Being good at one sport is tough enough. Try excelling at three.
That’s what riders who compete in eventing have to do. Not only does it mean you and your horse have to master multiple disciplines but have the grit and courage to tackle jumps that don’t fall down.
It’s no small feat.
That’s why I decided to chat with my long-time friend, Meaghan Marinovich of Marinovich Eventing, to find out how she manages to stay focused and not lose her cookies during all phases of her sport.
As one of the most successful young event riders in the Midwest, Meaghan has gone on to compete at the top levels in both the US and UK while training with some of the top names in the sport. Now with her own training business in Iowa and South Carolina, she trains her own horses along with those of her clients.
She opens up about some of her own recent struggles with staying confident and focused on the cross country course. And she lets us know just how important a solid support system is to believing in yourself again.
Q: Eventing is a sport that requires a huge amount of focus not only in the saddle but out of it. Can you talk about some of the difficulties riders have the staying focused while riding and on achieving their goals?
A: Yeah, I think the hardest thing about eventing is it’s three different sports essentially in one. You need to have an understanding of all three. To be good at it and to stay focused, or more so, to stay competitive with yourself and with others, you have to be able to become a master at all three.
“So for me, to stay focused in each phase I have to try to break everything down.“
When I go into the ring for the dressage, I break each movement down and then think how can I get an extra point or an extra half a point here or there. And when I’m walking a cross country course, I ask myself how I can ride a different line so that I’m 1) saving my horse’s legs and 2) saving time.
When it comes to the show jumping phase, a lot of people have a tough time – especially in the Midwest where we are. It feels like there’s more pressure because at a show like Otter Creek the show jumping happens on Sunday. So riders think, “Oh God, I have to show jump on Sunday after they’ve run cross country.” You’ve got all weekend to think about it and let the show atmosphere get to you.
Q: How do you handle that stress?
A: I’ll go to jumper shows, wear white pants, show shirt even just at schooling jumper shows to put a little bit more pressure on myself. I want to make my brain think that I’m at a three-day event. Practicing that way versus just staying at home has really helped me a lot.
“Then, I think the biggest thing is to give yourself permission to move on after a mistake. If you make a mistake – it doesn’t matter what phase you make a mistake in – forget about it and move on.
Move on to the next fence, the next movement. Don’t try to throw away your entire test or your entire course because of a minor mistake.“
Q: How about when things are falling apart? Are there ways you’ve found helpful for you and your clients to keep focused?
A: The biggest thing for me, and it happens all the time, I’ll be getting ready to go into the start box and be getting ready to go in the show jumping ring and my heart just starts racing. It can either be while I’m on a horse or while I’m watching a client go in the ring. Literally, my heart starts racing. I think to myself, “Why is this happening?”
“So I take a couple of deep breaths and try to take myself out of the situation that I’m currently in.
I have to remind myself that I’m just in the warm-up ring. It’s no big deal.”
For my clients, it really depends on each individual. For those clients that love to go down and watch other riders at the start box before they ride, it’s actually a way for them to stay calm. And then I have some clients that standing at the end gate watching people, makes them even more nervous. So depending on their personality, I have them warm up and go immediately to ride or we warm up and then go down to watch the next five horses.
But for me, I prefer to jump a few jumps and go straight into the ring. The standing around and waiting right in front of the ring just kills me a little bit. It.
Q: I know for myself, anxiety in the saddle can be a big issue for a lot of amateurs. How have you been able to work with your clients on overcoming any fears that they have? And how has increased focus helped?
I break it down step by step and try to get my clients to believe in themselves again. I’ve found that if they can believe in themselves they can better focus on each individual jump.
I have one client that gets nervous at the show jumping because the horse likes to get really strong and run. She doesn’t get nervous on the cross country. So with her, we break it down on each turn instead of each jump and how she can get her horse back if something happens.
For most people, the fear comes in more during the cross country. For one thing, the jumps don’t fall down. And two, you’re supposed to gallop at them.
Recently, I’ve had to deal with my own confidence cross country. I’ve had five or six concussions.
I’ve had some horrible things happen while riding. Which means I’ve completely lost my ability to be fearless when it comes to cross country.
“For me, it’s finding someone or a group of people, your family or your friends who truly believe and you, even when you don’t really believe in yourself.”
And having people or a coach or a mentor that actually believes in the horses that you’re on. That’s been the most helpful thing for me – having someone that’s helping me day in and day out who believes in my riding ability and my horse’s ability.
It’s about focusing on what actions need to happen to be successful instead of being nervous or anxious thinking bad things might happen. That’s been my project for the last few months.
“I’m not trying to get back to fearless. Instead, I’m focusing on the positive aspects of riding cross country – not just getting it done – but being a safe, confident rider.”
And honestly, it’s very, very hard. But it’s slowly coming together. I think it really has to do with the people that you surround yourself with every day.
Q: So being focused isn’t just important for people, but also for their horses. How do you teach your horse to be focused on their job?
I actually took a horse to his first preliminary the other day. He wasn’t focused on staying on a line to the jumps. As a rider and as a trainer, I have to give him the tools so that when something goes wrong he can still understand what to do or even the question that is being asked.
When it comes to jumping, I do my best to make a clear path on where they’re supposed to go. So if we’re jumping to an angled cross country jump, the horse needs to understand that he has to go straight and not run out one direction.
If it’s teaching a young horse, it’s so important that you’re not trying to force anything on them. You want to always give them a clear understanding or a clear line of what they’re supposed to do.
So often, riders demand too much of a horse when they’re young. It’s hard for them to focus because they are just babies. Really, all you’re trying to do is get them to go forward and sideways. I start to break everything down. They don’t understand that they can ride straight down a quarter line. So I’ll ask if they can just move sideways a little bit. No worrying about being in the correct frame, I just want to see if they can at least go forward and move off my leg.
Q: It sounds like the big takeaway for both horse and rider is to break things down into smaller, more manageable pieces.
A: Yeah, I think so. And it’s about making things simple. Because if you make things too hard, no one’s going to understand – the horse or rider.
The other thing that’s important has to do with what I’m going through right now. With riding, it’s about making sure you’re confident and comfortable. But, you also have to not be afraid to step outside your comfort zone a little. That’s the only way you’re going to improve.
If you have good basics, good people around you, and you can stay focused on what needs to happen, don’t be afraid to take a step outside of your comfort zone. Because there are endless opportunities.
When you stay in your little bubble, you’re only ever going to be so good.
Key takeaways to staying focused and finding courage in the saddle
Especially when the jumps don’t fall down
- Eventing is not for everyone – Three disciplines wrapped up into a single sport that involves navigating solid obstacles on an animal with a mind of its own – this is not an activity that every horse person will excel at. Some of us like to avoid having all four of our horse’s feet off the ground at any one time.
- Break whatever you’re doing down into smaller pieces – Whether you’re dealing with a dressage test, going to a jump, or training a young horse to go forward, focus on each movement individually before you move onto the next. (Multi-tasking is a myth. Don’t be trying to do it on a horse.)
- Mistakes happen, move on – When you make a mistake, keep moving and stay in the present moment.
- What works for you might not work for someone else – Watching other riders’ tests or steering clear of the inbox before your round – one may reduce your anxiety while making it a whole lot worse for another rider. Find what helps you and do it.
- Focus on what you need to do to be successful and safe instead of what terrible things might happen – Catastrophizing is easy. Keeping your thoughts on the task at hand is hard. But, it’s worth the effort when you’re able to ride another day.
- Always have a good support system – It’s important to believe in yourself but sometimes it can feel like it’s not enough. Lean on your friends and family to give you that boost in confidence you’re not able to give to yourself.
All photos used with permission by Meaghan Marinovich.
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