By Elyse Hart
This article is part of the YourDressage series, “Clear Eyes, Sound Mind, Halt, Salute.” Focusing on equestrian mental health, these articles come from dressage riders across the country who wish to share their struggles and triumphs. With so much focus on the physical health and fitness of riders, it is important not to neglect the mental health aspect of becoming a great equestrian. We hope these stories and bits of advice show you that you’re not alone and inspire you to push on through all challenges.
This article is a reprint. It first appeared in the blog “All Hart Equestrian”
As important and deep as the goal and dream of riding FEI is and feels to me, it’s a dream that developed with, and for, Bob. As grand as it is, it feels like a lifelong rooted dream of mine, but the truth is, it wasn’t. Growing up I was horse crazy. I did ride, but my head was not in it enough to know what FEI was. As soon as I had a foundation of basic dressage skills around age 12, I stopped riding and gave my attention to a social life, and shortly after, the beginning of my addiction journey.
When we found Bob, he was described as a Fourth Level/Prix St Georges horse. Not because he had a seasoned show record at these levels, he had not shown either. Not because he is a schoolmaster, because although he is an educated horse, he is not an easy ride and is not going to just stick his hoof out and give you the world on a platter. All of these things intrigued me (and let’s be real, it was love at first sight, I thought he was pretty damn fancy). I know that if I had a horse that was “push button” that I would be bored (although, I will be frank and say that for my next mount, I’ll certainly be looking for a horse that is not as spooky and sensitive as our dear Bob).
Because he was described as a Fourth Level/PSG horse, I set my sights on PSG as the goal I would like to accomplish by the time he was ready to retire and our partnership would be coming to a close, which I had guessed would happen in about 7 years (although upon setting that goal, I never really thought it to be attainable.)
To me, and I think to most everyone, FEI is the big leagues. I didn’t know how I would ever get there, or how I would be deserving to ride in such an elite group. Finding the sense of being deserving of success is something that is still very new to me. It’s very hard for me to not be self-sabotaging. If it were up to me, I would stop most of my experiences before they start. That way, I can mitigate disappointment. It seems to be in my hard wiring to limit myself. Even though it’s been years since I chose a new way of life, sometimes it is still hard for me to believe that I deserve and am worthy of the good things that come, no matter how hard I may work for them. Some days it takes a lot of conscious effort to bat away old tapes that play. Before I know they have started, I buy into them, believing self-defeating thoughts, and suddenly the day is a disaster no matter how blue the sky.
Basically, since age 14, I was never really sober long enough to ever be successful at anything. I had stopped dreaming. I was living in a nightmare of my own design. I didn’t see a future for myself, and the truth is that for several years neither did anyone else. Even when I would start with a new bout of sobriety, my loved ones were afraid to believe that this time would be different, because I had shown them so many times before that it wouldn’t be.
It’s incredibly emotional for me to feel like I am getting good at something. Something I love. I love dressage. I love the sport. I love the bond with the horse and the endless pursuit of education with my trainer. I can’t begin to tell you how moved I am by the number of people I have that support me. I have met some of you through different paths of life, the equestrian community, my blog, podcasts, social media, and some I have known since birth or childhood.
If not for the kindness of the people who believe in me, at times, I wouldn’t grant myself the gift of experience. Dressage shows are not for the faint of heart (no pun intended…well, maybe.) To me, you are making yourself vulnerable, putting yourself on display and up to be analyzed by a judge and literally whoever else decides to form an opinion of you. And yes, believe it or not, we pay a lot of money to do this.
In going for the PSG, I knew Bob and I would not be as ready as the other people who were in my class…how could we be?! The open division is full of professionals, Olympians, trainers, international competitors, and people who have ridden many years longer than I have. Knowing this, pressure is relieved because I can’t hold myself to the standard of what my peers will exhibit. All Bob and I could do was ride OUR ride.
16 months ago, Bob and I trotted down centerline for our first show together at the Southern California Equestrian Center. We did an Intro C test. We had been a partnership for one month, and it had been 17 years since I had ridden in a show. This past weekend, in the same ring, under the eye of the same judge, we made our Prix St Georges debut.
As I put on my tails (which were loaned to me by a very generous supporter, who happened to be riding in my class) minutes before our first test, I shed the happiest tears because, to me, they were representative of a tangible dream I was holding in my hands, a dream that had come true.
I was very anxious (shocking I’m sure); I was excited; I was nauseous. My mind started to spin. Those old tapes started to play. The fear set in about performing badly, making a fool of myself for putting myself out there, the list goes on of reasons I could think of as far as why I should not head down centerline.
During my sobriety I have worked hard to be present and have the ability to change the trajectory of these situations. Thankfully, I was able to play a new tape consisting of the reasons I GET to do this, the reasons I could and should. I had put in the work to be there. I have the support of my family that allows me the opportunity to take part in this dream. I have a trainer who has worked hard with me and Bob, and believed we were up to the task. I have a group of incredible friends who all supported me in taking this jump. I have a capable horse with a huge heart. Lastly, because why not?! I am dreaming again. I am living again. I want to take risks to participate in my dreams, in doing so, new ones are born.
Now, was it the most genius PSG ever ridden? Obviously not! But we did it! Twice! We have so much work to do, but I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of 6.5s and 7s we received, but of course not surprised by the 3s and 4s on our sheet either.
The amount of growth I have gone through in the last 16 months after my return to the saddle has completely changed my life. I have no idea what is to come if I continue to dream big, continue to believe in my dreams, and let them take shape. The happiness I feel from this newfound purpose helps me be a better wife, mother, and friend. It helps me stay mentally and physically healthy.
In two weeks, I will celebrate 6 years sober, after living through a life that was destined for death. I am in awe of that. I hope I never stop looking at the gifts that every single new day brings with extreme gratitude. To me, getting to do this will always be a big deal. Sometimes I cry just walking down to the arena because I never ever thought I would have the life (or any life) I have today.
The amount of generosity, love, and selfless support you all show me is so heartfelt. The encouragement I feel from the equestrian community has made me feel like I have a place in the world where I was sure one would never exist for me.
So many people played a part in getting me to this milestone and that is so important for me to recognize. Thank you to my mentor and trainer Patty Mayer: it’s because of you that I am where I am in both my life and riding career, and have such a burning passion for our sport. Being able to work under you has transformed me into a horsewoman who is always wanting to learn and into a woman who is actually growing up. I am forever grateful for all the time you give me; I know it’s a lot! Your belief in Bob and I and the way you challenge us has made this all possible.
I am not an easy person to teach. It’s not because I want to be difficult; it’s because the mental and physical limitations I have made for myself are so prominent. After having two open-heart surgeries, a baby, and a brain on drugs, it is quite a miracle Patty was able to get us here at all, let alone so soon.
Heidi, thank you for owning this amazing horse with me. Your friendship and generosity play such a large role in the success that Bob and I have shared. Thank you to those who ride or walk alongside me, and to those who share your constant love and support with me. Being able to share joys like this with you makes them that much more sweet and exciting. I truly hope you know how much I cherish every single one of you. Lastly, thank you to my parents and husband who support these dreams – beneath them are countless hours of childcare, heaps of money, blood, sweat, and tears, all to allow me to follow my heart wherever this journey will guide us.
If you want to read more of Elyse’s story, check out her previous YourDressage articles: Riding and Recovery and Full Circle on Centerline. You can also follow her adventures on her Instagram page here.