There is for each equestrian athlete, as there is, indeed, for each one of us, a story which recounts how they found their way to not only a certain level of performance, but also to a particular time and circumstance in their career and life. It is a story that goes beyond the description of their performance in term of placements, metres, seconds and faults. It is a story that touches upon who they are as individuals.
Presently, one story that is of particular interest is that of Ms. Nicole Walker, an athlete well known on the Canadian equestrian scene. Ms. Walker has been chosen to represent Canada on its equestrian team at the Pan American Games, soon to be held in Lima, Peru (26 July to 11 August 2019). We recently had the pleasure of speaking with Ms. Nicole Walker and thought it would be interesting and, indeed, important, to learn a little about her road to Lima: the early morning risings, the hot summer afternoon practices, the ups and downs in an equestrian career.
Upon meeting her, the immediate impression you receive is that of a grounded athlete, unafraid of hard work, who brings a great deal of integrity to her sport and the care of her horses. She is a sympathetic rider, who strives to ‘listen’ to her horse and to keep them happy and healthy. Here is how she described her relationship with her horses:
I think it is important that [the horses] see beyond just the competition ring because that keeps them healthy and thus more willing to do their jobs instead of getting sour... So right now, as we talk I am actually grazing Excellent B. I think it is important to get them out of their stalls as much as possible, but also to take it easy on them and let them be horses too. ... We treat them like they are pets, and if you put the work into them they will respect you back and hopefully they will try a little harder for you in the ring. So, we treat them as a partner and not just as a competition animal. That’s the best part of this sport, the bond with the horses.
So, it’s always been baby steps towards the bigger goal and just lots of hard work behind them to get to our goals...
This care and attention to detail regarding the stewardship of her horses is also reflected in Ms. Walker’s approach to making progress in her sport. She speaks, for example, of the importance of identifying the greater goals towards which to work, and then of setting intermediate goals to work towards in order to achieve the larger ones. She speaks of these intermediate goals, significantly, in terms of “baby steps.” Baby steps represent small, manageable, yet concrete and progressive, goals that are achieved through hard work, and which lead from one larger accomplishment to another. Ms. Walker speaks, for example, of simply “trying to conquer some of my classes” and thereby working towards some larger goal. Asked about setting goals and of her outlook on the Olympics, Ms. Walker reflected upon some of her early days in training and her use of baby steps to achieve her performance milestones:
I remember as a junior rider I always dreamt of jumping 1.40m. First you achieve 1.35m and then you get to 1.40m and then you get comfortable at 1.40m, and then the dream gets bigger from there ... so it’s always been baby steps to get towards the bigger goal for me. This year my big goal was to compete on the Wellington Nations’ Cup team and luckily, we did that with success so then I thought ‘Okay, maybe the Pan Am games are in my future.’ And I knew there were a couple of Nations’ Cups leading up to that, so we chose Mexico and we did well there and then Vancouver. So, it’s always been baby steps towards the bigger goal and just lots of hard work behind them to get to our goals... It is a question of creating a plan towards a bigger goal, but [also]creating markers along the way to make it a reality... We are on the Pan Am team now, that was also beyond my wildest dreams, but we got there, and hopefully that goes well, and then after that our goal would be, for sure, the Olympics.
Thus, Ms. Walker’s approach is to set realistic goals for the short term to enable her to achieve larger goals, while at the same time remaining unafraid to look beyond them. It would seem the perfect combination of eyes-on-the-ground pragmaticism, on the one hand, while maintaining the ability to look up to the horizon and dream both for herself personally and for her horse-rider team, on the other:
I judge the situation based upon the horse. I know what’s realistic for them, for myself and for us as a team ... and then for each horse I have different goals for them. So, for example, with Excellent B we are going to try to do well in the Three Star in Ottawa [in July, 2019]. That practice will help me prepare for the Pan Am games, making sure that I’m staying on top of my fitness. It will help keep my eye in tune so that I’m mentally ready for the Pan Am games as well. So, personally, I make a goal, but also each smaller choice is going to help me achieve it.
Of course, the road to Lima, Peru began long before her recent performances at the Wellington Cup and the Three Star event currently taking place in Ottawa. Like many Canadian girls, Ms. Walker had an early attraction to the Royal Winter Fair held each November in Toronto. It played a significant part of her childhood dreams then and her childhood memories now:
I love the Royal Winter Fair.... My earliest memory was with my pony called Rocky, but his trade name was Gold Mine ... I remember as a kid I was so nervous to show there. Because every little kid wants to go to the Royal. I finally got there after a couple of years of competing. I was quite nervous ... Rocky was very good and I think we won a class. I would be less nervous to show there now, as a kid I think I put more pressure on myself.
And still, as an adult, the Royal remains important to her:
For me it is a big home show. I get a lot of support there, a lot of my friends come out for that. It lines up with my birthday, so this year I won the Canadian Championship ... for my 25thbirthday. ... We try to make sure we are well rested before that, to be focused on that competition, one that we try to go to each year. I think the show as a whole is awesome because it has an historical culture to it, as, for example, the way people dress up at night. It is a unique show that has a history behind it. So, it makes it very special.... It is also different riding indoors, as things come up a lot quicker and you need to tune your eye into that... so that is another experience I gained from going to the Royal. And then most people who have been to the Royal will know that you can only ride your horse in the ring at certain times. So sometimes you are up at 4 am riding to get ready for the day. Most people complain about getting up early, but I actually love it. That’s one of my favourite parts of the Royal. You are with your horse in the morning and you have the bigger goal later on, its time you get to go with them before the heat of the competition is on. So that builds the excitement for me ...
We asked Ms. Walker in view of her fondness of the Royal, what she would say to young people who want to go there. She responded this way:
Every year when I was a kid I remember I always had the goal of going to the Royal, so if you want to go to the Royal or to a different show, it’s important to always have that goal in your mind. And [with] riding, not every day is going to be a good day. So horses, just like athletes, don’t always have their ‘Best Game Faces’ on ... So just persevere towards that bigger goal and hard work will always get you there. So, ... work hard and stay focused.
We also asked Ms. Walker regarding the life lessons that horses have taught her over the years. She answered in this way:
There is hard work and responsibility. They are live animals and so you can’t say ‘Oh, I feel like sleeping in today.’ You have a responsibility to take care of them. And with that responsibility I think they respect you. You put the work into them and hopefully you have that bond and hopefully they will try harder for you. That is the biggest lesson that I’ve learned.
A lot of the downs are going to make you a better rider in the end. So never give up and persevere, you have to get gritty a bit.
We asked her, too, about what the sport itself has taught her. She replied:
Definitely that there are highs and lows and you have to persevere. It is not for the faint hearted. A lot of the downs are going to make you a better rider in the end. So never give up and persevere, you have to get gritty a bit.
When we then asked about any advice she would have to get out of the “downs” she was quick to answer. Her words “for sure” here need to be read as conveying an emphasis on a sincere interest in helping others. You can hear that interest in her response:
For sure, I remember one time that was particularly challenging to me was my first summer when I had the chance to compete in Europe because I was just in over my head. It is a different ball game over there and when you are not with your usual, familiar surroundings you are a bit intimidated. So, I guess I lost some confidence at the beginning and had a bad couple of shows. When I have a bad show, I always think I have to go back to the basics. Go home. Train harder. Maybe even drop down a level. It is going to get your confidence back and then hopefully you grow as a rider beyond that. Mentally, it can be quite challenging of a sport.
The answer speaks of a down-to-earth and honest realism with which Ms. Walker approaches the sport, and it would seem, life itself. She recognizes here that there are, inevitably, for each of us, difficulties that we are going to encounter along the road to our dreams. There are setbacks and disappointments. There are, in fact, times when we fail. Yet, what is crucial is to recognize these for what they are and to accept them as directives to get back to the basics of what we do and what we believe in. Sometimes being willing to take a step backward is the key to being able to move forward. Ms. Walker has provided good advice to deal with the ‘downs,’ equestrian or otherwise, that inevitably come our way.
It is easy to admire the kind of determination, goal orientation, work ethic and humility that Ms. Walker brings to the competition ring and, once more, life itself. Ms. Walker is the kind of athlete, the kind of person, you can’t help rooting for. Please join us in cheering for her in her competitions at the Pan Am Games and in the horizons beyond them.
WHO IS DOUGLAS ALLEN?
Douglas Allen is a PhD Candidate in History at the University of Toronto. His historical studies are of late medieval and Renaissance Europe. He is interested in using the lens of identity to explore and understand history, human motivation and action. Douglas is also a writer who is currently writing a novel set in the City of Winnipeg in the 1980’s, which explores the nature of indigenous and non-indigenous relations.