My biggest loss of the year

Willinga Park Theodore

You may have heard a couple of months ago that we lost Theodore, a wonderful horse Terry Snow and I purchased in Europe last year for me to train and campaign, and a horse with which I dared to dream of fantastic things. It’s taken me this time to get to a point at which I can reflect on this loss, and I wanted to share with you my thoughts about setbacks, sadness and what I’ve learned about finding the way forward in times of hardship.

Following the World Equestrian Games in Tryon last year, Terry (Willinga Park) and I found a big brown gelding named Theodore. He was a beautiful, soft horse with a very loving character. He really suited me both in temperament and body type. I felt that with his quality, in the context of the current dressage state of play, he was capable of achieving a top 30 result at the next Olympic Games. His strengths were my weaknesses, and vice versa, and we had a good amount of time to put together everything in time for Tokyo.

What happened to Theodore was out of anyone’s control. He had a disease, nobody knew about it, and his symptoms weren’t obvious at all. He passed away in Sydney after less than a year with us at Willinga Park.

When you experience something like this, and many of you have, you’re dealing with the sadness of losing the horse, and the grieving of a dream not realised.

The sadness of losing Theodore was first and foremost for myself and Terry. It was above my goals, above the Olympic Games, it was, and is, a profound and devastating loss. It was horrible to no longer have Theodore around, and to walk past his empty stable. I still have his halter in my truck from the vet, I can’t bring myself to take it out just yet.

Sometimes I wonder if people think ‘oh well, I’m sure he has other horses’, but it’s not like that at all. Our horses mean the world to us (like yours do to you, I’m sure).

I felt very sorry for Terry, who is on this crazy journey with us and felt this loss very deeply. I would have loved to give him his dream of owning a horse at the Olympic Games, and I truly felt we could have achieved that.

Then, after the weight of the sadness, is the realisation that my team and I have suffered a huge setback. The Olympic Games have alluded me over the years for one reason or another, and this isn’t the first time we’ve lost a horse very dear to us.

I was bitterly disappointed to lose another opportunity, and felt like I could easily slip into the mindset of ‘why me?’, ‘why again?’, and ‘maybe this dream is not for me’.

I couldn’t let that happen and had to find some way to switch my mindset and focus on the way forward. I was convinced that something positive had to come of this.

I’ve done a lot of soul searching in the past weeks, talking and listening and thinking. What I’ve learned is that I needed to realign what’s important in my life. The Olympic Games is a goal and I’m training for that every day, but the Games come and go, and much of the process is out of my control, so I won’t let that discourage me. I’ll keep training to be better, to improve myself as an athlete and a horseman, to also to grow as a husband and father. All these things are important to me.

In realigning with the things that are important to me, I’ve reconnected with my passion for helping others achieve their goals. I love supporting people, I love watching people on their journeys, and seeing lightbulbs go off in riders’ minds. I’m trying to make sure that every lesson I give, I ask more questions and really dig in to the issues, and that each rider goes away with something they hold dear to them, and I think I’ve become a better coach for it.

Having a positive impact on other people is one thing I can control, we all can. Our sport is full of setbacks and challenges, we all have them and we’ll continue to face them. For me, I’ve found solace in focusing on lifting and supporting others both in the Parbery Program and in my coaching. Mindset is a huge part of what we do but isn’t discussed anywhere near enough, and that’s something we’re focusing on in the Parbery Program.

It’s all about searching for a state of mind in which you’re able to help, support and lift other people – and you know what, you’ll see yourself prosper alongside them as a result. That’s been my lesson from the last couple of months and I have Theodore to thank for it.