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Helen McMillan: Riding is my Therapy

September 10, 2018
Helen McMillan:  Riding is my Therapy

I have had the joy of getting to know Helen on a day to day basis and get more inspired by this woman every time we interact. She's as sweet and thoughtful as the come and my favorite part is that she is an undercover BAD ASS. Helen is the mother of 5, Partner of Data Strategy at a leading global data company, a 3rd degree black belt AND actively competing in eventing and dressage shows.

Helen is currently competing Milo (her tall, dark and handsome 17.1h bay gelding) in Intro and will soon be moving up to Beginner Novice.

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Another cool fact about Helen is she grew up in South Africa, which is where she was introduced to horses in high school. Helen explains, "A friend owned a horse and was taking English riding lessons. I got most of my early riding experience the year after high school when I was an exchange student in Texas, representing South Africa. I rode Western style. In Texas, the horses were all working quarter horses on dairy and cattle ranches. I became hooked with the sheer joy of galloping over a field and the beauty of these incredible animals. It wasn’t until my children were born and expressed an interest in riding, that my passion was reignited, especially in English and jumping, dressage, cross-country."

Horses bring a unique social element to the table. It doesn't matter what age you are, if you love horses you are in the "club". The fact that Helen gets to share her love of horses with her kids is something special- there is nothing like solving life's problems on the back of a horse with loved ones.

I asked Helen what her training goals where, her response: "Since I started formal lessons late in my adult life, and my goals are to progress to Novice (there, I said it out loud!!) in the next 18 months, I feel I need to maintain a consistent 3 or 4 lessons a week, combining flat, fences and dressage. I travel for business from time to time, so I’m not always able to meet that schedule. I hack 1 or 2 days a week too – I consider that “doing my homework” in between lessons. If I’m on the road, I’ll work out at the hotel gym – usually on the elliptical and add weights to maintain cardio fitness and strength."

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Between balancing balancing work and family, I was curious how horses have influenced Helen's life. "We’ve had 6 horses as part of our family and each one has influenced me in a unique way. Our first horse “Kiwi” (Silk Stockings) brought home the incredible responsibility that comes with owning and caring for a horse. She was just 5 at the time we bought her – we thought that was quite old LOL. We knew so little about horse management - thankfully Kiwi tolerated our bumbling from time to time. Another horse was “Fray” (Above the Fray). He was the most elegant hunter and the sweetest gentleman, but he was a tad anxious at times over fences. He taught me how to relax, be especially light in the hand. He lives in Colorado now and we miss that boy every single day. My newest horse, Milo, has influenced me to “step up” my riding and expand my knowledge of all things equine. I’m in a great training program at Excell Equestrian with Auburn Brady-Excell, and I take Dressage lessons with Wilma Blakely at Sycamore Trails, San Juan Capistrano", explains Helen.

Horses are great teachers. Something Helen mentioned was that horses have taught her how to lead by asserting yourself, but in a compassionate way. Her phrase was “Lead, follow, or get the heck out the way” LOL. As a huge fan of Monty Robert and natural horsemanship, Helen claims, "We are truly privileged to be in the presence of horses, and for a horse to put his trust in you while you lead him up embankments, over logs and into water is remarkable."

What advice does Helen have for other competitors? Helen explains, "Riding is quite an individual sport – I find that competition is as much about tracking the progress of my horse and I throughout the year, and year over year. When I get back from a competition, I find myself more relaxed in my lessons at the barn – if my horse and I can perform under the pressure of a competition, then what am I stressing about back at home? That said, competition requires preparation, setting goals on several levels. We owe it to our horses to be prepared, and have the horse prepared for a competition – for our safety and their soundness."

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Helen, like most of us is crazy in love with her horses. The love and "the incredible high that comes with jumping over even a tiny little fence or experiencing just a minute improvement in a dressage lesson is mind boggling" is what keeps her coming back for more everyday. "Riding is my therapy - the antidote to an intense work and family schedule. Riding is 'me' time and gets me back in balance mentally, while providing a fabulous physical work-out."

It wouldn't be therapy without a few bumps, bruises and tears. I asked Helen what her post fall off routine entails. She has a recipe for both the physical and psychological damage that can ensue from a spill. On the physical recovery: "RICE – rest, ice, compression and elevation. A nice glass of cabernet helps too! I try not to take over the counter or prescription pain meds, even anti-inflammatories. Instead I’ll use arnica, hemp oil and other products if needed." On the mental recovery: "the larger issue is dealing with the fear and negative thinking that creeps in after the fall. I wear a safety vest now during rides over fences, and always wear a helmet, including during Dressage. With the vest, I’m less worried about a fall – if it happens, then I’m better protected, so it gives me a psychological boost. It’s the loss of riding time after a fall that bothers me, the days, or worse weeks that may be required to heal. I hate missing my rides and my barn time with my horses!"

Keep an eye out for Helen and Milo on the Novice cross country course next year! Its very cool watching this partnership grow.