Mimi Osborn Combs
Equestrian Athlete and Trainer
Mimi Osborn Combs is a very successful competitive equestrian athlete and trainer. Currently, she and her husband own HighPoint Farm in Charlottesville, VA, where they stable and train horses and riders for competition. Mimi also teaches clinics and trains individuals for high-level competitions. During our interview, she shared how she overcame challenges on the way to the 1996 Olympics, how opening herself up to God led her to compete in the huge Burghley International event, how praying for her horses has brought healing, and how she always works to keep the horses' best interests at heart.
What was your journey to the Olympics like?
I was the alternate in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. The whole experience really unfolded for me, especially since it seemed like I kept hitting walls that year. During one of the selection trials for the Olympics in Florida in February, my horse was the first one out on the cross country course, and the shadows made her misjudge the distance, which caused her to have an accident. I prayed for her safety and health, for her mental and physical well-being. I just knew that she couldn't be afraid from having fallen or be hurt physically. She came out of the fall totally unharmed -- just like the Hebrew boys, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, who were thrown into the fire. The fire didn't get to them (Dan 3). And Daniel wasn't hurt in the lions' den either (Dan 6). My horse was able to compete in the next competition two weeks later at the highest level, which is rare because usually you have the horses compete at a lower level to regain confidence.
That's a great healing with your horse. Are there any other Bible stories or ideas that you turn to for help?
I stick to the basics. These simple Bible stories are always at the back of my head. Whenever I'm challenged or think that things are impossible, I always turn to them, including the story of Moses parting the sea (Ex. 14:21), the Lord's Prayer (Matt 6:9-13), the 91st and 23rd Psalms. When I want to reach out to God and need comfort, these prayers are so comforting. They're such good guidelines. I just know I have to be patient and will be led to make the right decisions. And if I'm nervous, I'll sing hymns during warm-up. The Bible plays a big part in my life.
So what happened next for you?
In Florida, they kept telling me I wouldn't make the Olympics, but I just seemed led to keep going. I was selected to go to England in May to compete for the U.S. We had everything ready to leave for the airport the next day. But that dissolved right in front of me and my family and coaches. A competitor with more political pull got my spot, and I got pulled from going to England. It was so unfair. I didn't think I had a prayer of going to the Olympics without being in that competition.
How did you handle the disappointment?
I prayed to let go and let God do His work and guide me. I had to trust that I'd be led and put in the right place. I looked at the Ten Commandments. I also did what Jesus told us to do: "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself" (Mark 12:31). I didn't want to become bitter just because someone who had a bigger name and more money took my spot. I really tried not to be affected. Jesus was able to go through all his trials and stay on the straight and narrow path. So could I.
So what did you do?
I changed to plan B and went to Rolex International in Kentucky with the horse I had ridden three previous times in this international event. I wasn't even going to turn in my Olympic papers because I didn't have the international experience in England. But because we placed so well at Rolex, a neighbor of mine convinced me to turn in my Olympic papers, which were due right away. She helped me get everything ready. We put her down as my groom, expecting to switch her out later. But when the official paper work was processed, we weren't allowed to substitute. So when I was selected, my neighbor friend ended up going everywhere with me. It was really neat. I was pretty much the underdog, which is a nice place to be because there's not a lot of pressure on you.
What was it like to be an alternate?
We went to Georgia to train to get used to the heat. Several international countries were close to us. It was great to be near the top competitors in the world in our sport and see how different countries worked. When we got to the Olympics, it was extremely rewarding to be with athletes from different sports co-existing together and respecting each other. I was there for a week for the team and individual competitions. I kept riding because I could've been substituted at any time. But I wasn't substituted because the U.S. horses and riders all stayed healthy.
I was very grateful to be there, but it was also a hard experience personally. I was lonely because I was part of it but not part of it. My mom would always say, "Take God's hand and be on your way." So I did. The biggest security in life, no matter what the issue seems to be, is that I can always turn to God and know that God's angel messages are directing me to make the right decisions. Even though things weren't turning out as I wanted, I didn't shut the door. I stayed open to God. The U.S. Equestrian Team held "open barns" where the public could come in and meet the horses and us. As a result, I met amazing people and sponsors who were interested in funding me and pushed me to go onto Europe, which was another amazing part of my education. For equestrians, the Olympics are not the top level event in our sport. It's only a 3-star event for equestrians. But the event in Europe is a 4-star event, and I was sent by the U.S. to Europe to compete at Burghley International, which is one of the biggest spectator events in the world.
It certainly seems that God was taking care of you.
Absolutely! The way my year started, it looked like nothing was going to pan out. I had to face disappointment in more than one way. I had sacrificed going on a college abroad to New Zealand to go to the Olympics. It seemed like I hit hardship after hardship. But my mom really forced me to keep above it all. I love the Bible verse, "Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths" (Prov 3:5, 6). God did direct my path. As things ended up, everything panned out beautifully. I was completely protected, and in unexpected ways.
What was Burghley International like?
That experience was amazing in every way. Three-day eventing (which is what I do) over there is equivalent to what football is here in the U.S. It's a huge, national sport. Three day event includes dressage, cross country, and show jumping. In England, we here housed at Captain Mark Phillips' wife's farm. That in itself was a phenomenal facility. We got to travel all over, even to Ireland, with top U.S. people, some of whom were at the Olympics. Even though I didn't get to ride in the Olympics, I was completely rewarded by going to Burghley -- being able to train and compete with the top people in our sport. I love such intense training.
The horse that took me to international competitions was Pennylane. But she really wasn't a top class horse and didn't have nearly the talent of other international horses. What she had was heart and desire. One of my coaches told me that she would jump through fire for me. So I felt a huge responsibility to do my best and prepare and condition her right mentally and physically. We both were underdogs. Every time, she just came out and did her best and produced.
Why did you ride Pennylane if she wasn't a top horse?
I had seen her and watched her during Junior Olympics in 1990. [Mimi received the individual gold medal.] I had this hunch that she just was special in her own way. I met her owner, John, who was going off to Russia. Penny's new rider was having problems: she wasn't doing well and was getting eliminated. John asked me to take her and get her back on track to possibly sell her. John had always treated her like a human. He would walk her around the barn without a halter, and they had a bond that was really interesting. I really believed in her. I knew what she was and knew that she could be that again. I started doing well with her, and they let me go up to the top with her. She's actually had a lot of healings. She became severely ill at the Junior Olympics, so ill that she was in the vet clinic for six months. They didn't give her much chance to live. So I prayed for her; my whole family prayed for her. She never had this problem again.
What did you learn from this roller coaster experience which ended up so well?
My first lesson was that I had to let go and let God guide me. I think what I really learned is that you have to allow yourself to be open to God's plan and not be willful on the human plan, and things will unfold. I had everything planned out logically that Olympic year, but my plan got altered so many times. I just kept pushing on, but not in a human sense. I kept trying to express not impress. I didn't go with the attitude that I had to get to the Olympics no matter what. I just knew I was going to keep going because I knew I was being led by God. And the angel messages were leading me. It was an angel message that with one day left to turn in my Olympic paper work, my neighbor came by and helped me complete it and overnight it because I had no intention of doing it. And the end result was amazing. You just have to trust. Each morning brings me new blessings.
Are you still competing, or are you focusing on your horse business?
I ride between seven and ten horses a day usually, and I compete. I had a horse who was ready for Sydney, but my husband and I have really been focusing on the building, the barn, and the business. Now that we've produced and sold quite a few top, international horses over the past five years, I'd like to make one last try at competing at the 4-star level again.
What does it take to train a horse so successfully?
I just pick young, talented horses and get them up to a level where they're doing well. I think many people try to make every horse what they want it to be, but I try to figure out where that horse is going to be happy and succeed -- whether it's in dressage, cross country, in the ring as a show horse, or as someone's pet. You have to be patient and honest about the horse's niche so that it can blossom. There can be great disappointments because you may have picked a horse for a top-level event, but it ends up not enjoying cross country and would rather be in the ring. You may have a horse who is capable and beautiful but can't cope and doesn't want to be a competition horse at all. So you have to be in tune with the horses and know them well enough to put them in their right place and let go. You also have to be well educated, too. I've had great teachers and coaches and Pony club when I was younger. I got to work with Jack Le Goff as a young rider. You become more like an animal behaviorist. You know them well and are comfortable making decisions for each horse. I really try to have their best interests at heart.
Do you enjoy teaching, too?
I do. It's one of my passions. I teach anything from amateurs all the way up to the high level. Usually the clinics are set up by other barns, and usually I request to have only five people or less in a group. I teach all day. It's neat. I also teach individuals. I teach a lot of kids who are at the Junior Olympics level and are training for the Olympics. I feel so grateful that I get to do what I'm most passionate about -- working with animals, competing, and teaching.