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BLOG: Keeping it real

 Sally Kirkwood riding Bloomfield Furstinus - © Roger Fitzhardinge

 Sally Kirkwood and Bloomfield Furstinus.

© Roger Fitzhardinge


By Sally Kirkwood

Now we all know that this topic has been well and truly written about, talked about, and delivered to high performance seminars and master classes and the like. I am also very aware that there are far smarter people who have devoted their lives to studying the human brain and how it ticks and that they have far more letters after their names that have qualified their findings!! We have all read it and listen to it before, but I am going to give it to you North Queensland style — in a little segment that I like to call “keeping it real”. We all have bad days on the arena but how many of us are open and honest about the highs and the lows that we really hit? I often liken the emotional side of training horses to climbing Everest or being on a rollercoaster ride. Sometimes you will have the high of all highs and then you will have a crashing down, free fall, stomach in your throat, heartbroken low. We have all been there, but how do we deal with it?

When you think about it, we are all a little crackers really!! We spend a small fortune on a massive four legged creature that has the ability to turn your hard earned cash into a never ending pile of compost. A creature that has more pedicures from the farrier than I will ever have at a day spa, more boots and bandages then I have in my wardrobe and an extensive range of rugs and saddle cloths, and an entire room filled with tack that would rival any rock star diva’s closet. We justify all of this as well as the many hours of training, grooming, traveling, competing – the list goes on for days – for that most wonderful feeling of freedom, connection and “ooooo la la” you get when you ride. 

Let’s face it: there is no better feeling than when your horse reaches a milestone in their training. It may be a simple transition or jumping a jump that is so frighteningly scary that it could kill a mere mortal horse, yet yours just turned into a Pegasus and flew like no other. It is feelings like these that turn your troubles and woes into a field of daisies, and you magically turn into Carl and Charlotte and ride like a true super star where nothing can touch you. Hell, you won’t even give two hoots when you are riding in a dressage test and you half pass, and to you it feels sooooooo amazing that you magically turned into Isabell and your caller is screaming at you “AT C TURN LEFT” but Isabelle turns right because it just felt so good that that’s what she wanted to do!! Said caller is threatening to pull you off your Pegasus and beat you to a pulp and you are saying “yeah but didn’t you see that? I WAS ISABELL.”

So why can’t we always be on these sorts of highs? I guess it is unfair to the sad part of your brain to be constantly happy and woooo hooing! Just to make sure that both sides of your brain are working the sad, self-doubting, self-destructive, party pooper side kicks in!

It sneaks up on you when you least expect it. It may be a fine sunny day, but I find mostly it happens on days when you have little time to spare and you think “oh I will just go for a quick tritty trot and have a nice hack around” — without warning, BAM it hits you!! 

All of a sudden you feel as useless as an ash tray on a motor bike. Like you cannot even canter to the right. Hell, there are times when I seriously doubt my ability to ride an open gate on a windy day. The follow on effects of such “lows” are tears – tears with free flowing snot that just pours out as you cry into your donkey’s neck (the Pegasus has disappeared and he now has long ears and eeeewww awwws). You have fits of anger and say some very very very nasty things to your donkey, you then take your frustration and anger out on your significant other, coach, or any other poor souls that happens to be walking past, you withdraw and don’t want to talk about it and all of a sudden there are dark clouds and they reflect your mood and it seems to have a significant effect on the rest of your day!


Sally Kirkwood - June Blog

"Hell, there are times when I seriously doubt my ability to ride an open gate on a windy day."


Sally Kirkwood - June Blog


What the hell do you do? 

You wrack your brain to remember the words of wisdom from the gurus with the “smarts” and letters after their names. “Don’t let it get you down, get back on track, get in the zone, don’t get in the zone” – oh gosh a loading zone, a parking zone, what the hell is a zone? And because you are in such a state you can’t remember a thing they said because you are sure this is the worst case of “I can’t ride a swinging gate” that anyone has ever seen!

And the next stage seems to be – throw all sensible thoughts out the window. 

This is when you are going to show your now donkey that you no longer need him for you are now going to take on the world of chook showing. Not just showing, oh noooooo! You are making up an entire new sport. It will be called “Chook circus” and it will take over the world. You and your feathered friends will go through a complex set of routines that are sure to replace your riding highs, and instead of aiming to make a World Cup team with a horse, your new goal is to see your feathered fowl fly through a hoop of fire! It will be difficult and trying, as you will have to use your maths calculations to get the correct trajectory and force behind them. You even see the bright side of your misfortunes, as you figure at least on the days when it doesn’t quite go to plan, the family will be eating flame grilled chicken for dinner!


Sally Kirkwood - June Blog

"Chook Circus" - Sally's sport of choice when things don't go to plan in the dressage arena.


Sally Kirkwood - June Blog

"Instead of aiming to make a World Cup team with a horse, your new goal is to see your feathered fowl fly through a hoop of fire!"


If that isn’t to your liking you can always start the new craze of Guinea Pig Dressage. At least a bag of feed and bale of hay will last you for half a year instead of a few days!

But deep down you know that you are a true horse tragic and even though you have strategically placed a tin of dog food near his stable as a gentle encouragement to pick his socks up, you still love that donkey with all of your heart and you really want to brush his tail and feed him carrots. 


Sally Kirkwood - June Blog

Guinea Pig Dressage: "At least a bag of feed and bale of hay will last you for half a year instead of a few days!"


To help you get through your “I can’t ride out of sight on a dark night” feeling, here are some simple things that help me.

Have a good cry and blurt out all of the crazy thoughts in your head to a dear friend or your long-suffering partner. My poor long-suffering partner is a very good listener and should have the fancy letters behind his name as he does come up with some very good points. Plus when I am far too gone he is very good at delivering a good old fashion ass-kicking message to pull myself together. 

Go for a hack out in the paddock. This is one of the best therapy sessions as it changes the scenery and lets you go for a ride to just have a bit of fun. If it isn’t working, simply add one Texas long horn and dairy cow with calf to frolic and play and look like they’re chasing your “not so brave” donkey/Pegasus and you will be far too busy holding on and plotting your get away to have time to feel sad and sorry for yourself. 

My favourite tip of all is at the end of the day when you are mucking out or feeding up have an ice cold beer or glass of wine. Talk to your friends and family – even better if they are there, otherwise call them, and be honest about the horrid day of riding and guess what, nine times out of 10 they too have had the very same day! All of a sudden you don’t feel alone and you help pick your friend up by telling them that they are in fact the very best riders in the world and you are so proud of their journey and what they have achieved. Then you hear very similar words right back at you. Before you know it you are feeling slightly better and a little silly that you have ordered flaming hoops and chook food. But you are also feeling ever so grateful for the beautiful friends you have made through the love of horses. It is a tough sport at the best of times and sometimes all we need is an ice cold beer and a mate to say “you know what? It is going to be alright, you can do this!”


Sally Kirkwood - June Blog

"My favourite tip of all is at the end of the day when you are mucking out or feeding up have an ice cold beer or glass of wine."


If all of that doesn’t work then maybe it is time to ring the sports psychologist and tell them the great news about the chook circus!

At the end of the day we are in the sport because we love the beautiful creatures that bring us joy and freedom, and allow us to meet other fabulous like-minded people who will touch our lives — some will stay friends for life. So as we trudge up the training scale of Mt Everest, which isn’t about how quick we get there, or how many ribbons we have won, we have to learn to take the highs and the lows. As the lows make us appreciate the small things and really really appreciate the woo hoooo high moments. And it’s important to remember when we trudge up the mountain, to stop and enjoy the view as we go, and share the journey with our friends and family, and make sure you pack an esky!

P.S. I sent a video of the “I can’t ride a swinging gate” moment to my coach, and he thought it looked fantastic!!! Pffftttttttt it was all in my head!!

Photos supplied by Sally Kirkwood.





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