Growing up in NZ, I was that standard horsy kid. The one that had to stop at every horse in the paddock lying down to make sure it was all right. My mum was uncomfortable around horses to begin with, and only happy if on the other side of the fence. Horses were not a part of our family, but they sure found a way to weave their way into my very being.
I didn’t see the point of school as I knew without a doubt I was going to ride horses for the rest of my life. I enjoyed school, but was so singularly focused on riding I just didn’t see the need. I still laugh at how ironic it is that I work at NEGS. A private boarding school with an equestrian centre as a part of its offering.
I would take every opportunity to ride. Horses were my go to. Horses made everything OK. I spent many years as a young girl sneaking into paddocks and using treats, would entice poor unsuspecting horses up next to a fence before climbing aboard and spending the next several hours just laying on their backs while they grazed. I knew nothing about these horses, whether they were broken in or not. How I managed to not get caught, or killed for that matter, I’ll never know.
Finally, family and friends realised this “horsy phase” wasn’t going away and I was given an old broken down pony. I was told ‘Carlo’ had a bowed tendon and could never be ridden again. I was just so excited to have a horse of my own, I studied all I could about his lameness and over the next few months slowly rehabilitated him. Eventually he became sound. Carlo and I, followed by an absolute ripper of a pony Classic, who challenged every little bit of skill I had, went on to compete in Show Jumping and Eventing competitions. Those ponies were absolute legends but I did start to form some beliefs that would ultimately unravel the very thing I loved the most.
I started to believe things like “You had to be rich to ride” “Your family had to be horsy to be any good” and I believed I was never going to be enough. I was only an average girl, with nothing special to my name and was playing in a world I didn’t belong. Like most girls, I had dreams of riding at the Olympics, but my inner voice had no problem reminding me that I would never make it. I simply would never be enough.
I didn’t realise how much this voice was impacting my life, I still ate, slept and dreamed about horses but always felt inadequate.
By the time I was 15, I had spent every school holiday of my teenage years working in racing stables. I knew that my life was going to revolve around horses, I didn’t fit in anywhere else. I had a bit too much energy, enthusiasm and big dreams for most people.
At 15 I applied to become a working pupil at Kyrewood Equestrian Centre in Palmerston North - the opposite end of the country to home. After a three month trial I was given a permanent position. I quit school the day of my 16th birthday and immersed myself in what was then a new National Coaching Qualification a certificate in Equine (Sporthorse) and coaching.
Coaching felt safe for me. I didn’t have the same feelings of inadequacy. I loved it. Coaching helped me feel good about myself again. It helped me to be a better rider as I wanted to understand everything there was to know about getting horses to perform well, and to be honest, win. Everything I leant I then applied to both myself and my students. We grew together. It was here where I first heard the expression “Those who can ride, do and those who can’t, coach”. I didn’t acknowledge the impact that quote would have on me. It took me years before I was ready to challenge my beliefs around that and finally let it go.
At 17, I moved onto work for a Show Jumping stable in the North Island and that was where the “not good enough-ness” began creeping in again. The owners were great to me, but it is as if I had reached the glass ceiling of what I thought I could achieve. I started feeling like I was becoming a bit out of my league and didn’t have the awareness or understanding of how to manage these feelings. Not that I realised then, but the inner critic started with “who do you think you are?” and “see I told you, your friends at school were right. You never going to be good enough”. I began to self sabotage my career, it was all getting too hot, too fast and I couldn’t handle it. I had been successful, and done well. Success had come easy, but when things got tough, and I had to knuckle down and be OK with not knowing, I gave up. Yep, threw the towel in, and cried my way home like a baby.
Without the tools to understand what was happening, and the resilience to stay in the discomfort I simply put it down to yep, you might as well face it you’re never going to be good enough.
I decided after having spent 3 of my teenage years, from 15 to 18 living alone in a cottage on the property, working and competing full time I needed to be a bit of a teenager before I had to grow up too much. My grandmother gave me a ticket for a short holiday to Australia as an 18th birthday present. I never returned home to live.
Within a few weeks I was working for Dressage Rider, Tony Uytendaal. Turned out I just couldn’t stay away from the horses. They had a way of continually drawing me back in. I learnt so much from Tony over the next 2 years. All the way from starting young horses under saddle to training Grand Prix. Tony is a huge believer in great horsemanship and all his horses were happy. He got me deeply curious into more than just getting horses to go better. He helped me learn how to help horse feel better too. I remember Tony riding one of his Grand Prix horses Pirate. He slipped the reins and pretended to be holding a steering wheel in front of him, he then proceeded to ride a series of Grand Prix movements including piaffe without touching the reins. I was, and still am, in awe of what Tony can achieve with horses. Not for the accolades, not for the prizes, but for the horse. I never competed whilst at Tony’s. Tony coached and I helped him train and produce some great horses. This was incredibly nurturing to my wellbeing and I am ever grateful for Tony simply for his presence.
Eventually though, the call back to jumping became too great for me to ignore any longer and I moved to the other side of Melbourne. Cate Wallace was looking for a jumping rider to campaign her team of horses, as well as help her with the breeding programme and starting young horses. This took me on another whirlwind adventure. Cate bred unbelievably talented horses, and I was lucky enough to sit atop them. The next few years consisted of following the World Cup and Agricultural Show Jumping Circuit all summer, and Eventing all winter. Summer was when we bred the mares, and winter was when we started all the young horses under saddle. Cate was incredibly generous with her time and knowledge. Cate is hugely into continual learning and self-improvement. We spent countless hours discussing horse (and Jack Russell) training. We talked at length and this cemented in me, a sense of always striving to know more. A deep curiosity to what could be done better.
Then as often happens, a boy comes along. A brown-eyed, handsome man who stole my heart. Together we spent the next few years travelling around QLD mustering, breaking in and educating cattle, and training working dogs. I loved educating weaner cattle. My husband, Tony, is passionate about livestock education and working dogs and we worked alongside several geniuses of the livestock world. Initially, I had no idea of how important the psychology of the animals in the herd was, and how much training goes into the education of the dogs we used to quieten cattle. Those 12 months taught me so much about animal behaviour in general.
Eventually we decided it was time to settle down and with Tony taking job managing a 10,000ac sheep and cattle property in Walcha. I naturally found a job back with horses - at NEGS.
Beginning as a Junior Coach, I loved the hustle and bustle of NEGS. Always something happening, and somewhere to go. I loved the Junior School kids and took great pride in coming up with new, fun and crazy ways to help them build confidence. I still to this day, haven’t yet learnt how to “adult”. I still feel like a kid in an older persons body.
I have been incredibly lucky to work with some amazing students. One of the things I love about NEGS is the access to great mentors. As we have so many external coaches coming in to do clinics, I get to learn from some brilliant coaches. I always make a point to spend as much time is the arena as possible when we have external coaches and absorb every little bit of knowledge I can get my hands on. I listen to every bit of feedback given to my students and made a point to connect what they learn in the clinic to what we do on a weekly basis. That way it helps both me and my abilities and knowledge as a coach but it helps to cement in and get the most of what they learn from these experienced coaches.
Eventually my priorities shifted a little towards family. The next few years consisted of making three more humans to walk this earth. Three awesome humans to of whom I am incredibly proud. While I was busy making human babies, and out of action, I decided to make equine babies while I was at it.
This is where things take an interesting turn…
I had sent a young horse away to get started under saddle and was giving him a ride before bringing him home. Whilst out for a canter, he bucked me off giving me concussion. I remember sitting up having no idea who or where I was. I do distinctly remember though seeing several people at a set of yards about 1km away and thinking, “If I can just make it to there, someone will tell me what is happening”. Those people were my family and by the time I walked back most of my memory had returned but I knew something was different.
I lost all of my confidence that day. Instantly. Every. Last. Bit. I had always been someone who gets on any horse. It didn’t matter if it bucked, bolted or reared. I’d get on it anyway. Now, I was terrified to walk on a beginner’s pony.
That moment changed my life, eventually I would see for the better, but at the time I was heart-broken. I was now afraid to do the thing I have loved all my life. Initially I tried, and to some degree with success to push through the fear. I started by just saying to myself that I would mount, stay on board for at least 10 seconds before getting off again, shaking like a leaf. That was a good day. I was lucky as during that time the kids were little and I was at home. This meant I could work on my recovery without anyone knowing. The shame that I carried around for being scared was enormous. I was so frightened someone would find out. I kept working on it and within 12 months did get back eventing at low levels again but it was still hard work and I consistently doubted myself. I never felt brave enough to tell anyone about my struggles.
Parelli natural horsemanship was a lifesaver during those dark times. It kept me connected with the horses, gave me something more to learn so I still had a sense of growth and I loved the feelings of working with a horse at liberty and riding bareback and bridle-less. The “ah ha” moments, and insights I gained since delving into natural horsemanship changed my view on training horses forever. Ten years ago, natural horsemanship was still seen as a bunch of rope twirling, cowboy rubbish. Thankfully more and more open minded trainers and coaches are seeing the benefits of a holistic approach to training, and natural horsemanship is more widely used in all aspects of equestrian sports
Ironically, I felt quite safe when riding bareback and bridle-less. It bought me closer to the feeling I had as a child sneaking into someone’s paddock and asking the horse if I could sit upon it.
Eventually I was back coaching full-time but had to work so hard on my confidence in both riding and coaching. I was still coaching riders who were going well at the time, but couldn’t get past the feelings of shame and that pesky inadequacy. I wasn’t my best self during that time. I was hurting.
The worst part for me was a sense of being a fraud. My head became full of “Who are you to be coaching riders when you are too scared yourself”. “You’re no good anymore, you might as well give up”. Eventually it got all too much, and I did. I gave up my full-time coaching position.
But then I had the whole, now what? Who are you without horses? You don’t have any other skills. My whole sense of self was wrapped up in being a coach, a rider. I no longer had a sense of who I was, or even scarier, who I was to become.
This is where I am so incredibly grateful for the gift of surrender. Through the mess of what had been several years of struggle I finally decided I needed help. And help came, in abundance. My help came in the form of knowledge. I have since spent the last 8 years studying psychology, Neuro Linguistic Programming and every aspect of self-improvement, personal development, health, wellness and learning that I could get my hands on. I became deeply passionate about understanding our minds and the havoc it can play on us if not kept in check.
Not only did my whole world improve, so did the world of those around me. By understanding my own values, belief systems and strategies I held, I was able to formulate a picture of how I had operated in the past and how I can now operate now, in the moment and in the future. This was a tough and sometimes confronting process for me. However it has allowed me to be there and do the same for others.
I studied brain injuries and brain health, and made changes in my diet and lifestyle to best nurture repair. I studied meditation and the incredible work of brain coach, Jim Kwik. Does it mean that I now have it all together? Not on your life! Not even close. But what it does mean is that I am now aware of what happens, before what happens, happens and can more often intercept myself when I get into unhealthy patterns that ultimately don’t serve me. I now hear when my inner voice speaks, and can thank him (I have named my voice and given him a character) for his input but choose not to engage in it at this time. Thank you but no thank you with a smile on my face. Most of the time.
Eventually, I was back riding, competing, coaching and loving it. My “Why” had changed. For me, it is not about the competition anymore, although that is great fun, it’s about deepening my experience of humans and horses and the unbelievable things that can be achieved when there is genuine connection, communication and understanding.
My whole picture of learning changed too. By studying the work of the military (both dogs and humans), of highly successful sports teams and of many of the worlds leading educators I see teaching from a whole new perspective. I now ask questions, lots of questions rather than teach. I no longer want my students to do what I say, rather encourage them to challenge me. I want them to ask why. I want them to have to work for the answers, and be willing to make mistakes. My whole teaching philosophy was turned on its head. This has allowed me to significantly improve my ability to better understand clients and help them gain results faster than I ever could have before.
Now, in my current role at NEGS, I see the many aspects of how a rider’s mindset impacts their ability to perform at the best. Brain fatigue can overwhelm and the inner critic can make the competition arena a tricky place to navigate. I find now, I spend nearly as much time with my students on their mindset as we do on skill development and progression.
In this part of the process I feel like I am only ever one step ahead of the girls. I have to work equally hard on being OK with making mistakes, and staying present when the pressure and unknowing is tangible. As a coach, I am well aware I don’t know it all. In fact the more I learn, the more I realise I have yet to learn. I am only an average coach. I have not been to the Olympics, I have not achieved greatness in my riding career, and there are still times where I hear the “you’re not good enough”. But now I can trust in what I do know, pray to anyone that will listen that what I need to know will come to me and do what feels right at the time. I pray that I am enough. As long as I have kept the best interests of both horse and rider in mind, we always find a positive way forward that benefits not only the horse and rider, but myself as well. I also know when to seek help. I am so fortunate to have great mentors and friends who are always there to run ideas and thoughts past and to reassure me when I need support.
Everyone has a different ideal outcome, and has been through an entirely different series of events to get to where they are now. Not everything always goes to plan, but there is always learning and growth to be had. The interesting thing is when the girls focus shifted from being purely on results, getting it perfect and the fear of what might happen to them if they “fail” to more on the quality of their daily routines, training and willingness to get it wrong the results improved dramatically. We all celebrate the wins with them, and then it’s back to work.
I teach my students a 6 second rule. To be always thinking 6 seconds ahead, whilst feeling and responding to what is happening in the moment.
My 6 seconds ahead is to complete my Level 2 Coaching. I finished the HM and Riding components a few years ago but stalled when it comes to the coaching part. Turns out, I still have some work to do on the ‘not good enough-ness’ that gets me. The driver for me to keep moving forward to achieving this is so I can eventually gain my CE status and help upcoming coaches find their feet and their confidence in this space.
Writing this article terrifies me. I know through the many coaches I have openly discussed my journey with also have similar fears, and feelings of not being good enough, although it is rarely discussed. I hope that by sharing a little bit of my journey it may help another who is struggling and need a little bit of support. I’ve lived on the shame train, I owned a cabin. For both myself and those around me, I Thank God I got off.
If it wasn’t for the supportive team behind me in those difficuilt times I would not be still riding or coaching. I am now ready to pay it forward.