Learning to Let Go Has Changed the Way I Deal With Disappointment — And My Career

by Tamie Smith /

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n June 17th, I received word that I made the Pan American Games and the Aachen Nations Cup eventing teams for the United States of America. Being named to those teams is a dream come true, and I was beyond ecstatic. I was almost speechless, a state so rare for me my friends might not believe it. You see, I, and most of my contemporaries, have much more experience dealing with disappointments: like having my five-star horse, Wembley, trot up lame — out of the blue — at the Badminton Horse Trials in England, barely a month before June’s team announcements.

Speaking at the Area VI awards banquet in early 2017, I described eventing as “huge defeat on a regular basis.” That got a good laugh, but I wasn’t joking. Fresh in my mind was my devastation over an injury to Mai Baum, a horse I’d hoped to compete at the 2016 Olympic Games until he suffered a tendon strain. I admitted that I might have competed him too much in thrall to that dream. “You’re a winner,” I told the crowd, “if you come away from every mistake smarter and able to do better by your horse.” I fully believed that at the time, but I don’t I think was fully walking that talk. A big part of becoming smarter and doing better by my horse has come from learning to brace for and cope with the sport’s inevitable disappointments.

I’ve been pursuing an international riding career for 10 years now, but I didn’t really reach this stage until the beginning of 2018. Before that, I would stress out about who was chosen for a team instead of me and why and what happened. But that takes you away from what you need to focus on: the partnership, the overall performance, the day-to-day process. At the beginning of last year, I got to this place where I knew I’d worked extremely hard, I had a string of horses I’d always dreamt of, and I kind of just went through the motions to not put so much weight on the outcome.

I think back to where I was mentally 10 years ago, and it’s been like growing up learning the coping mechanisms and accepting that I’ve done the very best that I can in every way. I have great supporters and sponsors, I’m a good person, I give back to the sport, and eventually things will work out.

The Phases of Growth

Growing up as a rider came in stages. I think of it like a baby in utero, and then as an infant — you start out with these very high expectations, and it’s almost like you don’t know what you don’t know. When adversity hits, it’s hard. It’s similar to getting socked in the gut and having the wind knocked out of you. But you eventually learn to brace for those moments.

Then there’s the phase of wanting your goals too badly — trying too hard. I think I was guilty of that in the run up to the 2016 Olympics with Mai Baum. After recovering from the initial tendon strain, he had a guttural pouch infection, then fell in the trailer. Mai Baum is fine now — he’s my Pan Am horse. Initially he was my reserve horse, but then Fleeceworks Royal sustained a minor injury, taking her out of contention for the team. See what I mean about disappointments?

In our sport we are dealing with a living being that can’t talk to us. It would have been really nice if Wembley could have said, “Hey, I feel something in my left front foot,” that day of the trot-up at Badminton, the five-star event his owners, Gretchen and Kevin Baumgardner, and I had dreamed of competing in for a long time. We could have pulled his shoe, found the minor abscess, fixed it up, and he probably could have trotted up sound. Instead, he went lame in front of everyone.

We’d had a great dressage school an hour before the jog. He felt 110% and ready to conquer the biggest track in the world. Normally Wembley is quite rambunctious and very high-headed going to the jog strip. This time he was kind of calm, and that was my first inkling. We picked up the trot and I could hear him not trotting evenly. I tried to look back at him without actually looking back at him, because you just don’t do that in a jog. When we turned around at the end of the jog strip, I just wanted to walk back. And then I heard, “Wembley to the hold!” Some were urging me to try trotting him faster or slower so that he might pass reinspection, but I just said, “No, we are withdrawing. Something’s not right.”

I literally felt like we were in a slow-motion car accident. Kevin and Gretchen were dumbfounded. I saw David O’Connor in the crowd with a stunned look and I broke into tears. An Olympic gold medalist, David was the USET Chef d’Equipe from 2013 to early 2017, and he helped me in many ways, as a rider and in getting great owners. We have a connected relationship. “I’m so sorry. I can’t believe this,” he said.

Here's how to stay in touch with your "why".

That all happened Thursday. By Friday night, we’d identified and treated the minor problem and Wembley was trotting sound. I’m so lucky that Kevin and Gretchen have the same mentality as me. We were angry and cranky, but mostly so bummed. The Badminton cross-country course looked so beautiful and Wembley had been training so well. But amidst all the disappointment, they immediately asked, “What’s next?” The answer was the Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials in September. And, to prepare for that, the Bramham International Horse Trials, where we had a good run in the CCI4*-S. In the interim, we were named to the Aachen team, as hoped. So, we are actually getting three times the experience than if we had only done Badminton. It’s good for Wembley, and it’s good for my career.

The terrible thing got thrown in the trash and we figured out what’s next. I’m happy to have reached the stage in my career where I can do that. It’s the stage where I accept that things are not 100% in my control. You can only prepare yourself and your horses the best you can and practice good management and horsemanship, but ultimately things will fall where they fall.

A Long-Brewing Epiphany

My husband, Dave, has always been great about helping me keep perspective in the right way. He just recently retired from a long career as a police detective, and the life and death nature of what he did all that time helps anchor me in the real world. He’s always said, “You are a great rider, you have great horses. It will come.” For some time, I’d think, “Oh, you have no idea what’s involved.” But I finally agree with him; it was like an epiphany when it finally sank in. I just have to keep doing right by everything that is in my control — selecting good horses, putting in good training, practicing good morals.

Appreciation for what I have has also helped me achieve this mindset. I never imagined going to Badminton, especially on Wembley, who came to our barn as Kevin’s horse. A lawyer, amateur rider, and former president of the U.S. Eventing Association, Kevin campaigned Wembley up to the CCI4*-S level. He handed the reins to me in early 2017 due to work constraints. He wanted the horse to have every chance of fulfilling his world-class potential. The nature and depth of their support, and that of all my owners, is amazing.

"I’m happy to have reached the ... where I accept that things are not 100% in my control."

I remember taking my first overseas trip eight or nine years ago. It was my first time out of the country with an owner, and we went to the Trakehner stallion keuring (inspection) in Germany. I met Darren Chiacchia there. He had just done a World Championships and was flying home to give a clinic. I was so star-struck! I could never imagine my own life being that way, and I thought how lucky he was to have all the things I’d dreamed of at his fingertips. I think because I never could imagine having all that I do now, I appreciate it even more.

This summer, I’m experiencing exactly the kind of crazy-busy life I saw Darren living then. Since Badminton, Wembley has been staying at Rodney Powell’s yard in England, and I’m flying back and forth to work with him before the Aachen Nations Cup in July. With a ton of help from my business partner and lifelong best friend, Heather Morris, and our amazing team at home, I’m keeping the rest of my string in top form at our base in Southern California. That is until Mai Baum and I settle in on the East Coast to prepare for the Pan Am Games that take place in Lima, Peru, the first week of August.

In mid-June, I also squeezed in a trip to Luhmühlen Horse Trials in Germany to help my friend, the amazing amateur rider/business owner/super mom Frankie Thieriot-Stutes, compete in her first five-star event (she finished fourth!). It wasn’t exactly a convenient time to spend even more time away from my training program, but I had to be there. In my book, being there for friends is part of a successful life in this sport.

Being a Parent and Role Model

Being a parent, and especially a sports parent, has helped me become a better and more self-aware competitor myself. Some people say they lose their nerve in eventing after becoming a parent, but that never happened to me. I’ve gotten more brave with more experience. I’ve always wanted to be a good role model for my kids to be hard working, competitive, and to go after their dreams.

It’s kind of fun because Dave is very laid back, goes with the flow. He didn’t play sports competitively. We go to our 14-year-old son Tyler’s basketball games and, yes, I am that parent screaming in the stands. Dave tells me to stop but Tyler loves it. My daughter Kaylawna (Cook) is 7,000 times the rider I’ve ever been. She’s a natural, beautiful rider with great feel. At 23, she’s gaining experience and learning how to deal with the mental side of the sport.

It's never too late to return to horses.

What I do has really helped me help them learn how to cope with being competitive. We talk about the mental aspects, about learning to be mentally tough, and handling high pressure situations. I feel like I have a parenting edge because I do that myself. It’s a special bond to have with your kids.

Perspective also comes from realizing that the more I think I’m getting it, the more I realize what I don’t know and knowing it’s going to be like that your entire career. You always need an open mind towards learning. The sport is hard and we have to be an expert in three phases. You can’t have a big checkbook and be an OK rider and go to the top — it’s more about the journey of getting there and sustaining that success.

When I named by business Next Level Eventing several years ago, it was all about the desire for me and my students to move on to the next level of competition. Now I think that “next level” is more about development as a rider, horseman, and person. Part of that, good or bad, is always looking ahead and asking, “What’s next?”

Read this next: Phillip Dutton Doesn't Need to Be Convinced That OTTBs Make Badass Eventers

Photography by Shannon Brinkman.
Thanks to Haygain USA for assisting with this article. 

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