Alice Dunsdon, 31, shares her remarkable story of losing her nerve as a 19-year-old — to the extent that she couldn't jump a two-foot fence — and how she regained it to ride at every four-star event around the world
I think many eventers are terrified of losing their nerve — some of us think it’s like the plague and if we are not careful we might catch it.
It may surprise many people that I once lost my nerve, when I was 19-years-old. I was aiming for the Young Rider European team having been successful on the Junior European team. I had done my first advanced at Aston Le Walls and I was placed sixth on my horse Master Taldi — I was on cloud nine.
The day came when I was competing another one of my advanced horses War Paint. He was a cracking little 15.1hh skewbald with the heart of two lions. He was brave enough for the both of us and I felt we could take on anything. We were competing for the second year at Wilton Intermediate and after a good dressage and just one pole rolled showjumping, a clear and inside the time cross-country would be sure of a top five placing.
We set off with enthusiasm and confidence. I came around the corner to a double of trakehners and set up. I moved Paint forward onto the stride and we were taking off when suddenly he put back down again. Our forward motion took us over the fence but War Paint had for some reason tried to add another stride.
There I was lying on the ground between the fences. Luckily Paint was unharmed and had cantered off none the worse. If I was knocked out it wasn’t for very long and I came round to the fence judge at my side telling me to stay still. I felt the taste of blood in my mouth and as my tongue moved forward I realised both my front teeth had been knocked out.
The ambulance came and I was carted off to hospital. My whole top lip had been split in half. I was with a plastic surgeon within minutes of arriving at the hospital and it took two and half hours to reconstruct my lip. The following day I went up to London to see a specialist dentist to be x-rayed and they saw I had broken my top jaw. Bone had to be removed and it was a very long process to reconstruct my jaw and teeth.
Taking baby steps
A few weeks later when the stitches were out and the swelling was down, I was back riding. Nothing had changed. I felt perfectly normally sitting on a horse. I was back schooling Paint and little did I know the fear I was about to feel.
My mother walked into the school. “Right, shall we give Paint a little jump?” she said. It was the first time either of us had jumped since Wilton.
I cantered round and began to approach the small fence. As I came off the corner the fence was in front of me and suddenly my vision went blurry, I pulled away from it and circled.
“What are you doing?” My mother said.
I shrugged my shoulders and I cantered around again but the same thing happened. I began to feel hot and flustered. My chest was tightening, my breathing became quicker and faster. I felt dizzy, I felt the sides of the school were closing in on me. What was happening? Tears were filling up my eyes, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t jump the fence.
For the next few days I just cantered over poles on the ground. A week or so later my mother said: “Shall we try a little jump?”
I looked at her with utter fear in my eyes. My brain was telling me, “No, too soon! Too soon!” But a part of me, the old Alice was telling me, “Just get on with it. Kick on!”
My mother put up the smallest cross-pole. As I cantered round there were thoughts rolling around my head but I was determined not to turn away this time. My arms were locked in place. Here we go, ready, and jump! Paint cantered over it exactly how he had been cantering over the ground poles. Over the next few days mum and I gradually built the fences bigger and bigger until they were at least 2ft.
On this day mum was riding too and she said we should go for a hack around the farm. We cantered up to a little set of rails jumping down into a wood. They would be no bigger than 2’6ft and even the leading rein children jump them out hunting. My mother jumped them down, shouting back at me, “Come on, follow me!”
I froze. I felt flustered, I couldn’t think straight, my eyes became blurry and I began to panic. Paint started to become restless and started bouncing on the spot. He clearly wanted to follow. Before I knew it sobs of tears were coming from no where. I just wanted to wail like a baby but at the same time my brain was saying: “Why are you crying? You have nothing to cry about. Stop crying!” But I knew I couldn’t.
Mum jumped the fence back towards me and Paint calmed down, as did my crying.
“What are you scared of?” she asked.
“I don’t know.” I said wiping the tears from my eyes
“I’m scared of the unknown, I’m scared of falling off again, I’m scared of falling and failing, I just want the feeling to go away.”
I knew deep down there was only ever one way to find out if I were to ever jump again. I had to push myself out of my comfort zone and give it everything I had. I had to try. I had to be the bravest I had ever been in my life and just do it.
Without a lead I trotted down the hill and popped over the rails. I didn’t feel brave. In fact I hated myself.
The winter was fast approaching and my mother and I had decided not to enter any more competitions for that season and I was to focus on hunting. I would hunt as many days as I could with as many packs as I could and jump as much as I could.
Going hunting and having like-minded people around you, with horses loving jumping and following each other in a herd-like environment for me was the best way to battle my demons and losing my nerve.
I hunted all season come rain or shine and soon it was March and the start of the eventing season.
I was competing at Gatcombe Intermediate on a brilliant horse I had called Ted. Dressage and showjumping had gone well but before the start of the cross-country the ugly demons chose to show their heads once again. I was sitting in the lorry when my mother walked in. She found me staring at myself in the mirror. Tears began to appear in my eyes and I was not in a good place.
I turned to her and said: “I’m scared.”
“It’s good to be scared,” she said. “It means you want to do well and your adrenaline is running, it’s natural.”
More tears began to stream down my face.
“No,” I whimpered. “This is different, I’m scared I’m going to fall off, I’m scared I’m going to…” I couldn’t bring myself to say it. I was scared I was going to fall off and die. There I said it. I was scared I was going to fall off and never come back again.
“How about this then,” mum said. “You warm up for cross-country and if you don’t want to go into the start box you don’t. You retire. If you do want to start, you jump the first fence and see how you feel, if you want to pull up, you pull up. If you want to carry on then carry on and jump the second, but again if you wish to retire at any point on the course you just pull up and retire. Just jump one fence at a time.”
“But what will other people think? I can’t just retire after fence one?!”
My mother looked at me with reassuring eyes. “Of course you can — and who cares what other people think. They are probably too worried thinking about themselves to care about what you’re doing.”
“Ok, I can do this,” I thought to myself.
‘I had got my nerve back’
As I climbed on to Ted straight away I felt more relaxed. I warmed up over the practice fences and Ted felt good and surprisingly I didn’t feel too bad either. No pressure, I could do what I wanted. I remembered what it was all about. As I was in the start box and the steward began to count me down, I almost began to smile. We set off, I jumped the first fence!
“Right, how do I feel? Do I want to retire?” By the time I had thought this the second fence was upon us. I saw my stride and we flew it.
“Right, refocus. How do I feel? What was I asking myself again? Wait there’s the third fence — come on Ted!”
By the end of the course I had tears of joy streaming downing my face. As I walked back to the lorry I gave Ted a big pat and wiped my tears and gained composure again. I had got my nerve back.
Every now again the little nerve demon will poke his ugly head up again but I have control over him.
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Alice’s rules for coping with nerves
1. I only do what I want to do and I only do it for myself and no one else.
2. Take each jump as it comes.
3. Don’t feel like you have prove to yourself or others you have to be brave — the greatest bravery is sometimes admitting defeat.
4. Medals aren’t always won through bravery. You need a level head and a clear understanding of what you need to do to win.
5. We must learn to trust others. Accept their compliments and acknowledge constructive criticism. But don’t let the compliments go to your head and don’t let the insults go to your heart.
6. Don’t have any regrets. You only regret the chances you didn’t take, so consider every opportunity that comes your way. Don’t try and run before you can walk but also don’t wait too long as the opportunity may pass you by.
7. The bravest, most successful riders out there are the ones who are not afraid of hard work. They are not afraid of trying, they are not afraid of giving it their all and they are not afraid of failure. It doesn’t matter how exhausted they get, they are 100% dedicated to their sport.
Have you overcome losing your nerve? We’d love to hear your story. Please comment below…