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Tuesday, 7 October 2014

In It To Win It

They say that if you never experience losing, winning just isn't as significant.  You know ... that winning is somehow made more glorious and satisfying if you've had to work for it, earn it, and experience some hard knocks along the way.  I would tend to agree.

That said, losing still sucks. I am a competitive person (obviously, or I would have taken up equine philosophy rather than one of the most competitive and subjective areas of the industry). I mean don't get me wrong, I have personal goals for myself and all of my clients that do not involve earning a ribbon in the show ring. At the end of the day though, it's going to be tough to keep folks interested if they never, ever come home with any prize. 

How then, in a world of competition that is ever-changing and one that can be entirely subjective and political (aside from the odd timed/scored event) do we navigate and find satisfaction when prizes are never guaranteed? 

Well, in my own mind I like to narrow it down to a few principles that help me stay grounded in my goals and aspirations and my "expectation management".

Here they are:

1) Be honest with yourself.

Take a good hard look at where you are at, the amount of time, energy and money you have put into it, and what it realistically takes to make it (in whatever discipline you are riding in).  If you have been doing the same thing, with the same horse for many years and achieving the same results, you may want to try changing it up a bit (unless of course the results are "always winning", which is highly unlikely in this ever-changing sport).  Try a new approach, get some new help, change your farrier, change your discipline ... whatever you do, don't keep doing the same thing over and over and expect different results.  Einstein called this the definition of insanity.

That said, if you've only been doing something for a couple months, and you haven't mastered it yet, or you've been progressing (but maybe not as fast as you'd like) or maybe its not as easy as you anticipated, it may just mean a little more elbow grease and "miles" so to speak.  Regardless, getting an outside opinion (other than your spouse, who knows nothing about horses, or your lifelong riding buddy who supports you no matter what you do) may be in order. 

Either way, take a step back.  Look at your self.  Look at your horse. Often we go through stages where one party improves while the other plateaus or hits a wall.  The horse starts getting fit or more technical and the rider feels "left behind".  Or the rider makes great improvement but the horse's condition and fitness takes longer to catch up.  You have to be able to look at your situation and reflect on what's going on ... as unemotionally and analytically as you can!

2) Be honest with others.

Don't talk yourself up or talk up your goals and aspirations because you feel "peer-pressured" to.  At the same time, don't beat yourself up either.  When discussing your horse goals, talk about what you would like to do and maybe potential time-lines but don't get yourself backed into a corner by putting out unrealistic goals or expectations (especially if you are a people-pleaser and will later regret over-stating your abilities).  Also, make sure you don't play the martyr either, downplaying or negatively mulling over your struggles. 

Tell people your story.  Tell them exactly where your head is at.  Let them in on what excites you and what terrifies you and be open to them doing the same.  Share with your fellow horse folk honestly and compassionately and you will find that others open up, let down their own (sometimes defensive and over-competitive) guard and are far more likely to support you and your goals.

3) Be open to advice, correction and education...

FROM EVERYONE! You don't have to take it or use it, but at least consider it.  There have been many times someone has offered me unsolicited advice (about everything from farrier, to feeding, to training, to grooming, to trailering techniques) and many times my first response is defensiveness.  It can make a person feel inadequate or criticized.  After some consideration though, you can occasionally find a little gem in that pile of rubble and it could serve you very well.  Accept "help" graciously and remember, if they didn't know you, care about you, or have any investment in you at all, they would ignore you! 

Do consider all advice carefully though, and remember, no one person knows everything.  As hard as it is sometimes to take advice, it is equally as easy to turn someone into an idol and take everything they say as gospel (if you are my client and reading this, please disregard).  All jokes aside though, everyone shares, advises and teaches from their own experiences, and you need to take it all in with a grain of salt. Get educated, use good discretion, do your homework.  Find people with good reputations, whose expertise and services mesh well with your level of experience, goals and personality.  It is imperative that when you are working with someone in a training or lesson situation, that for the time you are with them you trust them and their instruction.  If not you will most certainly find things tense and uncomfortable in no time. 

4) Keep perspective.

As I said earlier, do your homework.  Get to know the industry, discipline and competition you will be competing with.  I often prep my riders by telling them things like, "You are going to find yourself in a very competitive class with say 12 horses, and 3 of them may have far more experience, more advanced/developed horses and more skill development than you (this may be a good time remember #1 above).  If you come in 4th, well in my mind, that's a FIRST!!" If you have no idea who sits beside you in the line up and have no context within which to place yourself in that class, you may pout your way out of that class feeling that you have no idea why you didn't win it and resenting your ride, your competition, your horse and certainly your trainer.  In addition, you'll start to make up excuses for why didn't come out with the roses, and lose your ability to constructively reflect on any goals you may have achieved in that class. This isn't really fair to anyone, especially you!

Also, as a side note on getting perspective, I tell my riders (jokingly, but with some underlying seriousness) that they all need to have a couple of very close, non-horsey friends.  These are the people who, when you go on a rant about how you cannot believe that Peggy Sue brought her horse 3 strides to close to the behind of your horse and he swapped his lead and it was just SOOOOO embarrassing and you just might die, look at you like you are crazy.  And you are.  We horse folk are "crazy about" what we do, and I am totally guilty of this.  We get so intensely focused and narrowed in on our little riding bubble, we forget that sometimes its just one class.  Not really the end of the world.  Really, "first world problems" in every sense of the phrase. 

I mean, at the end of the day, there are probably hundreds of thousands of folks, just in North America who would give an arm to ride or own a horse, let alone do what we do.  Sometimes we feel we had a crappy ride, and we squeak by with a ribbon. Sometimes the best ride we've ever had gets us the gate.  Especially for what our team does, its a subjective game.  Do your best, train your hardest and get good help.  But ultimately ... Some days they like you.  Some days they don't.  Spend enough time around the place and you'll  realize this is true for EVERYONE at EVERY LEVEL. 

As a last and final wrap-up point I have to mention having non-prize-related goals.  Although saying things like "some day I'd love to win a Regional or National Championship" can be totally fantastic motivation for working and training hard, never put this kind of pressure on one class.  You may have a feeling in the back of your mind (based on your very realistic, honest and well-rounded perspective) that you are a contender in a particular class, but you should STILL have other, non-ribbon goals.  Things such as pace, engagement, leads, correctness, transitions, balance, ring management and so-on provide great fodder for these goals.  Work with your instructor or trainer and pick one or two of these performance-related goals for every class, even if you think you have it in the bag.  It will give you something to celebrate and discuss, regardless of whether you win or get dead last.

And always remember one of my favorite quotes ... "I never lose.  I either win or I learn."

Happy horse-showing!