I Found My Way Back to Riding and Realized It’s Not About the Ribbons Anymore

I Found My Way Back to Riding and Realized It’s Not About the Ribbons Anymore

When I was 10 years old, I used my PowerPoint skills learned in my elementary school computer class to create a presentation for my parents on why they should buy me a horse. If I recall correctly, the ideas to raise the necessary funds to buy my dream horse included a lemonade stand and charging people to use the trampoline in our backyard (don’t worry, it had a net).

My little brain never comprehended how much my horseback riding addiction took a toll on my parents financially. “But mom, all of my friends have multiple ponies and compete every weekend, why can’t I?” I would scream as I marched to my room, slammed the door, and played with my Breyer horses in solitude.

Fast forward 15 years and I found myself in an incredible amount of credit card debt and out of the saddle. Yes, it was scary, and no, I’m not afraid to talk about it — I don’t think we talk about it enough! As rowing began to consume my life, horses took a back seat to my dreams of competing at the Olympic Games. But as I passed local barns on my way to practice every day at the Olympic Training Center in Princeton, New Jersey, I felt a constant itch to get back to my riding roots.

Boomer and I compete at the Fairfield County Hunt Club. Photo by Mary Youngling.

Ultimately, I didn’t make the team to compete at the Olympic Games, but I had tried. It was time to step away from the sport. Most elite athletes view retirement as a huge weight off their shoulders. Spending years honing in on such a selfish goal is all-consuming. You say no to family events, turn down wedding invitations, and sacrifice your well-being attempting to achieve this crazy, insane, aggressive goal of becoming an Olympian — a feat that approximately 1 in 500,000 people will ever attain.

But back to me. If I had to describe my retirement in one word this past fall, it wouldn’t be relieved — it would be “lost.” I was completely and utterly lost, with no direction. I moved back home (thanks, Mom!) and graciously accepted a full-time role at Noëlle Floyd. But something was missing. I spiraled into this weird funk of depression and anxiety that no one could help me get out of except myself. It was as if I was a shell of myself, simply going through the motions of life. I was desperate for structure — can someone just tell me what to do?

I was completely and utterly lost, with no direction.

I’m not afraid to admit that I see a therapist. At first I balked at the idea of paying a stranger to talk to them about my thoughts and feelings to make myself feel better, but I was willing to do everything and anything to feel normal again. What I soon realized as each day passed by was I needed new goals — some extravagant endeavor that would push me out of my comfort zone. As an elite rower, you are constantly looking towards the next erg test, regatta, and practice. How can I edge out the girl next to me? Can I fit in more cardio between practice? Am I getting enough sleep? Your life is structured with little room for error moving towards the guiding light of Olympic glory. So what goal does a 26-year-old retired athlete make? I decided to get back in the saddle. But how?

A few months back, I interviewed Adrienne Sternlicht at the Longines Masters of New York. She said, “The biggest thing for me now is pushing myself to not be in my comfort zone.” At that moment, standing in the basement level of the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum talking to one of my all-time favorite riders in the flesh, a lightbulb went off in my head — every human, no matter if they’re an elite athlete or not, struggles to move forward through the ebbs and flows of life. Instead of getting bogged down with disappointment and staying stagnant, it’s important to leave that warm bubble of comfort to truly find your path. Don’t get me wrong, I still am finding my way through this weird world, but as I drove home in the pouring rain following my chat with Adrienne, I was feeling jazzed and determined to live by her words of wisdom. If she can do it, then I can do it, too.

No place I'd rather be! Photo by Lizzy Youngling.

Yet there was one not-so-small factor that held me back from jumping two feet back into horseback riding — money. It wouldn’t have been financially savvy of me to justify spending over $90 on a 30-minute riding lesson, right? When I brought up my inner struggle with Noëlle Floyd’s Managing Editor, Leslie Threlkeld, said, “What about foxhunting? One of the local clubs may have people who need help legging up their hunters over the summer.” In the back of my sheltered little mind, I thought, is there any other discipline I want to do other than hunters/jumpers? But I was desperate for saddle time. I pushed the thought aside and mustered the guts to email the Golden’s Bridge Hounds. To my delight, I immediately received a response.

It is possible to keep horses in your life.

A few days later I found myself driving up to North Salem, New York, leaving all expectations of my hunter/jumper days behind. Equipped with a new pair of breeches (bought on sale, of course) and my helmet, I stood in the doorway of the Vogliano family’s home as they warmly ushered me in, ignoring the fact that I was a perfect stranger just looking for a chance to ride. Their four horses lived happily in their backyard with acres to roam and explore — a paradise oasis for both horse and rider.

Summer Vogliano and I are ready to embark on a Hunter Pace. Photo by Lesa Vogliano.

People always tell me that horseback riding is like riding a bike, it never leaves you. To my disbelief, they were right. I swung my leg over my mount for the day, TJ, and to my surprise felt as comfortable as ever sitting on a horse’s back. It was as if those four years of being out of the tack never happened. (Okay, I’d be lying if my legs weren’t painfully sore for the next few days, but nothing a little Aleve couldn’t help.) Within two weeks, I was comfortable enough to compete in my first official hunter pace where my team placed fifth! But it wasn’t about the pink ribbon or the competition. For the first time in my life I wasn’t worried about my placing, but instead doing what I love best: riding.

I am officially a horseback rider again — an identity that I thought left my body long ago, yet always yearned to bring back. Although I only ride once a week now, I look forward to the weekend where I swing my leg over the saddle and begin the trek through bridle paths and wooded forests, dodging branches, and crossing streams until we merge into an open clearing of fields to let go and gallop. As for the change in discipline? It’s a freeing feeling knowing I’m not being judged, not comparing myself to my fellow competitors, and not vying for a $2 blue ribbon that eluded me for so many years. It’s just me and the horse, having the time of our lives.

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Feature photo of Lizzy holding her first ribbon by Mary Youngling.