The IHSA Effect: How Joining a College Equestrian Team Helped Me Gain My Confidence Back
By: Julie Mercer
The idea of walking into a show ring completely calm and without wanting to throw up was something I had given up on long ago. It wasn’t until this past fall that I finally experienced that euphoric feeling, all thanks to the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association (IHSA) and the equestrian team at Miami University in Ohio.
I started showing at local schooling shows around the age of ten and slowly moved up to the rated shows. The only memory I really have surrounding my very first horse is that of nausea. While my nerves gradually improved at lower level shows, the bigger shows were a different story; it was a constant battle.
I love our sport and always liked to think of myself as a fairly confident rider, so I was always stumped as to why I just could not seem to get over my show anxiety. I had been riding and showing Penny, my 10-year-old Canadian Warmblood mare, in the 2’6” hunters. She was slightly green and not the fanciest, but she was very brave and willing. I had very little to be nervous about but still, I couldn’t help it.
My nerves worsened with Friday, my next horse. He was a green 5-year-old at the time that we bought him, but he was so sweet on the ground and definitely willing to learn. I just knew I needed him to be mine. With complete knowledge of how much work he would likely be, we jumped in headfirst.
Our first 5 months together were great, but a series of unlucky health issues left him with eight months of little work or training. Once his health issues were completely resolved, we started to bring him back to work. He definitely entered his “teenage phase” at this time; while his kind-hearted personality still shined brightly, he definitely liked to “have a say” while training. It was a struggle at times, but the hard work that my trainer and I put in resulted in a lot of progress.
Several months later, I was finally feeling (somewhat) ready to show. We decided to kick off show season at the Great Lakes Equestrian Festival. It was a beautiful Saturday. I had just received a pep talk from my trainer, and I was ready to get in the ring, grit my teeth, and get around the course — even if it wasn’t pretty. But on our way to the first jump, I felt Friday suck back. I put my leg on and gave him a tap with my crop at the base of the jump. If you can see where this is going, I clearly didn’t make it to the other side. I fell off, dislocated my shoulder, and had a fun afternoon in the emergency room where I talked about the taco truck at the horse show as I came out of anesthesia. This accident meant that I was out of the saddle for 6 weeks.
At this point, my confidence was completely shot. I was positive that if I fell off again, I would be back in the hospital without a doubt. These fears led to backwards riding and constantly questioning myself and my horse. I didn’t want to go to my lessons. There were even days where I was scared to ride from the barn to our outdoor arena. I knew this was irrational –Friday isn’t spooky — but I couldn’t move past the worry and I longed to have my confidence back.
A year after my shoulder injury, I pushed myself to test the waters of horse showing again at GLEF 2019. As the show got closer, I tried to push my negative thoughts aside and ignore my growing fears, but as the show approached, I became overwhelmed with worry and shared my thoughts with my trainer. I ultimately decided to spend my first week schooling Friday instead of competing. The decision not to show lifted an immense weight off my shoulders. I could actually eat breakfast, socialize without butterflies in my stomach, and fall asleep normally! But later in the week, despite the fact that I wasn’t showing, my nerves came back. I had gotten on just to flat Friday, and after one lap in the ring, I walked out, got off, and just broke down into tears. I got back on and we had a great ride, but I think this illustrates how much my nerves affected me and my riding. By the end of the week, just walking down the bridle path and flatting on my own in the morning without panicking felt like a huge personal accomplishment.
Flash forward a month. I was getting ready to leave for college at Miami University in Oxford, OH. Friday would be staying home during my freshman year so that I could focus on school and figure out campus life. My last day at the barn was extremely difficult. I had been riding there since I was 8 years old and my trainer had practically helped raise me! I had also formed lifelong friendships, and leaving them was really hard. But leaving Friday was hardest since he holds a piece of my heart.
The one thing that made leaving the barn slightly easier was knowing that I would be riding on Miami’s equestrian team. I was moving into school 4 days early for a program called “Miami Bound,” which allows incoming Freshmen to ride with the team and hopefully make friends before classes started. When my parents dropped me off at the Miami barn that August afternoon, we were all teary-eyed. During our mushy, emotional goodbye, Heather Pinnick, Miami’s head coach, walked over and told us a story about her own experience of getting dropped off at college. As a result, she started Miami Bound to try and help college freshmen get acclimated and find their family away from home. Those early days with Miami Bound are easily some of my best college memories so far. The program allowed me to meet some of my best friends, and I am eternally grateful for the experience and the “head start” it gave me in terms of making Miami feel like home.
The Miami Bound program also gave me a jumpstart in terms of getting over some of my fears. During one of my first team lessons, I fell off after the out of a line that didn’t go smoothly. I was completely fine, aside from my body being a little sore. This completely disproved my theory that I was hospital bound if I fell off again. I’m not proud to say I fell off, but honestly, it was a huge step for my confidence going forward.
Once classes started, I looked forward to my bi-weekly lessons with the team. But, based on my history of horse show nerves, I’m sure you’re not surprised to learn that I was doubtful about whether I would want to compete at IHSA shows. I paid for an IHSA membership and figured that I would only show at Miami’s home show in October. Despite feeling like I was making progress with my confidence, I was still pretty pessimistic about stepping back into the show ring. But on the Saturday of our home show, I woke up and something amazing happened; I wasn’t nauseous in the morning, I could eat breakfast, and I talked with my parents on the phone without becoming extremely irritable!
When it was time to mount, I waited for my nerves to kick in, but still nothing happened. I walked into the ring and felt absolutely fine. I rode a green horse who is the sweetest boy. I didn’t place, but I could not have cared less! I went around an entire flat class without any nerves, a feeling I had never once experienced in my life.
Since then, I’ve gone to two other IHSA shows at the University of Louisville and at Midway University. To date I’ve only been competing in flat classes, so its possible my nerves might come back once I enter jumping classes again. But I am extremely proud of my progress. I may not be winning classes at the moment, but I feel like I’m winning mentally.
Not to just sound like a walking advertisement for Miami’s equestrian team, but this team, its members and our coaches have truly changed my life and my riding. Riding with the Miami Equestrian team program and being a part of this group of riders has been the biggest confidence boost when it comes to my riding. I think having the chance to ride so many new horses is a big part of that; the uncertainty of riding an unfamiliar horse and trusting my instincts boosted my confidence immensely and has made me more of an adaptable rider.
Being a part of the team has also helped me stretch my confidence in other ways. As a freshman, I was able to run for a position on the team’s executive board. I didn’t get it, but it was a great experience for the future and was an opportunity for me to test my leadership skills. Riding is generally such an individualized sport, but at Miami I feel like I’m part of a huge family of horse girls and boys.
I feel so lucky to be able to participate in this sport as a college student. I’m incredibly thankful for my amazing and loving parents who always let me pursue my horsey dreams. I’m also grateful for my trainer, Katie Colfer (Katherine Reece) for not only giving me a foundation in horsemanship and riding, but for helping guide and shape me into the young women I am today and for always providing a safe space for me at the barn. Finally, a huge thank you to Heather Pinnick and the coaches at Miami University. Not only have you and the team made Miami feel like home, but you’ve given me the gift of my confidence in the saddle again!
About the author: Julie Mercer is a 19-year-old freshman at Miami University in Oxford, OH where she is studying political science. She is an amateur hunter/jumper rider from Petoskey, MI. She owns Friday, a 7-year-old Oldenburg gelding, who currently lives at home in Michigan. Julie has been riding since the age of 4 and has always had a passion for the sport. You can follow Julie on Instagram at @equestrian.prep. She is also an accomplished equestrian video blogger with nearly 60,000 followers. You can follow her on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/c/EquestrianPrep