Focus on progress to improve horseback riding

To Improve in Horseback Riding, Take Progress Over Perfection

Remember that post I wrote in March discussing the value of showing and that my satisfaction must come from progress not ribbons?

Yeah, that advice is crap. A big steaming pile of horse manure. Not because it isn’t true, but because it’s damn hard to recall and abide by in the stress of the moment. I was a little distracted going into the breed show a few weekends ago because of the death of my sweet German Shepherd. Connor’s death had taken over my brain and heart I wasn’t in show mode whatsoever. But going into the show I was happy with the progress Gangster and I had already made in training. Our lead changes were smoother than ever, I was riding faster in my circles and comfortable with the speed. We were starting to get the anatomy of a slide down and I was feeling good about how far we’d come since the same time last year. But we had to take those improving skills and put them to the test in the show ring.

The first night of the show we just had one go, and while it wasn’t a spectacular display, it was pretty good for my first go of the show, and really only my second go of the year showing in reining. I scored a 65 for my reining pattern and was thrilled I didn’t get a zero or majorly mess up any part of the pattern.

Then came Saturday.

My first go of the day, at the very start of the pattern, I turned too many times in my spins and got a zero. And then my run downs weren’t very good. At least on Friday they were okay. Saturday morning they were looking like a lazy trot down to a halt because I couldn’t get out of grandma gear. If you aren’t approaching a stop with any acceleration, there’s no way you’re going to get your horse to drag his ass. I was disappointed.

My eternally optimistic trainer said it was okay, that I’d get another chance to do better that night. So I went back out there Saturday night just hoping to do better than a zero. For this pattern the spins were at the end, so I was feeling pretty good about the pattern, though my stops still sucked. I knew they sucked. I could feel how sucky they were. I was the one in the saddle feeling that jabby-stabby jolting of his front legs hitting the ground. And then came the last component of the pattern, the spins. My amazing horse planted his rear hoof, dug a hole and off we went into our spins. Going into the second to last spin, I felt the terrible and unstoppable sensation of my upper body tilting outward due to the centrifugal force of the spin. I couldn’t keep going. I put my left hand out on his neck and pushed myself back at the same time pausing him mid-spin. I got myself back and spurred him back into our last spin. Like an optimistic idiot I hoped maybe the judge hadn’t seen my hand on Gangster’s neck, and that maybe I kept his feet moving enough that it wouldn’t count as a stop. (Both things you cannot do in a pattern and will get you a score of zero.) I nodded to the judge signaling the end of our go and walked out of the arena, listening for my score. Score of zero. He did see. Of course he saw. I’m the only rider in the arena, not like he got distracted for a moment by a really naughty horse. I was so disappointed, and then pissed and then sad. My trainer talked to me for a few minutes about what I did well.

“I can’t believe I had to grab his neck.”

“Yeah, but that’s because your spins were so fast. You’ve never gone that fast.”

Me looking sad and dejected.

My trainer undeterred, “And you did the right thing by stopping him and getting yourself back. We could be brushing dirt off your hat right now if you didn’t stop and you ended up coming off.”

He talked to me more about my stops, and that I need to go faster. Nothing I don’t know. I just don’t know how to make that happen, other than TO GO FASTER. I have a mental hang-up with accelerating in our run downs. Well, actually I have like 1000 mental hang ups, but I’m just talking about this one right here.

My trainer wandered away and my husband and I stood around and talked about my go for a bit. And then I cried a little. I hate crying. I especially hate crying in public where people might see me expressing an emotion other than sarcasm or irritation.

In that moment, I could not reward myself for doing my best, for pushing myself to do faster spins than we’ve ever done. I couldn’t appreciate all that I had done right. I couldn’t appreciate the progress we were making. I could only think of what I had done wrong and how bad I felt for doing those things wrong.

Arabian Reining Horse Spin with cross over
How could I not feel proud of our efforts? This is by far my favorite photo from the weekend, look at that cross-over in his spin. Photo courtesy of Chris T. Sloan. (Don’t mind my cluck face, ha ha)

I’m working on a blog post focused on riding through fear. For help with that piece I talked with Jennifer De Vault, a licensed professional counselor. During our conversation about fear we touched on some other topics. She mentioned that competitors should determine what their expectations are for the experience are before they enter the ring.

I had set my expectations long before the competition. I said I would be happy with progress. I even pinned several really chic and inspiring quotes about progress being more important than perfection on my Pinterest board. But then right before my second go of the day, I said I was just trying not to get a zero. I uttered my own self-defeating thought immediately before I was supposed to go out and succeed. When Jennifer pointed this out it made me think back to an article written by Carey Cathey in which he discusses creating positive mental images of what you want to achieve, focusing on what you want to happen instead of what you don’t want to happen. I didn’t follow his advice when I said I was trying just not to get a zero. I did exactly what he said we shouldn’t do, and I got exactly the results he said I would.

I’m better than I have been when it comes to riding and showing and not beating myself up, but there is a lifetime left of learning. Really, trainers wouldn’t be able to have a career out of what they do if we all listened and put into practice what they told us the first time they gave us their advice. And while I’m sure there’s a spectrum of learners, I suspect I’m one of those bull headed clients who they have to beat about the head to get me to internalize their teachings.

Arabian Reining Horse end of show
I am always thankful for Gangster’s efforts and patience. Photo courtesy of Chris T. Sloan.

So my advice still stands. Push yourself, push your riding. Use showing to push your riding to the next level. Expect progress but not perfection from yourself and your horse. Congratulate yourself for what you did well. Allow your challenges to be the guide light for where you need to devote time and training. Don’t harp on yourself about where you are challenged. Of course I’m telling you this knowing that it takes deliberate and repeated reminders to get it to stick. Especially if you have a thick, stubborn soul like me. So feel free to remind me, and come back and read these words as many times as you need to remind yourself that your progress, however gradual, is still far more important than any score, ribbon or adoration.

Oh, and I supposed I should mention that on Sunday, when I was exhausted and sad about the day before and just wanted to go out and ride my pattern well, do what I knew we could do well, we scored our highest reining score yet (a 68) and won a reserve champion ribbon in one class and a third place ribbon in the other. I was thrilled to end the show on such a positive note and have to believe that my mindset of wanting to do what I knew we could do well, positively influenced our runs.

Best of luck to you in all of your riding goals, and if there are things that have helped you internalize this lesson, by all means, help a cowgirl out!

Follow me on Facebook for funsies and the occasional insightful post.

A good friend of mine filmed our Friday night go… you can watch it here. The music is not original to the show, just a little extra flair.



Improve Horseback Riding By Focusing On Progress
Improve Horseback Riding By Focusing On Progress

Published by

Theresa Rice

Writing a modern day western and telling my daily stories of humor, sadness or inspiration. Depending on the day, it might be all three.

2 thoughts on “To Improve in Horseback Riding, Take Progress Over Perfection”

  1. This is beautifully written-clear, honest and the reader has definitely lived this situation-on horse back and other aspects of life. I’m amazed at how succinctly and poignantly you were able to express this situation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *