Updated: Apr 30
People looking in from the outside of someone's life - someone in the middle of pulling off miracles of athleticism or resilience - often wonder how on earth they do it. From the outside, it can look impossible to the rest of us, like some sort of Magic! That's because we have separated ourselves from them; putting them so far up on pedestals that they start to look like veritable Gods, way up there in the sky!
Pedestaling others is a preposterous practice that so many of us are guilty of. The distance we put between 'us' and 'them' creates a chasm that prevents the connection and learning we need, to do what they do so well. And it's a drag, no matter which side of that sky-high stool you are on, hiding under it in the shade feeling unworthy of the sun ... or swaying up there on your unasked-for plinth in the glare of so much misunderstood attention and envy. There is no connection, no reality. From this perspective, we can’t tell if where they are at, is even somewhere we want to go, or what it took for them to get there.
So, let's get down and dirty together right here on the ground. We'll keep our feet planted, our heads out of clouds and see what we can learn from those whose success we so admire.
Since my background from long ago is in the equestrian sport of Three-day Eventing, I'll be looking to my friends and peers; riders revered for the 'Magic' they seem to pull off with their horses. Today, we'll meet the Laws of eventing. Canadian rider Leslie Grant-Law and her husband Leslie Law, who I just spent two weeks with in Ocala, Florida. And in view of my more recent history - surviving the tumultuous trifecta of cancer, chemo and covid 19, fresh on the heels of bankruptcy, divorce, and destitution - I'll pull the common threads we find between resilience and sporting success; because as I have learned the hard way, all the gold medals in the world won't buy you the happiness OR the health that you seek!
When I was riding on the Canadian Equestrian Team, they hired renowned sport psychologist Dr. Terry Orlick to work with us. The first thing he asked us to do was an inventory of our mental and emotional skills in a questionnaire designed to evaluate where we stood, and where we wanted to go. What stood out to me then and what stands out to me now, can be summed up in one word: sacrifice. Sacrifice is defined in the Oxford dictionary as: “an act of giving up something valued for the sake of something else regarded as more important or worthy.”
The questions they asked to rate our dedication to sport were mostly along these lines. Would you sacrifice family? Would you give up days off? Would you sacrifice socializing, friendships, relationships? Would you give up most of the
things that young people immerse themselves in?
People who stand on podiums and bend their proud necks to receive medals, give up more than most of us can imagine. They give these things up because they are dedicated to their pursuit. That dedication gets them up every morning at un-Godly hours, pushes them past pain that would stop most of us in our tracks and keeps them going when others would give up. But most of us won’t stand on a podium. I mean, what are the odds? In Three-Day Eventing, the sport I am most familiar with, only 3 people get to represent their country every four years. And even then, should we judge them as a success, just because they are wearing medals around their necks? We don’t know what they are like with their students at home, or how their horses feel about them. What were they willing to give up, to succeed? Did they give up their integrity?
Is what they are chasing ‘more important or worthy’ than what they are giving up?
I have known some Olympians whose lives and ethics I would want my children to emulate … and others … not so much! I wouldn’t want to be one of their horses, their staff, or their students. Ego and abuse run rampant in this sport and in others too, but when horses and young people are in the mix, it is a double atrocity.
Back in my day, we were taught by military men, whose ethos was to break us down and build us back up again, their way. They wanted to sort ‘the men from the boys’ as early as possible. Riders paid the price, and their horses did too. It was rough! That made sense when Three-day Event riders were cavalry officers, which is where our sport started. Then, there was more on the line than gold medals and Olympic glory – lives hung in the balance.
In the early 90’s our coach, Jack LeGoff used to say (usually after some brutality he had inflicted upon me in public)
“If you can handle training with me on a daily basis, sweetie - the Olympics will be a walk in the park! And once we are there, I will be your very best friend.” And then, with a meaningful look and his index finger pointing to his head, “There is method to my madness!”
Yes, I am sure there was, and you can’t argue with his success. In the 70’s and 80’s, while coaching the US team, LeGoff was declared the ‘winningest coach ever’ in equestrian sport. But by the time the Canadian team could afford him, his alcoholism, combined with the knowledge that he couldn’t produce Olympic medals from the quality of metals he had to work with, made his military methods tip towards madness.
He hurled abuse at us (along with his hat and his cigarettes) in his distinctly accented Frenchmen’s voice, rough from smoking, drinking and so much shouting. “YOU! Are NOTHING! But an ABSESS! On your HORSE’S BACK!!! What do you think this is? The cripple Olympics!?!”
To get there, we had already given up everything we had to give. We had all sacrificed money, stability, family. We were hard working and dedicated. We put it ALL on the line, willingly, and those sacrifices are ones that most of us would make again … if we hadn’t also been asked to sacrifice our dignity.
All that we suffered through was in chasing ‘success’ at all cost. Sure, we learned a lot. But was it worth it? Did it build connection? Were our horses inspired and motivated to try for us? The results speak for themselves. Our performances at the 1992 Olympic Games in Spain were uninspiring. None of those horses went on to do anything after the Olympics and several of our riders quit international sport upon their return from Spain.
I’ll never forget the look on Nick Holmes-Smith’s face when he showed up unexpectedly between flights home from the Games, standing dejectedly in the rain at my back door in England. I was excited and wanted to know everything! As a non-travelling reserve, I had been so envious of my teammates who had ‘made it’, but he didn’t even want to talk about it.
“Ask what you want to know and get it over with” he said.
All that we had sacrificed was meant to be in pursuit of something ‘more important and worthy’, but I don’t think that any of us had anything that felt like success. That night, I began to rethink my priorities and whether I wanted to make another stab at it.
Since most of us aren’t trying to get to the podium, let’s look at other ways to judge success.
We get hung up on the definition of success by looking for outcomes that correlate with ‘winning’. In order to ‘win’, we need to learn. In order to learn, we need to make mistakes.
The following is a quote from Jane Pike, in her Blog, The Confident Rider.
To our brains, success is a foreign concept that opposes the very basis of learning. The brain learns through consistent and repetitious failure. We make a decision; take an action and we observe the consequences of that action. Our unconscious brain then tries again in an attempt to bring the outcome of our action closer to our original intention. In this way, every action we take is a success; every action we take is making us clearer, more efficient, and more in line with our original intention. Every repeated ‘failure’ is a ‘success’. ~ Jane Pike
Early on, I learned that learning wasn’t safe and would do nearly anything not to let Jack catch me making a mistake. Mistakes were failures. Mistakes were not allowed, in the LeGoff era and resulted in public humiliation.
“Practice doesn’t make perfect!” he would say. “Perfect practice makes perfect!”
My fear of making a mistake didn’t start with Jack, but he didn’t help it. My paralyzing fear of making a mistake in public haunts me to this day and is something I must keep a firm feel of on the reins. I still tend to armor-up in defense and put on a mask to hide behind, and this prevents growth, learning and the connection we need, whether we are seeking to ride like one of the Magicians we so admire, or to rise from a metaphorical fall and find joy in the shitstorms of our lives.
Above all, we need a feeling of safety and connection; a team around us we trust, where we can be vulnerable and accountable at the same time, doing what we need to do every day to reach our goals.
From this foundation of safety and connection, and being unafraid to try, we can build anything!
Fear and self-doubt, combined with an environment that focusses on the negative – on what might go wrong, instead of on what might go right – are lethal to any kind of success you might be chasing. A foundation built on fear will always crumble under the increasing weight of expectations that come with chasing something BIG. And focusing on what we fear, only makes it more likely to happen.
“Where the mind goes the body will follow.” Arnold Schwartzenegger
This is where visualization and embodiment practices come in, for success in both sport and wellness. Being able to picture the results you WANT and throwing the rest in the garbage, is a mental/emotional skill required of athletes AND survivors of catastrophic health challenges. You must be able to SEE it and FEEL it before you can DO it!
I witnessed this in action every damn day, when I helped my fiancé Mike learn how to walk
again after a devastating head injury left him in a vegetable like state the doctors thought he would never recover from. They didn’t know Mike! Mike was the ultimate positive thinker. Through a series of challenges leading up to his head injury that included the death of his horse, the death of his father and a bogus lawsuit, I watched him choose the best possible light to look at every situation from. He was the original Master of finding joy in the shitstorm! I learned a lot from him. And although it would take a whole book to tell you his recovery, I can say that visualization and embodying - emulating what he could already picture in his mind and feel in his body - made the difference.
As a low budget rider with expensive dreams, Mike had already harnessed the power of learning through watching and emulating. And here is a tip for anyone wanting to learn on a budget – show up and watch the best at work. It’s a free lesson! Lock those images in your head, feel them in your body, believe them in your heart and you’ll go home with more than a free riding lesson. You will have gained tools for life!
Mike went from learning how to swallow again, to walk again, to riding in competition on our beloved horse O’Reilly: living proof that anything is possible and a ‘success’ by any measure! From the outside, it looked like a miracle; but I witnessed his commitment to the grueling work that led to daily small gains.
“Mile by mile, it's a trial; yard by yard, it's hard; but inch by inch, it's a cinch.” ~ Gabrielle Giffords
Now let’s look at the Laws and how they define success. Seventeen years ago, my Canadian friend Lesley Grant married British Three-Day Event rider Leslie Law. Together they run Law Eventing, a highly successful (by all measures) business in Ocala developing horses and riders for the top of equestrian sport.
I would say that they have success on multiple levels. The obvious ones are the ones that most people notice. Yes, their house is positively FILLED with trophies, cups, and medals from every championship there is – the World Championships, European Championships, The Olympic Games. Yes. They have achieved success. But what about those other ways we can define success?
Their barn atmosphere says it all. The girls who work for them are happy. The mood is consistently calm. No one is rushed. There is no shouting. Every day feels the same. The horses are schooled quietly and consistently, and everyone knows their jobs and what to expect. The Law’s have high expectations - they work hard 7 days a week and their working students work 6 days per week – but it doesn’t feel like a pressure cooker. They have produced an atmosphere where it is safe to learn, and mistakes are not scorned or punished. They match the energy and dedication the young people who work for them put into it and treat everyone – the girls who work for them, the farriers who shoe their horses, the contractor who fixes their air conditioning unit, the owners of their top horses, EVERYONE - with the same respect and good humor. They have created an environment of safety and connection in which they can all flourish.
While I was with them, I met Steve and Jackie Brown, who support the Laws as owners of multiple horses. This is one of them, Fleur, who is headed to the 4-star at The Tryon International Equestrian Centre.
Unlike most owners, the Browns show up to quietly watch what Lesley and Leslie are up to with their horses on a regular basis. They have the feeling of family about them. I asked Steve what it was about the Laws that made him want to support them. Without hesitating, he answered,
“The Laws are as honest as the day is long.” As an example, he told me a story about a horse that they had bought with the high hopes they have for all their horses, but at a certain point didn’t seem happy in its job. “If in their judgement a horse has reached its limit, they will say so. This horse wasn’t going to go any further. They found him a life where he flourishes in another job”.
Steve lit up when talking about Lesley. “She is blunt and articulate. You never wonder what she is thinking!” He loves that there is no ‘big show’ and that he and Jackie are included and appreciated as part of the what it takes. “We want to be involved – part of the team. They let us do some things”.
In fact, the first morning I was there, Steve helped to put the jumps up and down as he and Jackie watched their horses being schooled in the early morning mist. Just another day on the farm. It was a gorgeous thing to be a part of!
Steve and Jackie don’t come from the ‘average’ background amongst sponsors and owners of International Sport Horses. They grew up as farmers, and as such, they appreciate something else about the Laws.
“They are hard working. Unlike some, they do the nitty gritty, like teaching and clinics. There are no silver spoons here!”
While we’re talking about silver spoons, lets address the money issue. While it is absolutely true that this sport requires a ton of cash, it is interesting to see young riders with all the money in the world, unhappy and burning through horses, money and people like there is no tomorrow. Its not ALL it takes! A good work ethic and a willingness to find opportunities with the best trainers (read softest, most consistent, quietest, subtlest) will go a long way. Here is where respect and a good attitude can make up for a lot. Someone who is working diligently in the industry with the roots of good basics, respect and a willingness to trade sweat equity for learning, can go a lot further than someone with money who is lacking these things. It might take some time, but if you are doing what you love, that shouldn’t matter. Then, once you have proven your work ethic and if you are a joy to be around, generous with your time AND show some talent, you will find that people are happy to do what they can to be a part of getting you closer to your goals.
In my case this proved to be true in two instances; when I was pursuing top level sporting success AND when I was fighting for my life and too broke to afford some of the therapies that would help me regain my health and sanity. In the case of sport, there were community fundraisers and private sponsors, as well as donations of services, like body work on my horses, that helped me access what I needed to succeed. It felt awkward to ask, but every time I did, people were genuinely happy to donate what they could and be a part of it. And in the case of my health, friends with businesses in the wellness industry offered free services. It was truly humbling and made all the difference.
Back to my friends, the Laws. In a sport whose lifestyle and commitment to the horses can be all consuming, they exhibited another measure of success. Their day ends, when they go to pick up their son Liam from school, and apart from weekends when they have competitions or clinics, nothing interferes with watching Liam at soccer practice, or sitting down at the dinner table to help him with his homework.
On an evening when his Dad came in smelly and exhausted from a day of lessons with his dressage coach Lee Tubman, and preparing a trailer with a flat tire to leave at 3 AM for a competition in North Georgia, Liam asked if he would practice soccer with him after dinner. I could see Leslie sigh internally. He didn’t have much left to give. But a few minutes after dinner, I could hear him kicking the ball around with Liam.
When I asked Lesley what she thought really tipped the scales and made the difference between young riders who succeed … and those who don’t, she said it came down to the parents. And no, she didn’t mean the ones who blew wads of cash on their kids – she had plenty of examples of that going wrong, even ending in young people losing their way and losing their lives to drugs. What she meant, was that they were involved.
This rings true for me. What my parents lacked in cash, they made up for in involvement, both when I was pursuing sport and battling through chemo. And by this measure, I have to say that the Laws son Liam should have success in spades, however he defines it. Lesley practices what she preaches, even when it’s hard. And by the way – it’s hard EVERY DAY! Nothing comes easy. There is no magic bullet. Its not easier for some than others, although it may look like it from the outside. Getting back up from falls, recovering from shitstorms and trauma, or pursuing excellence, all take daily commitment, sacrifice and dedication. We just have to make sure we aren’t sacrificing the wrong things and we are doing it for the right reasons.
In Lesley’s opinion, young people with big dreams in the sport need to focus on finding a niche that they love, not on the Olympics. Maybe they like producing young horses. Maybe teaching is their thing. Dreams are nice, but they’ll need something that fuels them on a daily basis.
“Working at something that you love to do every day and making it your job – isn’t that what we are all after? If they are in it for medals, the odds are just so infinitesimal. The daily work will feel like a grind and burn them out. But if they focus on an area of the industry they like and commit to getting better at their craft every day, they may just end up on the team or on a podium as a byproduct of their hard work.” ~ Lesley Grant-Law
At the end of the day, how we feel about ourselves and the actions we took, is important. Did we lift someone up? Did we learn? Did we increase a horse’s confidence? Did we give someone else a leg up in life? At the end of the day, was there joy? Was there integrity in our actions and reactions?
“Success. It’s just a made up idea. And consequently, you can make up what it looks like for you.” ~ Jane Pike, The Confident Rider.
Balance what you sacrifice with the payoffs. Why are you pursuing sport? If you pursue it for the right reasons, you will sacrifice things we can all live without, while experiencing the deep satisfaction of safety, connection, and community. And THAT is winning! Safety and connection are everything in life, whether you are pursuing horse sport or remarkable resilience. Its all the same, and we ALL have it in us.
ANYTHING is possible!
Take a chance,
PS. Stay tuned for my upcoming podcast, A Leg Up: The Magic of Horsecraft and Life, where I interview Lesley Grant Law about what it takes to succeed and she tells us about the closest thing she has to a super power, how she struggles with self confidence and likens herself to a cockroach.