“The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience? (Common App essay)

The alarm heralding the dawn becomes redundant as a mix of dread and excitement has kept me up all night. It’s 5 am. Today I will compete in my third Junior National Equestrian Championship in Pune at the National Defence Academy.

I’ve determined that today will be different. My first Junior National in Kolkata in 2014 began and ended catastrophically. I leased a horse, Legal Steps, who I rode for the first time a day before the championship. It was an unwise step, as I didn’t have the chance to connect with him. The day of the competition, Legal Steps bolted towards the surrounding woods. Did he sense my fear? Despite managing to get control of him, I realised the futility of continuing as he would remain uncooperative. Withdrawing from the event, I lost all confidence.

Yet, when peers suggested that I was fearful, that perhaps this transpired because I was a girl, I found these explanations unsatisfactory. I began recognising the root cause of the catastrophe: I had forgotten my primary motivation for riding, my love of horses. Perhaps my Kolkata debacle stemmed from overlooking this true essence of equestrianism? Riding the leased horse, I had felt like a novice. I had forgone establishing a connection with Legal Steps, focusing only on competing rather than understanding him. The Kolkata experience led to the realisation that I was riding mechanically, simply to win.

Seeing this from the sidelines, my coach, Mrs Sodhi, told my father that to move forward, I had to rekindle my bond with horses. The initial step in the rehabilitation process was buying my own horse, Lodrino, a gorgeous dark bay Holsteiner gelding. Lodrino was crucial in my return to winning ways.

I first met him with a welcome gift of jaggery (unrefined sugar) in my outstretched palm. He not only accepted it with unbridled enthusiasm but also butted my shoulder for more. I was besotted! The first time I rode him, I knew he was special. Every movement bespoke a perfect balance between elegance, power and control. Trust is the key element in controlling a 1200-pound animal with just leg pressure or a rein-tug. I sensed that I could trust Lodrino. But could he trust me? I spent the first few months intuitively understanding his responses and his endearing idiosyncrasies: that he would never advance in a lesson without a “jaggery inducement,” for example. I also discovered him to be the quintessential thespian, invariably putting on a show before an audience. He started responding to my aids and taught me to love horses and competing again. This happened only once our relationship blossomed into a close bond.

Together we enjoyed pre-competition rituals, such as my braiding his hair the night before competitions. Lodrino knows when he is competing and is a prima donna in the show arena. Even if a laggard during practice, the chime of the start bell in the competing arena brought out the actor in him! Often, when I was unable to give an aid fast enough, he preempted it and began executing the movement. And as I saluted the judges after a dressage competition, Lodrino bobbed his head, thanking the judges and stealing my thunder! My deepening relationship with Lodrino had me focus on something beyond technique or peer opinion: on the profound truth that there is no bond stronger than that between a horse and its rider.

Today, pre-show jitters dissolve into thin air as I sit on Lodrino. He reassures me. Much has changed over the eight years I’ve been competing. In Pune, I focus on winning to affirm my progress from someone too afraid to compete to someone whose passion drives her to excel in equestrianism.

My third Junior Nationals culminates in victory. Lodrino and I win together: our amazing bond is the overarching reason for my tasting success again!

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