Recently I was perusing the Horses subReddit and saw a post from a woman who was starting horseback riding lessons as an adult. Although she had loved horses most of her life and had been around them, she only just now had the money or time to invest in lessons. She was asking about her options for showing, acknowledging that she had missed her window for showing internationally and she went on to ask about the time needed to prepare before being able to competently enter a show.
I could probably write a novel trying to answer her questions, especially not even knowing what discipline she plans to pursue. I enjoy her enthusiasm, thinking 10 miles ahead instead of 2 feet out front, it’s precisely the thing I would do.
People provided her plenty of encouragement and good answers, mainly telling her to listen to her trainer and he or she would talk to her about her goals and when she would be ready to show. I just responded to make sure to have fun. What a trite and boring answer, I know. But it’s true.
Her line about not being able to show internationally I thought was telling. I recently read Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert. One of the points she discusses is the pressure people put on themselves to make creative endeavors have value in some way: competing at a high level, making money from paintings they create or making a career out of writing. For many, it’s not enough to just do the activity, it has to demonstrate some kind of competitive value. So if my riding isn’t good enough to win ribbons at a show, is there value in even participating? Is there a point to owning a performance horse if I’m not going to show him?
The wonderful thing about horse ownership is the ability to easily come up with a number of reasons it’s a value added endeavor, regardless of if you choose to show. The first few that come to mind are the relaxation, the physical activity of it as well as forming a deep connection with our animals. But what about those of us who show or desire to show? Is there value in showing if we aren’t particularly talented?
I wanted to show from the time I purchased my gelding. He was expertly trained and talented far beyond my abilities. But my last horse show had been as a tween in knock-off hunt boots and a saddle with uneven stirrups on a lesson horse better suited for bareback ambling than hacking around a show arena. But logic be damned. Eight months into owning my first horse ever, eight months into learning to ride a reining horse, I signed up for a Class A Arabian breed show. I am a hilarious example of why stretch goals are both great and ridiculous.
I can’t even quite believe I did what I did. I was struggling with so much in my riding (trust, lead changes, speed… nothing too relevant for reining patterns). I’m not sure it even occurred to me to enter a schooling show or open show prior to diving headfirst into the deep end of a Class A show. But I wanted to show as part of my breed circuit and nothing was going to sway my determination. There were good parts to that first show, but there were also terribly disappointing parts, and yes, I did cry. My first two classes I flipped the pattern and so received zeroes for being completely off pattern the entire time. The next day, during a practice run, my horse came down with directional amnesia and was resolute in not circling to the left. I blame the horse because anything else would require me to admit operator error and acknowledge that my lack of experience rendered me incapable of correcting issue. I now know that my horse is frequently less flexible to the left and that I have to give more leg guidance for him to round out.
I try to remember what pulled me toward showing, throwing myself right into the fire. The sad truth is that I wanted to be part of a group that I considered exclusive. I also thought if I showed that would make me a more legitimate or respected rider, that I would gain the respect and pride of people who I admired and who I considered veteran professionals of riding. That, and why did I have this talented, well trained animal if I wasn’t going to show him? These are all terrible reasons to show. How could I ever really feel satisfaction if that warm tingly feeling of success was dependent on someone else’s approval? If I need a blue ribbon to reassure me that I’m a good rider or worthy of pride in others, how will I feel if I never get that blue rosette? A well trained horse doesn’t need reinforcement that he is well trained from a show, he needs reminding of his training every day I ride.
My husband helped push me on a path of reconsidering showing this year. He couldn’t tell if I actually enjoyed showing for all of my negative self-talk and the worry that creased my face before every class. So I’ve worked on not talking down to myself and encourage you to do the same (click there if you haven’t read my thoughts on negative self-talk). I did some soul searching and realized, thankfully, that while my reasons for showing have changed, my source of satisfaction hasn’t yet caught up.
I push myself to show because it forces me to practice things I might otherwise only practice intermittently or not at all. It’s the same way I used a 10K race as the motivating factor for running longer. There’s no way in hell I’d run 5 miles for fun, I worked up to that because I had a goal and a deadline and I didn’t want to look completely inept on race day. (Quick side note, running 6.2 miles is a real pain in the ass and while I’m happy I ran the race, I’ve never done another 10K).
But the flip side to using horse shows as a means to meet stretch goals, is that I also get very nervous during shows. I don’t want to embarrass myself. I don’t want to screw up. I don’t want anyone else to be embarrassed for me. So I hold myself to a high level of expectation and then I get anxious that I won’t even meet my own expectations. I arrive at two roads diverging in the horse world, and one is less travelled by. (Yes, I totally just ripped off Robert Frost). To show, or not to show? (And Billy Shakespeare too). If I have difficulty managing my stress, but I improve my riding, is the stress worth the success? Can I really call it success if I’m too stressed to enjoy it?
I know I’m not the best at reining, I’m mediocre at best, passable. I don’t say that for you to tell me “Oh, that’s not true.” I say it because it’s realistic. I can tell you all of the ways I struggle. But I don’t need to be the best. If I wasn’t out there to do my pattern, there would be fewer competitors, and then fewer people appreciating the sport of it. If only the best compete, who will be there to take second through sixth places? And if the best have no one to beat, will they continue to practice to the highest level of their ability? Like Elizabeth Gilbert pointed out in her book, just because you might not be the best, or even second best, doesn’t mean the pursuit is meaningless. If I remember why I signed up to show (as a goal and a deadline to improve my riding) then I should already feel satisfied that I have grown in my riding, regardless of what ribbon I receive. If I receive one at all.
Showing can be intimidating and stressful. My feeling of success must now come from the progress that’s made outside of the competition ring. Did I feel like we communicated well? Did we not screw up the pattern? Yes, Yes? Yay! No on one or more accounts? Oh well. OH WELL! The world won’t stop, tomorrow is a new day, and I am still growing and every day becoming a better rider than I was the day before, in the ribbons or not. My new definition of success at shows will be about enjoying the journey me and Gangster are on together, regardless of the ribbons, regardless of where we fall in comparison to others, regardless of how much better we could have done.
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