Expectations. We all have them. And they are not inherently bad.
Unfortunately for those of us who have chosen the noble and daring hobby (or career) of horse showing (or competing with horses in any discipline) expectations become a bit complicated.
If you play any other competitive sport, you set your goals and then work to achieve them. When it comes time to compete, you gather your strength, will and developed skills and go to work.
Competing with horses is no different.
Except you have a horse. And it has a brain. Which has its own ideas about this business of getting to work. It senses emotions and micro-movements, and hears small children crushing pop cans in the stands and crackles of the microphone. Sometimes it has to pee. Or needs a drink. Or wants to sleep.
It is this very living, breathing and thinking creature that makes our sport so wonderful and unique.
But this creature is also the reason why we must approach our competitive "expectations" with caution, especially if those expectations sound something like "winning _(insert any title/class/ribbon you wish)_", "beating __(that girl, that horse, her time, etc)____" or "just not getting last place".
It is very easy to begin spending time fantasizing about what it will feel like to get those red roses or that plaque.
We start envisioning how certain competitors may react or feel when we win. Or what it will feel like to get that time, have a clear round, get all our leads, or achieve all the elements of our pattern.
It is at this moment though that our beloved 4-legged partner becomes an expert wrench-tosser. He'll show you problems you didn't even know he had. He'll find scary things you could never see or hear. He'll call you out on your "fake it till you make it" confidence.
So what do we do?
Do we become goal-less wanderers just aimlessly riding in hopes that someday, by some fluke of the celestial alignment that we might get a prize?
But we DO have to manage our expectations and the role they play in our assessment of our competitive success.
I listened to a book by the wonderful researcher Brene Brown the other day and she suggested an exercise which I have modified below to show you how this might work for your competitive journey.
1) Pick 5 of the top expectations you have for your competition.
i.e. Get a first place in class 226
Qualify for regionals
Beat that girl ... oh you know who I mean
Get all my leads correct
Have a clean pattern class
2) Write them down on cue cards, then flip them upside down and shuffle them.
3) Randomly pick 3, flip them over and read them
Now imagine ... the 3 things you picked happen!! Yayy! But the 2 you didn't do not materialize the way you'd hoped.
For instance, you get enough points to qualify for regionals, you manage to get all your leads and even beat that girl you wanted to beat, BUT you do not get a first in class 226 and your pattern turns into a bit of a wreck.
Fully immerse yourself in the vision. How do you feel? Is your show ruined? Does your effort feel worthless?
If not, you are probably already fairly enlightened to the "expectation management".
BUT, if the thought of one or more of these expectations going unmet makes your gut churn, you might need to work on managing the standard by which you judge your competitive success.
So if we aren't expecting to win ribbons or beat competitors, what kinds of things should we be envisioning when we set out to compete with our horses?
Well ... here are a few tricks I use:
Break it down:
Think about specific things you'd like to see happen in the class (and things you might be in more control of than the overall outcome) ...
- I'd like to have my horse remain responsive to my inside leg.
- I'd like to continue breathing through my pattern and wait long enough between elements.
- I want to ensure I give myself enough time and the proper "set-up" before transitioning to the canter.
- I'd like to keep my spacing and maintain proper corners and distance from other competitors (in rail classes)
- I want to keep my horse's rhythm consistent and keep her driving forward into the bit
Get the idea? Break your goals down into smaller, more specific and controllable elements. Then, if you do not achieve them, you can better assess where you need assistance or practice, or if circumstances were simply out of your control!
Think about more intrinsic rewards:
If you enjoy daydreaming about your upcoming competitive experiences shift your focus away from "winning" or "achievement-based" visions to more intrinsic payoffs such as:
- The feeling of "fitting in", having a well-turned out horse and being friendly with your competitors
- The praise and accolades from your team and your competitors when you make improvements or show fortitude in dealing with your challenges
- The satisfaction of finally nailing down a maneuver, elements, gait, or transition after having some difficulty with it
Reality Check with Perspective:
I encourage my riders to do this all the time. We ABSOLUTELY must remain very grounded in our reality (i.e. how we relate to those we are competing against) and our perspective (how we are competing based on our previous experience and accomplishments).
We need to know who our competitors are, what they've done and for how long they've been doing it. Talk to people. Find out how long they've been showing, how much training they (and their horse) have had leading up into the competition, their horse's history and breeding, etc. Watch competitors closely through the season and from year to year. You will see that most of the people who win have worked hard and invested a lot of time, energy, money and effort to get there (and when you win, you'd likely say the same!).
I often say to my riders: If there are 6 horses in a class at a local-level show, and 2 are very expensive, well-trained, previous national champion, and you come in 3rd (with your young or inexperienced or less well-traveled horse) you basically won FIRST! (And also, when the time comes and you are riding that winning horse, you will be much more humble and honored to accept that prize knowing what went into winning it.)
Another essential part of this is ...
NEVER rely on your performance at the horse show to OUT-DO the level that you are easily and successfully achieving at home.
You cannot just hope and pray that by some miracle you will pull a winning ride out at the show when your rides at home are still a work-in-progress. This is simply placing unrealistic expectations on you, your horse and your coach based on extrinsic (or outside) expectations such as winning or beating someone.
If you feel that you are not progressing as quickly as you'd like or not finding the success your feel you (realistically) deserve, this is a question to be discussed with your trainer or coach (and if you don't have one, read my last post on why you might want a trainer!) .
Maybe the horse isn't a great fit. Maybe you need more time in the saddle or the horse needs more training. Maybe the horse needs some ring time with your trainer to troubleshoot. This is something that needs more investigation at home, before you continue to compete and get more frustrated.
In order to find your deepest and most meaningful success at the horse show you need to determine something really important.
As the fantastic Simon Sinek would say,
You need to START WITH "WHY".
You have to determine why it is you do this. What motivates you? What is the payoff?
If the only reason you want to compete with your horse is to get a ribbon, or the only way you'll be satisfied is by receiving the roses, you might need to incorporate that into your plan. You will likely need to spend a lot of money, find the best trainer, etc. All of these might be completely do-able and legitimate. But you NEED to be aware.
And maybe just asking "What is my 'why'?" will help you to re-center and refocus.
If the reason you do this is to deepen your bond with your horse, have fun and enjoy the thrill of competition, then maybe all you need to do to find more satisfaction is to manage those other (less-realistic) expectations. Try some of the above suggestions, discuss some more specific goals and meditate more on the intrinsic rewards, versus the prizes themselves.
Surely you can have long-term goals (like competing at the National level) and this will rely on all sorts of achievement and success along the way. But what we are talking about is weathering the challenging times, keeping a good attitude and truly getting the most out of your competitive horse experience.
By better understanding what you have control of and the reasons why you began this journey in the first place, you will set yourself up for much more satisfaction and success in the long run. The ribbons fade and the trophies collect dust and may lose meaning over time but the experiences you have, the character you develop and the enjoyment you get from spending this time with your 4-legged friend will certainly make it all worth it.