I thought I was prepared for the 1998 World Championship Endurance Race. My horse RAA Crusader (R.C.) and I had earned team selection with solid performances in the US (including the 1997 Pan American race at Bend, Oregon). R.C. had adapted well to the humid heat of Dubai, the Championship site. But in race day's early darkness I looked at the top riders heading for the start and thought. I don't belong here. The sand is too deep. I didn't think about this right.
Instead of starting near the front and riding the first loop aggressively as I'd planned, I circled to the rear and held R.C. back for the 26 miles to the first vet check. By then we were so far off the pace that there was little chance of catching up. When R.C. was pulled at the final check (with a heel bruise), I felt crushed at not finishing.
I needed weeks of reflection, conversations with fellow endurance rider and two-time Tevis Cup winner Lori Stewart, and the insights of a book she recommended Mental Toughness Training For Sports by James E. Loehr, Ed.D., to figure out what went wrong in Dubai.
First, although I had a plan for my ride, it didn't include a strategy for handling the competitive pressure that's always part of an international event. Second, I didn't have a mental technique for getting refocused on my plan if something went wrong. Third, when gloomy predictions about the footing made me question my plan. I didn't seek knowledgeable help to make a new plan or to determine if I needed one.
I'd used sport psychology during my eventing career, planning my cross-country and stadium courses with jump-by-jump visualization. But I didn't continue those techniques when I switched to endurance, because it didn't feel as intimidating. I concentrated instead on conditioning and knowing my horses, planning how to start and pace each race to suit their particular strengths.
This approach worked at regional competitions, among familiar faces. But for international riding I needed stronger ways to cope with the reality of pre-race pressure and self-doubt in the face of imposing competitors from al1 over. I realized I could also do visualization (or mental pre-riding) for endurance. For instance, I had missed an opportunity to strengthen my Dubai plan by fixing the course in my mind's eye during a drive around the trail two days before the race.
I'd let myself get distracted by the difference between what we'd been told was there (85 percent hard-packed roads, 25 percent sand) and what I was seeing (80 percent sand. 20 percent hard-pack). As well as a better plan. I needed mental strategies for recognizing I was getting pulled away from my plan, and for helping me stick with it. I came up with a few simple techniques -- some that had worked well for me in eventing and some from my latest reading:
- Breathe deeply at stressful moments - a basic that had helped me focus before my dressage tests. This year. I started practicing it if I got anxious and impatient in heavy traffic (which feels not unlike the hectic start of a big race!). Breathe: Where are you going? What's the time frame? You're all right -- and if you need to make an adjustment. Here's what you can do....
- "Be a rock." Repeating this phrase to the rhythm of my horse's canter had helped me stay sitting quietly in the middle of him, instead of jumping ahead in stadium. For endurance, I make the phrase a mental image - almost a mantra -- of steadiness when I feel pressured to abandon or change my plan.
- Recall when staying with the plan has worked. To counter last-minute doubts, I'll remind myself of competitions like the 1997 Pan Am, when my stirrup broke, I made a minor adjustment in strategy but stayed with my overall plan and finished fourth.
- Tune out negative input. I find business meetings a great place to practice mentally putting negative people (or thoughts) "over there," out of the way.Editor's note: At the time this "Defining Moment" was first published, Ona was preparing for the 100 mile FEI Endurance Racing World Championship in France and the famous Tevis Cup in California. However, she didn't get a chance to try out her plan at those major international races due to soundness issues.
Ona's commitment to her two great endurance horses meant always knowing when they had gone far enough. After reducing their race schedules for the past two years, she retired both R.C. and Max this year and started the quest for new competitive partners. When we caught up to her for an update she said:"I was forced to go on a one-year buying spree to try to find a horse to fill the good boys shoes. The lesson here is: always have young horses coming up! I was having so much fun with my trained and experienced boys that I put off thinking about youngsters. Everyone warned me that this was a mistake and they were right.
"This season I rode youngsters everyday. We took them to the mountains, desert and beaches just so they could see the world and hopefully two of them will be competing next year. It takes time and lots of long slow miles to make a great endurance horse and the jury is out on these guys. Being patient and NOT RACING is a tough thing to do. The horses feel great and want to go but in my heart I know their bones and tendons are just not ready.
"A very good friend and breeder of wonderful Arabians gave me Mubaraak, a recently gelded 9 year old with really fabulous endurance bloodlines. I have only had him a couple of months but hope to have a great year with him in 2002. He is learning about hills and puddles now.
"With four new horses in training I realize (painfully) I will never "replace" my boys. Horses are so very unique. It is an interesting learning experience for me. Hopefully I will remain mentally tough when we are ready to fly down the trail again!"
International endurance rider Ona Lawrence lives in Estacada, Oregon, with her husband, Dale (a fellow endurance rider), and several horses in training.
This article originally appeared in Practical Horseman magazine.