Occasionally at the gym, our fitness instructors bark out bits of motivation between drills of uppercuts or crunches. My favorite is: “You get out what you put in.” It’s a gentle, effective reminder that if you want results, you have to push yourself, even if it’s just a little bit.

To improve, you have to put in both time and effort.

And that’s exactly what my goal was last fall as we entered the off season (i.e. winter). After my equal parts frustrating-and-enlightening experience at Harvest Time, I knew there were things I really needed to focus on so I could grow as a rider. There were communications gaps with my horse that I needed to try to resolve so the next time we went to a show, I could be a more effective partner, rather than relying on him 80% of the time to get me through my courses.

So I put in a lot.

During hacks and lessons, I worked on my leg. I worked on learning to lighten my seat. I worked on being quieter with my body. And I worked on getting us both into better physical shape. At Harvest Time, I realized that neither of us had staying power—we tired quickly and recovered slowly.

By the time horseshow season rolled around in the spring, I felt like we were in a totally different place than we had been in the Fall. So we signed up for the April Encore show.

But there was one thing I couldn’t practice in the safety of our arena: How to deal with horse show nerves.

Competing brings out all the ugly insecurities inside me. They worm their way to the surface and things that I can do well at home, I suddenly struggle with at the show. And the more I struggle, the more frustrated I get, and the more I doubt my abilities. If you look hard enough, you can almost see my self-confidence leak right out of my ears.

After one fantastic schooling day, followed by two very rough days, it was finally my turn to show. To don my fancy Hunter-land attire, put on my number, and go out there. To show everyone just how amazing my little quarter horse is and all that we’d accomplished over the past few months.

Looking back, it’s almost funny how “in my head” I was. As I walked around waiting for our turn in the South ring, watching all the other riders put in great rounds, I worried about repeating my schooling mistakes. I worried about disappointing my trainer, who’d invested just as much time in me and my horse as I had. And I worried about embarrassing my family and my fellow barn-mates who’d come to watch. I worried about sucking, about not being good enough to be where I was.

I was on the verge of literally making myself sick with nerves. So I started singing to myself as a distraction. AC/DC – “T.N.T.” Because I needed to feel like I was dynamite. Or I might have exploded.

After a few laps of pumping myself up with the chorus, I felt calmer. And when I went into the show ring and picked up my trot across the diagonal, I kept singing.

If I was singing, I was breathing. And if I was breathing, I was riding.

Half way through the course, I stopped mouthing the words. My nerves were gone. I was a power house, and I was riding like I’d been riding all winter. Even in our second round, though we stumbled a couple of times, we never fell apart. Unlike previous shows, I didn’t berate myself. There was always another jump, another corner to go to, another line to conquer and it didn’t matter what had just happened. The round wasn’t over and we weren’t either.

My rides weren’t perfect. There were things I could have done better and a million things I can improve on. But I tried my best and so did my horse. We worked together as team and we put out a maximum 220% effort.

By the end of the day, I was euphoric. It was the best we’d ever done at a show—it was the best I’d ever done at a show. For the first time ever, I’d ridden him to the absolute best of my ability in a competition. And in return, he’d given me everything he possible could. He found the steps I needed him to, he fussed at me when I got in his way, and rewarded me with power and speed when I did things right.

For the first time ever, I guided and he listened. We were a true team.

And when I got my seventh place ribbon—out of a class of eight—I was all smiles.

To me, it felt like first.