only comes from competing in a show environment, so my goal is to get as many trips down centerline under those conditions as I can afford. Having so many shows close to home helps eliminate costs like hotel rooms, farm sitters and missed work.”

So far in 2016, the cautious pair have competed at four shows which Hodgson classified as successful by virtue of the fact that “we stayed in the ring, finished with a score, not a letter, and generally left feeling positive about the experience,” she chuckled. “A recent show was Rise N Shine in Pinehurst, which is part of a fun series where classes only run until noon because of our hot summer weather. My First Level Test 3 scores were 65.5% for second place and 67.2% for first place, so I was very pleased even though we had all the usual comments of ‘braced’, ‘needs longer strides’, ‘more ground cover,’ etc. Bogey was well-behaved and I didn’t faint, so I put that in the win category.” When her regular trainer Anne DeKeyser isn’t available to travel to shows, Hodgson credits her “adopted trainer” Briana Atwell for helping make the show experience a (mostly) positive one. “I really appreciate all of her guidance and calming wisdom. She’s held my hand and Bogey’s hoof through many terrifying moments,” she added.

Lysa with her trainer Anne

For the first year, Hodgson and her mount are pushing their comfort zones with riding a freestyle, with the big show debut held in May. “I was incredibly nervous, and Bogey isn’t a fan of loud sudden noises so when it came to showtime, I wasn’t sure how he would do with booming music coming out of the loudspeakers,” she remembered. “We trotted around the ring, checked in with the judge and scribe, and I positioned Bogey in our predetermined perfect starting spot. I raised my hand like all those riders I’ve watched on YouTube, and I heard the announcer say ‘Your music is playing,’ and sure enough our music started. As we trotted along, a big smile spread across my face….until I turned down centerline and saw the judge literally leap from the judge’s box while wildly waving papers in her hand. I couldn’t tell if she was battling an army of angry wasps or if I had done something wrong. And then I realized that she never rang the bell. I wanted to crawl under the nearest rock I could find. But it all turned out fine – we started over and had only one minor almost-bolting episode, but nothing we couldn’t handle.”

Despite the rocky start, both horse and rider have since become more comfortable with their performance and are hoping to qualify for the Finals in their First Level Freestyle division. “I’m learning that different judges will feel differently about my music and choreography, and that’s okay,” said Hodgson. “We still have lots of little bobbles and timing issues to clean up, not to mention the general work of trying to unclench my hands, thighs and butt cheeks, but I have to say I’m enjoying the whole freestyle process.” They won both freestyle classes at July’s Rise N Shine show with scores of 65.500% and 68.300%. In early August, the pair earned two more wins and their first freestyle score over 70% while having to rebound from the horror of watching as the previous rider was bucked off, kicked in the head and carried off in an ambulance. “As soon as the ambulance left I had to go in the ring,” said Hodgson. “I walked down to check-in with the judge and she was clearly able to see that I was ghost-white and not doing well, but she simply said, ‘Now is the time to practice focusing.’ I knew she was right. There was a time not too long ago that Bogey could have easily added to the chaos and danger in that situation, but he was rock solid and I’m so grateful for that. And as desperately as I wanted to scratch at that point, it wouldn’t have helped anything. We just needed to get in there and do it. So we did, and I’m super proud of both of us.”

Every year when riders and horses from across the country gather in Lexington, KY, for the US Dressage Finals presented by Adequan®, they not only bring top performances to the Alltech Arena – they also bring amazing stories. From overcoming tough odds, facing life’s daily challenges, healing from medical and veterinary conditions, or simply being the unlikely underdog, the tales which unfold at the Finals are nothing short of inspiring.
Through the good, the bad, and the ugly that entails life with horses and competing in the sport of dressage, these three riders will allow readers behind-the-scenes access as they try to qualify at the 2016 Great American Insurance Group/USDF Regional Championship, to pursue their dreams of competing with the best of the best at the Finals.

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