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Small Victories: Kristen & Geoffrey

“One of the unexpected bonuses of my impulsive decision last fall to bring home Geoffrey is that I’m learning to appreciate the small victories that come with achieving small goals once again.”

For 673 accepted trainers, the journey to the Retired Racehorse Project‘s 2019 Thoroughbred Makeover has begun! Over the next nine months, three of those trainers will blog their journeys, including their triumphs and their heartbreaks, successes and failures, for Horse Nation readers. Kristen Brennan is back today, sharing her recent rediscovery that the small victories are every bit as important as the big wins.

Photo Credit Sara Fagan

You know that photo of Chris Talley coming off the Land Rover Kentucky 3-Day Event cross country course on Saturday with his arms around Unmarked Bill’s neck? That was me and Geoffrey two weeks ago. Except we were coming out of stadium. And it was starter. And we were in last place. I’m sure some people saw my tears of joy and thought my elaborate gestures of gratitude to my horse coming off a 2’ stadium round were a bit over the top. But I didn’t care, and I paraded around the show with my sixth-place ribbon displayed like I had just led the victory gallop in the Rolex arena at the Kentucky Horse Park.

One of the unexpected bonuses of my impulsive decision last fall to bring home Geoffrey is that I’m learning to appreciate the small victories that come with achieving small goals once again. I’ve had Marcus for nine years; over that time our goals got bigger and I lost sight of the importance of the small wins in riding. Instead of celebrating the things like the thrill of tackling a tough cross-country question or finally nailing a free walk, I set our sights on the big goal of winning an event. Season after season we got SO close to that blue ribbon, I could taste it. One rail in stadium or a few time faults on cross country for the leader and that blue was ours.

But alas, whether it was because that first-place rider didn’t falter, or we had one of our many “moments” that lead to double-digit stadium faults or a big old E, first place always eluded us. The frustration and disappointment overshadowed any small successes we had.

Unlike with an experienced horse you have had for years, with a young, green horse there needs to be no expectation of perfection or big goals.  Instead you need to keep the pressure light, the goals small, and the celebrations huge. Accepted contact for half of a twenty-meter circle? Good boy! Got your left lead twice in a row today? Big pats! Jumped the scary flower boxes on the first attempt? High five!

Our first combined test was no different. Take a green horse at his third show, add a rider who has terrible baggage in stadium, and hopes of decent scores and primary color ribbons go out the window. Then add in some fun Kentucky spring weather with heavy rains, a 30-degree temperature drop and insanely strong winds all within the two hours between your dressage and stadium ride times, and your only hope becomes to stay on and stay in the ring.

Thomas doesn’t mind that the ribbon is green.

I had to laugh, as it was like Mother Nature said “Oh, you are so nervous you want to vomit at the thought of stadium before even pulling out of her driveway? Watch this. Hold my beer.”  I had no choice but to just make getting into the dressage arena and riding our test our goal for the day. As a result, I was thrilled with the small things like our great halt and good transitions and I didn’t let a mediocre dressage score dissuade me from feeling like that.

Even though dressage was uneventful, when it came time for stadium, I was a bundle of nerves. There was every excuse I could think of for him to say no — jumps that fell over, spooky planks and flowers, horses cantering all over outside the ring. But I reminded myself of my goal to stay on and stay in the ring, and with my big girl panties on, I trotted in and cantered down to the first fence.

And I missed. Hard.

But he still jumped, then landed softly and cantered away like it was a perfect spot. Sure, I was embarrassed to do that in front of everyone watching, but as I continued my course, I realized it was the best thing that could have happened. It made me laugh at myself, pat my horse and kick on and as a result I felt myself relax in stadium for the first time in a very, very long time.

To some, that moment of relaxation would have been no big deal  — but to me it was a small (okay, who am I kidding — HUGE) victory. Geoffrey deserved every bit of celebration over that second-to-last place ribbon. Eventually these small victories will add up, and we’ll find ourselves setting a big goal and achieving it. When that day comes, you’ll likely find me parading around again like I had just placed sixth out of seven in a starter combined test.

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