Shattered ambitions: The riders who’ve had to put their dreams on hold *H&H Plus*

  • Whether it’s the Olympics or a grassroots championship, many of this year’s major targets are now off the agenda. Polly Bryan finds out how riders are coping with their shattered ambitions and seeks psychological advice

    Sport is all about dreams. Big or small, they are the reason athletes get up every morning and push themselves to the max, just to get a little closer to their goal. Equestrian sport is no different – if anything, when there is a horse involved, achieving those dreams is even more rewarding. For some, it’s the Olympics – riding for your country on the biggest sporting stage there is. For others, it’s qualifying to ride at a particular prestigious venue, or competing in top hat and tails.

    But what about when these dreams fall by the wayside, as they have for so many riders around the world in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic? The moment it was announced that the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics were to be postponed to 2021 was unprecedented – never in history have the Games been postponed. For all those riders who have shaped the past four years of their and their horse’s life around competing in Japan this summer, the situation is heartbreaking.

    While the move was undoubtedly needed to save lives, this and the cancellation of so many other events, from Badminton Horse Trials to the Area Festival dressage finals, is testing riders’ mental toughness to the max.

    “Nothing like this has ever happened before, and while many athletes tend to build up quite a high resilience to setbacks, a situation like this is harder in many ways,” says Kristin Minister, a sport psychologist and a rider herself. “There is so much identity tied up in your sport, especially for equestrian athletes, for whom so much of their time and energy revolves around not just them but their horses.

    “It’s important to remember that the kinds of emotional responses to a situation like this – anger, sadness, confusion, frustration – are very normal and completely OK. No one has experienced anything like this pandemic before, and no one should be expected to predict what they might feel.”

    Of course, coping with the disappointment of cancelled plans and dreams is made even harder to move on from in the current climate, with much of the world on lockdown.

    “The build-up to competition season is usually very structured for riders, especially at the top levels, and now they’re unable to even exercise their horses properly,” adds Kristin. “This has taken away not only the structure of their lives, but their sense of purpose.”

    Eventer Will Rawlin had his sights set on competing at Badminton this year with VIP Vinnie, and it was to be his first five-star.

    “Even though I think I had already written it off in my head before it was announced, it was a blow,” he said of the event’s cancellation.

    “It was gutting because I could really see myself and my horses having a good run and doing well. I had been visualising riding there, going through all the stages of excitement and nerves during the build-up.”

    Competitive plans in perspective

    With the devastating effect of the coronavirus on lives and economies around the world, it’s important for riders to be able to place their competitive plans in perspective. But Kristin warns against relying on the coping mechanism of simply trying to brush off the disappointment in favour of the bigger picture.

    “That can work with smaller setbacks, but in situations like this trying to bury and suppress the feelings means they will only come out later on and you could end up still feeling frustrated when you do eventually return to competition,” says Kristin.

    “A lot of equestrians are very pragmatic and logical in their approach to these things – that’s a product of the sport and can be helpful in many situations. But anything that takes away your control will be mentally difficult to cope with, and while putting things in perspective is important, make sure you’re not undermining your feelings or feeling selfish – accept that this is upsetting.”

    One of the unique aspects of this pandemic is the uncertainty around its timeline.

    “I’m now thinking about Badminton next year, but it’s tough when we don’t know whether to get geared up for the rest of this year’s season,” says Will.

    “It took me a few days, maybe a week, for the news of the cancellation to sink in, and at first I didn’t really see the point in riding. I’ve felt very down on a couple of days, with a lack of motivation to do anything constructive, finding myself thinking, ‘What’s the point?’ But I am trying to think about a silver lining. I have been doing some riding – as safely as possible – as it’s so good for me mentally. I’m trying to see this as an opportunity to develop, though it’s easier said than done.”

    Olympic dressage rider Carl Hester is also focusing on the positives that could come out of the postponement of the Games. Carl is no stranger to having his dreams scuppered: in 2008 both his top horses at the time, Lecantos and Dolendo, were sidelined shortly before the Beijing Olympics. This year, he’d been targeting Tokyo with the 12-year-old Hawtins Delicato (Del), but has switched his mindset to 2021.

    “I’m looking at the positives – my horse will be one year more experienced by 2021, I’ll be better prepared, and so will our other riders,” he reasons. “The challenges that come with the travel and the heat in Japan will still be there, but we will have another year’s grace to learn about them and find ways to make life easier for horses and riders.

    “This also opens up a wider pool of opportunity for me – maybe my upcoming eight-year-old will be ready by then, maybe he will be better than Del. These are questions I’ll now have longer to answer.”

    Carl does acknowledge that it is easier for him to maintain a positive attitude than perhaps those whose horses may be too old to compete at the top level in 2021, and for those riders aiming at their very first Olympics. One such rider is showjumper Holly Smith, a hot contender for a place on the Tokyo team with Hearts Destiny.

    “I’m hugely disappointed as the horses have been in fantastic form and I thought we had a good chance this year [of making the team],” says Holly, who had to cut short her time on Spain’s Sunshine Tour as the European coronavirus outbreak worsened during March.

    “We had been getting closer and closer to Tokyo, and more excited and focused, and now we have a long time to wait again. But the dream hasn’t been ruined, it’s just a longer process,” she adds. “I’m trying to put a positive slant on it, and focus on being even better next year. My attitude is that I want the team to do well; if I’m part of it then great, but if not, then as long as I have my horses, my health and my family then I have everything. If I become too results- and goals-focused it makes me miserable, so now I try to focus on my effort.”

    “Control the controllables”

    Roberto Forzoni is a sports psychologist who has worked with some of the world’s most high-profile athletes, including Andy Murray during his time as tennis world number one. Roberto’s advice to competitors at all levels is to “control the controllables”.

    “Write down a list of the things that you can’t control, for example the lockdown and events being cancelled, then write another list of those things that you can control,” he advises.

    “These could include being in the best shape you can mentally, and keeping a level of fitness up as well as you can with the limited resources you might have. Writing down these things rather than just thinking them is so valuable.”

    Roberto also raises the point that in this unique situation, everybody will face the same challenges of restarting the fitness cycle, unlike when a rider is forced to sit out the season due to injury, which can make it easier to come to terms with.

    Holly agrees: “I’ve had a few injuries in my career, so I have become quite well adjusted to sitting out shows. But with this, everybody is in the same boat, so there isn’t the same element of jealousy.”

    Kristin recommends taking some time to focus on yourself and your own well-being, “even though that’s the last thing a rider often wants to hear”.

    “The only thing we have control over in this weird, uncontrollable time is ourselves and our response,” she explains. “My number one tip is to look after your well-being, and everything else will follow.

    “Consider trying mood tracking – each morning note down how you’re feeling and think about why that is. Over time this helps you learn about yourself and your mind, so you can better control your responses. It really works,” Kristin says, explaining that this can help riders cope with many types of setback.

    “A big part of coping is to maintain some structure to your life – it’s very difficult right now, but make a schedule involving your fitness and nutrition. If that schedule involves Netflix too, that’s OK – it helps take away the guilt that comes with being forced to spend so much time at home. It’s very frustrating for athletes, especially equestrians, not to be able to fix the problem that is barring them from riding or competing. But for those wanting to be proactive, watch videos, critically, of yourself riding, of your competitors, or those who inspire you.”

    While it can be hard to set meaningful goals at this uncertain time, Kristin advises focusing on something that is not time-orientated, and may not be related to your sport, such as taking an online course to learn a new skill.

    “Focus on your positive character traits and build on those,” she says. “A lot of what athletes do is identifying a weakness they want to fix, but it’s helpful for your mental health to focus on the positives. Perhaps that’s a love of learning, natural leadership, perseverance. Pick two or three and try to work on them, to instill some of the meaning that has been taken away.”

    Broken dreams

    Of course, it isn’t just top riders who are dealing with the disappointment of broken dreams. One person’s local show is another’s Olympics, and the same principles of dealing with the disappointment apply throughout the levels.

    H&H’s news editor Eleanor Jones had qualified her mares Silver Chablis (Panther) and Iline Van De Smeets (Squirrel) for the Blue Chip Championships due to run at Hartpury from 1 to 5 April.

    It was the first time Eleanor had qualified with either horse and, after Panther jumped clear, but not fast enough, in the star qualifier at Pyecombe last October, she planned her December training around targeting the same class at Duckhurst Farm, Kent, at the end of the year, where she picked up her ticket.

    “Squirrel was right on the maximum points for the discovery class so I jumped her in that qualifier at Duckhurst, which was postponed twice because of the storms, and she got her ticket too,” she says.

    “I was looking forward to taking them both as Blue Chip looks like such a brilliant championship. I was so disappointed as I’d tried unsuccessfully to qualify in previous years and it had been a big goal, but I had also expected it to be cancelled because it just couldn’t run.”

    Eleanor praised the Blue Chip organisers for their speedy contacting of riders to arrange refunds.

    “I don’t know if there’s any chance of it being moved, or if qualification might count for next year – as of course Squirrel is now out of points for that class.

    “But if not, I’ll be back out in the autumn doing my absolute best to get them both there next year. If we were capable of qualifying once, we can do it again.

    “I can’t wait to get back to jumping my beautiful girls, and even if I don’t qualify next year, I will appreciate every minute of trying.”

    Ref Horse & Hound; 23 April 2020