“Courage is found in unlikely places.” ― J.R.R. Tolkien
Cour·age /ˈkərij/ noun / the ability to do something that frightens one
Man the Decks jumping the water at S.A. Champs
Within my limited scope (I was never going to be an Olympic medalist), the South African Championships was the pinnacle of my aspirations. In those days South Africa was divided into 5 provinces. Each province selected a number of teams to represent them at SA Champs. Children, junior, and adult teams - comprised of 4 riders and a reserve - were chosen from the top performers in qualifying events in dressage, showing, show jumping, and eventing. Each discipline hosted its own championship events which rotated between the provinces.
My first year competing as a Junior A grade show jumper saw me qualifying for selection on both Peace Again and Man the Decks. However, selection was not based purely on points accumulated, but also on the vote of a selection committee. Perhaps it was politics, or perhaps it was that the committee felt I was too young and inexperienced. Whatever the reason, I was devastated to learn that I had not made the team that first year. Hammy Butler, my greatest advocate, was furious on my behalf and vocal about it!
I came away from that experience more determined than ever to prove the committee wrong. The next year, I had won so many classes that it was no longer possible to ignore me. Of my two horses the committee chose Man the Decks as my mount to represent the Eastern Cape. We were headed to SA Champs for the first time and I was thrilled…
…And just a little bit terrified! Jumping at SA Champs was competition on a whole new level for an untried provincial rider. The courses were a lot bigger and more technical than those at regular shows, but Decks acquitted himself well in the junior division, and while we didn’t win any first place ribbons, we managed to land ourselves in the placings. I went on to represent my province every year for the next 6 years first as a Junior in the show jumping team and then as an Adult in the showing, show Jumping, and eventing teams.
Many experts agree that most sports are 70% mental. A little bit of nervousness is good for performance as it tells you how important the competition is and helps you to focus. Athletes tend to compete at their best when they are excited and motivated, yet relaxed and composed. When they get too nervous, and put too much pressure on themselves, performance begins to crumble.
While it is true that any competitive sport can result in nerves – you know the feeling: self-doubt and lack of confidence, the pressure to perform and live up to yours and others’ expectations, as well as the intimidation of performing in front of competitors, teammates, and coaches for very high stakes – it is also true that only horse riding involves a partnership where your team mate is incredibly sensitive to, and affected by, your feelings - especially nerves! While other riders relished the pressure of big-time competition, my legs would turn to jello and I would feel sick to my stomach. The last thing you want when you are jumping a technically challenging course and need to make split second decisions and stride adjustments is a brain that has turned to porridge, and limbs that are about as effective as pieces of wet spaghetti. The last thing your horse needs when faced with huge, challenging fences is a rider that doesn’t inspire confidence!
I suppose in a way, returning year after year took a kind of courage as I fought my fear and tried to overcome my nerves (or maybe I was just a glutton for punishment). Be that as it may, I was not successful and did not do myself, my horses, or my team proud. The rest of the year, I was on fire winning event after event, but SA Champs remained my Waterloo.