The Ultimate Answer to Prevent Equestrian Tragedies
In response to the recent debates about preventing equestrian tragedies, including the deaths of our riders and their horses during the eventing and other equestrian competitions, there are a lot of passionate opinions out there. Should a parent of minor children continue such a dangerous sport and should we really allow such young children to risk their lives racing over jumps? I believe I have the definitive answer to those questions with this story.
My dilemma regarding whether to continue riding or to hang up the boots when I was pregnant was one of the hardest decisions I ever made (and believe me when I tell you, I’ve had massive challenges in my life). The ending and lessons learned may not be what you would guess. Certainly, it wasn’t what I anticipated.
I don’t remember the first time I was on a horse because my parents owned a large, overnight girls’ camp in Vermont with a riding program. So I was always on horses, riding around the lake, up the mountains and even into the lake. During the winter months, I rode out on Long Island, back when all the magnificent riding academies were booming; the magical equestrian era that was featured in the book Snowman, the Eighty-Dollar Champion.
While I was athletic and good at a large variety of sports, nothing in life ever compared to the feeling of flying over a jump. It was jumping horses that cemented riding into my soul, and it was the reason I chose to go to Oldfields School, an equestrian boarding school in Maryland, for my high school years.
I continued riding throughout my life and didn’t even skip a beat when I lived in Manhattan. After moving into my condo on Park Avenue, I jumped into a cab and zig zagged all the way over to the upper west side to join the Claremont Riding Academy. Why that stable? Because it was the only stables in the city!
Was it more thrilling to ride horses through Central Park than to jump? Some days I would swear yes to that.
On all the other days, I snuck off the sanctioned bridle path in search of a tree log that had fallen in the woods.
Fast forward to my parents moving from Vermont and New York down to Delray Beach, Florida, and I continued to show the various Thoroughbreds that I owned over the years. Eventually, I ended up living at the Palm Beach Polo Club in Wellington, Florida, because my former husband and his family were building a golf course there.
Before the huge equestrian facilities were built out at Wellington, I rode at the only hunter/jumper facility at the Palm Beach Polo Club, back when it was run by Jane Ebelhare. Jimmy Torano and several other rock stars equestrians were also training there back then.
Eventually, I bought my dream show horse, which was a Dutch Warmblood that Margie Goldstein Engle briefly trained, and soon the new, large equestrian complex had progressed to hosting the winter “A” shows. Between traveling the world with my ex-husband and showing my two horses, life just didn’t get any better. It was perfect. Or was it?
It was not. Eventually, we divorced and I moved on to marry my current husband. Four months into my pregnancy, I was in the warm-up ring at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center in Wellington, Florida and I had the worst fall of my life. When I awoke on the ground, I thought for sure I had broken my neck. Visions of (Superman) Christopher Reeve’s life flooded my brain.
My first thought was I would never be able to ride again, my second thought was I may not be able to even walk again, and then I remembered the fact that I was pregnant. (Yup, in that order!) And I thought, “Oh no, what if I hurt the baby?”
“What the hell were you doing jumping horses when you’re pregnant?” That was the “caring” yet judgmental comments many people in my life kept repeating to me when I continued to ride after that event. (Weren’t we all programmed to automatically get back on the horse?)
The truth is, I never saw a conflict with having a child and riding.
It never occurred to me to REALLY stop riding. In the back of my mind, I think there was a vague, blurry thought that I might have to stop competing maybe when I was REALLY pregnant. Whatever that means. (Hours prior to delivery?)
I was either in denial that I was pregnant or I was in denial that I would ever actually hang up my boots. The truth was, I was addicted. No, not just addicted. Riding was my center. Riding was where I felt at home. It was where I connected to myself, to another animal, to the outdoors, to the challenge and thrill of overcoming fear and setting goals and accomplishing them.
Riding was where I found my inner strength and the best of me. It wasn’t just my identity of being an equestrian that I had to give up, or the lifestyle or the love of horses, it was leaving the depths of my soul of who I really was and what I loved the most; that which nourished my heart and made me ecstatic to wake up every day.
Riding was how I dealt with this other thing called life. It is where I learned how to build the emotional muscle of courage, discipline, patience and overcoming obstacles. I loved the challenge of the course; learning to judge and to make the right decision, and then moving forward and executing those moves at exactly the right time and in the right way. Knowing where and when to turn, and quickly adjusting to mistakes, was a challenge I thrived on.
But one millimeter of a miscalculation and it could be all over.
Even though I didn’t think much about how high the stakes were, it was always in the back of my mind.
It had always been lurking there; just like the EMS trucks that discreetly hide behind the barns during an equestrian event.
But I learned to not focus on any thoughts about danger, because riding taught me that where focus goes, energy flows. To think about the dangers was just asking to attract disaster. You just couldn’t go there and win. You couldn’t flirt with that thought and stay alive.
So I learned as a child to stay focused on the joy and success, and I practiced that mindset my entire life. I just loved the rush and the reward of coming up to an obstacle and making it over to the other side. The intensity of the sport and the victory of winning all pumped adrenaline into my system and dopamine into my brain and all that added to the addiction.
Had I not slammed shut the door of possibly getting horrifically injured or dying, I would never have been able to ride and make it over the jumps. It was that simple. It was black and white. All or nothing.
You can’t ride down a line to a jump saying to yourself, “But what if I don’t make the right strides? What if my pace is off? What if we crash through that jump and I end up falling and dying?”
You also can’t approach the other parts of your life like that.
It is similar to the process I learned when I went to Tony Robbins’ event, “Unleash the Power Within,” where we were taught how to create a mindset to walk across hot burning coals. Tony Robbins is the expert in personal empowerment and strategies that create lasting transformation.
I firmly believe that the few of us equestrians in that audience of 9,000 from all over the world probably had the easiest time learning how to overcome our fears of walking on 2000+ degree coals. It is the same process as jumping horses.
Riding Down a Line to a Jump is Like Walking on Fire
First, you make a decision to ride down the line to the jump. Then you get rid of any limiting beliefs you have about not being able to do it. Next, you set your mind in a state of absolute belief and certainty that you will successfully make it over the jumps. As you go down the line, you keep your head, eyes and inner focus on the outcome: making it to the other side, or in the case of fire-walking, to the end of the long path of hot coals.
And then with a perfect pace and stride (not running too fast and not going too slow), you purposefully walk along those coals … or you ride down the line … and you don’t for a moment take your eyes off it, or let your mind play tricks to distract you, until you make it to the end or the other side.
You stay focused on the emotional and physical rush that is waiting for you on the other side of the landing or the end of the fire lane; true joy, more courage, more confidence … a high of accomplishment unlike anything else in life. Except perhaps the joy and high of having a child.
Which brings me back to the original dilemma; the decision I had to make about possibly hanging up my boots or to continue riding.
And as Tony Robbins is famous for saying,
“It is in the moment of your decision that destiny is shaped.”
Just like when you’re riding in a ring filled with a complex course of obstacles to navigate, every decision, every little movement with your eyes and even the thoughts in your brain, will affect the outcome and will determine your destiny. Focus is everything. Belief is everything.
And giving in to fear and the horrific accidents that could occur cannot be part of the equation. For riding or life!
But what if we WERE to consider “the other side?” What if we do open that crack in the safe that holds the reality of “the worst case scenario”? What if we did open up that Pandora’s Box of fear and seriously consider for a moment that thing which we have spent our lives controlling through one victory after another?
If it WERE true that tomorrow at noon our child would lose a parent, or that our precious child would be trampled by a horse, is mounting that horse REALLY the decision we want to make? Or can we not even have the courage to look at that possibility, much less to believe it?
After my fall and the nagging of my family and friends, I mustered up the courage to take a sneak peek at that possibility. It seemed God was nudging me in that direction, or that’s how I chose to perceive my accident. Another Tony Robbins’ quote, “Life is not happening to you, but for you.”
Was that accident a sign to take a look at the reality of the dangers?
If I looked at it from my child’s point of view; would it seem irresponsible and selfish of me to pursue the greatest love of my life that could potentially leave him motherless? After all, I made the decision to have a child. Weren’t there consequences and responsibilities associated with that decision? Mothering doesn’t stop at birth.
The word responsibility seared into my soul. I asked myself, am I willing to sacrifice my happiness for the benefit of my child? At that moment, I came to this conclusion; if I couldn’t sacrifice, I wasn’t going to be a good mother, because by its very definition, being a mother is sometimes a sacrifice.
So, just like building the emotional muscle called courage to be able to jump over an obstacle, I decided I had better start learning how to build a new emotional muscle; that of sacrificing for my child.
A Flying Change? (Could I Really Hang up My Riding Boots Forever?)
How did I do it? I re-framed the word sacrifice. I decided to call it “giving” the gift of a mother to my child. I wanted him to have a parent that would learn to be less selfish in order to be the best parent I could be. How did I make that agonizing, quality of life changing decision? From horses.
I had learned, from years of navigating difficult courses in the ring, that sometimes to make the best and most timely decision, you have to stop debating and analyzing it and just “ride off your gut.” My gut was telling me that I needed to get up to speed with mothering skills and the reality that my life was no longer my own.
I told myself, “Hey, you were lucky to have spent your entire life doing this sport without any serious injuries.
Focus on the gratitude for that and also the gratitude for having survived several life-threatening diseases.”
It was a miracle I was even alive, much less pregnant! So yeah, I hung up the boots and I shut that door in my mind and never went back to even watching equestrian events or being around horses. I moved away from Wellington. It was as if that part of me and my life never existed. All or nothing. It was the only way I could survive that decision. It was a surgical amputation.
Was it the Right Decision?
Good for me for being selfless. Bravo, right? But was it the right decision? I found that the love for my child filled up a lot of that emptiness and gave me a life that I really would have regretted never having experienced. And I saw how important it was for my child to have me there.
I felt good about doing the “right, responsible thing” and giving my all to my child; both financially and with my time and focus. It was all about his life now. I would never have given him all that if I had also been riding, considering how much time and money are involved in the sport.
My husband and I, both athletes, were committed to keeping our son in sports and the great outdoors. Ironically, my husband, who is a former Olympian gymnast and is inducted into four Hall of Fames, would not let our son do gymnastics. And me? I didn’t want him to ride horses.
We admitted we just weren’t strong enough to watch our child do dangerous sports, but we did have the courage to admit that weakness to everyone, including our son who heard us say it a hundred times. We flashed that “We’re good parents keeping our child safe” badge like it was the championship blue ribbon hanging from a brow band.
OK, we weren’t fooling anyone. We were a flashing billboard for fear! And while I’m sure we could have overcome that fear if we really wanted, the truth is, we both had regrets about the passion we felt for our dangerous sports. We both recognized that we had been absolutely obsessed with our sports and that it had totally consumed our lives.
The truth is, if you’re serious about competing in life, you have to totally immerse yourself in your sport or your business. You have to live it and breathe it.
Gymnastics stole precious time away from my husband’s other three kids when they were growing up, and me? Everyone and everything came in second to riding horses.
Balance would have been a better answer, but again, with addictions or passions that require the consistent, massive action of practice that’s required of sports, especially dangerous sports where every stride and every second of intense focus counts, balance sometimes ends up becoming a cliche pipe dream; a nice goal to talk about, but easier said than done.
The thing with addictions is that they can become more important than anything else, possibly affecting not only your family but your job, your health, your ability to contribute to others with charity work, etc. And addictions are known for causing death.
The answer to the question.
Since our athletic son was good at every sport he tried, we settled on the very safe game of tennis, and he excelled at that. Our son has since graduated from college and is out on his own.
After a lifetime of hearing us say to others, “Yeah, we both did dangerous sports all our lives, but we kept him in a safer sport,” our son decided to prove a point; he too was courageous. He too could set high goals and achieve them. He too wanted to do something he loved and live with passion.
So while in college, studying business for a career in finance, he made a life-altering, destiny-changing decision. He decided to become a commissioned Officer in the United States Air Force. (Yup, you can’t make this “horse shit” up!)
And while we loved everything about a military career, the leadership skills, working with high achieving Officers, the importance of what he would do, the traveling and the incredible responsibility and experience, we worried about … drum roll … the danger! And for the next four years, absolutely nothing we said could change his mind.
And so, hours after graduating from college, we watched as he was commissioned an Officer. We were sitting in the audience during this impressive military ceremony, like deer in headlights. How the hell did this happen? And off he went.
The Empty Nest
So much for the absolutely brilliant idea of planning your life around fear and trying to prevent what can go wrong. With the transition of empty nest syndrome staring me in the face and knowing we wouldn’t even have the option of seeing him that much, I knew I had to make a new life.
I wasn’t even thinking of going back to riding horses, but my friend dragged me back into it while our son was still in college. I say dragged because I wasn’t sure I wanted to open that Pandora’s Box. Did I really want to be totally consumed again?
But guess what? After 20 years, my custom chaps and custom boots still fit and when I walked back into a barn, I just stood in the aisle and inhaled as deeply as I could. I couldn’t believe how alive I felt. It was like I had been hypnotized, and someone suddenly snapped their fingers and I finally awoke. I started to cry as the horses stuck their heads out from the stalls to welcome me home. It was so surreal.
At that very moment, a dreadful regret just exploded inside of me. I thought to myself, “What the hell did I do? How did I let 20 years go by without this passion in my life? Did I do the right thing? Was being so responsible really worth that sacrifice?” After all, my son had never even seen me on a horse, and yet, that had been my whole life.
My son never even saw who I really was. He never saw me at my absolute happiest, my strongest, my most athletic, bold and fearless self.
How fun is it to be raised by a mother who is sacrificing her most treasured passion, cutting herself off from her true essence and her soul? Had he only seen the half dead, numb part of me that never really felt as alive as I do now?
I got up on that horse that day and it was like I never left. I felt like myself for the first time in 21 years. At age 55, I had finally found myself again. I finally connected back to my true happiness and passion. I felt fearless, empowered, confident and proud. It was beyond amazing what the feeling did to the inside of me. How dramatic was the change?
I recently had to have new professional photos taken, and I came to the photo shoot with several different outfits. I suck in front of a camera. I just can’t relax and be me, and the shoot was pretty much a flop. But for the last outfit, I appeared from the dressing room in my riding attire, complete with my hat and crop in my hand.
I hadn’t even walked five steps towards the stunned photographer when he said, “Wow, what a difference!” I said, “Oh, great, you like this outfit?” He replied, “Yes, but it’s not the outfit itself that I am amazed at. It’s what that outfit does to you. You are a completely different person in that riding attire. It totally transformed you inside. Wow, your entire aura changed. Nancy, this is who you REALLY are!”
“Yeah,” I replied with my first real big smile of the day, “that’s what horses will do to the inside of a person.”
In my heart, in my soul … I am an equestrian. To hell with danger.
To hell with being responsible. I should never have hung up my boots. I should never have tried to shield my son from a life of passion and pursuing something just because it may be dangerous.
My son probably would have ended up being a fabulous equestrian if I had taken him riding with me. But he ended up doing what my husband and I did most of our lives anyway! He went with what he loved, who he really was inside, and what he felt called to do. Despite the danger.
Live with courage and passion! There’s no other way to do life. Do what you love and embrace the plot twists along the way.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Nancy Dye is an equestrian breakthrough mindset coach and resilience trainer helping people to transform the quality of their lifestyles.
Nancy is certified as a strategic interventionist by the official coach training school of Tony Robbins and has over 30 years as a change agent; shifting people into peak performance.
Nancy specializes in solving the puzzle of why people are not performing at their best and customizing the right strategy for “jumping over” adversity. She handles all areas of a rider’s lifestyle to include relationships, career, addictions, weight loss, health and transitioning through life stages.
With a past career in corporate sales and as a luxury lifestyle Realtor, Nancy has been coached by some the top sales trainers in the corporate world, as well as by some of the most elite coaches in the world of sports. Nancy redesigns the inner lives of athletes, executives, celebrities, entrepreneurs, and elite military and veterans.
Nancy is married to Jack Miles, a former Olympian gymnast who is inducted into four athletic Hall of Fames. For one-on-one coaching or information on her workshops or riding clinics, Nancy can be reached at NancyDyeResults@gmail.com.