I’ve been a horse lover since I can remember. When I was young, I would walk four miles round trip to "pet" the horses that lived down the road from my father's house. Eventually, my father took me to a stable to ride, and I can still remember the feeling of cantering “Blackie” boldly down a narrow dirt path, the wind in my hair, not a care in the world.
By the age of fourteen, my mother had finally given in to my horse craziness, and I bought my first horse Shotzy, an old gelding with Navicular disease (of course I didn't know that when I bought him because when you only pay $250 for a horse you obviously don't get them vetted!). I couldn’t afford a saddle, so I rode bareback for a year before I scrounged up the $95 to buy an english saddle that was as old as the hills. In those days, it was just Shotzy and I on the trails, having fun. No lessons, no shows, no agenda. Just pure joy.
Eventually, I started working at a local Thoroughbred racetrack as a groom. My secret hope was to eventually get to gallop, but I also knew that there was much more to galloping a racehorse than what I had done. So, I kept on with the barn chores for a while, enjoying the job for what it was. Then one day, I got my lucky break. A friend who was married to a trainer from Sagamore Farm, a training facility for young Thoroughbreds, called and offered me a position exercising horses. I was surprised because I had never ridden a Thoroughbred before, at least not one in training, but she explained that her husband had seen me on a horse and was willing to train me. The pay was not enough to pay my bills, but I was eager to accept anyway, so I moved into the girls living quarters at the track with four other roomates. I worked under trainer Buddy Troyer and Hall of Fame trainer Henry Clark. I learned to break the young horses and gallop the older ones.
I was living my dream.
About four months into the job, I remember a particularly rainy day. Things were soggy, so we were using the inside 1/4 mile track. Mr. Clark put me on an older horse, one that had raced many times, and I had not yet learned the golden rule of racehorses: Do not pull back to try and get them to stop.
That day, I learned. The horse ran off with me four times around (1 mile) in this narrow track, at a wide open gallop, and to this day it was the scariest thing that has ever happened to me on a horse in my lifetime. For weeks after that, I feared getting on the older horses (the young horses hadn’t run before, so they were less likely to run off).
My First Experience With Fear in the Saddle
I was young and resilient and brushed it off. I didn’t have a mental skills practice back then, I just kept riding and putting as much time and practice in as I could. I was offered jobs at tracks all around the country. I became the most experienced rider in the barn, so I was put on the most challenging horses. This did make my job more difficult and as I got older I began to think more about my wellbeing than I ever had before.
These horses are kept in a stall 23 hours a day, then exercised or raced, and are back in the stall. As athletes, they are fed high protein feed and supplements. Most of them are under four as their career begins as 2-year-olds. While we all know that riding horses isn’t the safest activity in the world, these factors compounded the risk that I was subjecting myself to on a daily basis - and with each passing year, I felt it more.
This feeling really came to a head when I had my daughter at age thirty. When she was 6-months-old, I was coming off the gap at Pimlico Racetrack. The horse I was on was wearing blinkers, and of course my stirrups were very short. She was quite a tough horse to gallop, but usually very well behaved. She saw something that scared her and I was too relaxed, and before I knew it I was in the air grabbing for something, anything. I was totally airborne, and had a sinking realization in that moment that I was about to hit frozen ground. As I laid on the cold track, with a broken collar bone and bruises head to toe, I knew it was time for a new profession.
I moved to Ocala, Fla., and went into the medical field. Years passed and I’ve always had a horse at my small farm here, since my daughter has the horse obsession as well. I felt lifetimes away from those adrenaline-filled days at the track, and there was a lot to be said for having a job that didn’t threaten bodily harm!
Six years ago, when I was 56, my daughter told me I should start taking jumping lessons. I had always wanted to learn, but didn’t even know the difference between “hunter” and “jumper,” I just knew I was too old to try and beat the clock on a horse. So, I agreed to take lessons with a hunter trainer - I met Isaac Leffkowitz and that was the day my life changed.
When One Door Closes...
What started as the occasional lesson with Isaac turned into purchasing a school horse. I had a blast. I was learning flatwork and jumping crossrails and just having fun. I felt reconnected to my old life but in a new, more fulfilling way. My amazing mare had an injury and we were out for 8 months, then 6 months after starting work again, I lost her to an infection. I suffered from severe depression due to losing her and that was a very difficult time in my life. I felt like the rug had been ripped out from under me, and I missed her.
As I was searching for another horse, Isaac wanted me to try a horse that had soured as a top dressage horse. He’d bred her and he couldn't find a person that meshed with her. I rode her and at first felt her hesitation, but we began to get to know each other. We have worked hard as a team, and learned each other's needs and expectations with Isaac’s guidance, and I could not be happier. She went from a horse that people feared to one that I would comfortably put my 9-year-old granddaughter on for a pony ride.
I know that being “in my head” is holding me back and I’m really struggling with confidence. It's funny now because people say, “You galloped racehorses, but you’re afraid to get in the show ring?"
Anxiety Creeps In
At this point, I have competed three times in the hunters. The first show was in Tampa and I rode in the long stirrup class which had been combined with the childrens, so I competed against 10-year-olds and their ponies. It was the ultimate embarrassment, but I had to start somewhere. The fear and anxiety was overwhelming. I did it, but can barely remember anything that happened in the ring. In my most recent show, I was again so overwhelmed with anxiety, but it was easier and I did fairly well.
I know that being “in my head” is holding me back and I’m really struggling with confidence. It's funny now because people say, “You galloped racehorses, but you’re afraid to get in the show ring?" My fear is not of my horse. It's not even of getting hurt. It's thoughts like, "I'm going to forget the course" or "I'm going to miss my distance.”
How I’m Working on Improving
With my trainer Isaac, we’ve identified that my tendency is to freeze in the show ring. When I was showing at HITS in March, I was very anxious about forgetting my course. It was cold and windy so, lucky for me, there were no spectators except my barn mates. I reviewed the course with Isaac one last time, walked into the ring knowing my first jump, and suddenly blanked on how to get to that jump. Which way do I go? Which lead do I need to be on? Luckily, Isaac was there to direct me and it ended up being my best round.
I now know what happened to me when I froze, thanks to Dr. Jenny Susser’s Masterclass. The blood had rushed out of my frontal lobe causing my "fight or flight" instinct to kick on - as she says, I had "literally lost my mind." I knew I had to figure out how to deal with this anxiety.
Dr. Susser’s Masterclass made me understand what physiologically happens, which helps immensely. She also helped me understand that I struggle with anxiety, not fear (and they are different). Since taking her class, I have been doing the box breathing and am learning the correct way to meditate.
I would recommend the Masterclasses to any other riders who deal with this type of mental block. Specifically, I’ve enjoyed Dr. Jenny Susser’s and Annette Paterakis’s courses. It has helped me take back control of my body and mind. The more you know, the easier it is to deal with. I also feel that showing more often will help me gain experience - and with experience comes confidence.
Good luck to all my fellow riders out there - we CAN master our minds!
Inset photo by Victoria DeMore Photography.
Written by Sally Roumelis-Nichols
Sally left the racetrack in 1990 and moved to Ocala, Florida to work with young Thoroughbreds before attending Webster College and becoming a Registered Medical Assistant. In 2009, she opened Opiate Recovery Center and Associates (ORCA) and serves as a Substance Abuse Counselor. Sally is happily married to a professional barefoot skier, has a daughter, Melissa (who is also a rider), and five grandchildren.