The quest I’ve been on, over the past year or so, to improve my mental game and mindset has probably been one of the most life-changing things I’ve ever done. If I was the same person I was 2 or 3 years ago and Coconino had ended the way it did, the old me would have probably had a meltdown. There would have been tears for sure, and I probably would have spent the whole drive home stewing in self-doubt and negativity. I definitely would have felt like the whole trip was a waste of time and money, at the very least. But honestly? I felt none of those things. What’s changed the most? My perspective. And encompassed in that are two things in particular: understanding that all of this is a process, and approaching everything from a position of gratitude.
I used to think of horse shows as the end goal. Every single one was my own personal Beginner Novice or Novice or Training Olympics. But, as I’ve come to learn, that’s a totally backward way of looking at it. Why do I really ride and show? To be a better rider, to have fun with my horse, and to grow my horse into the best possible version of himself that I’m capable of producing. It’s 100% possible to do all of those things, and dare I say it’s actually MORE possible to do those things, when you surrender the idea of winning.
These days I look at each show as a progress report. What did we do well? What did we learn? How did my horse feel? Did we grow? Not only is that way more productive towards garnering improvement, it forces me to be more intelligent and less emotional about all of this. Progress isn’t linear. Riding will ALWAYS be full of ups and downs. This sport is ridiculously hard. Shit happens. None of it defines who I am, or who my horse is. For me it’s been incredibly important to learn to handle the emotions, and to always remember to keep perspective. Part of that has come with me sitting down, scraping all the way down to my core, and understanding what success really means to me. It’s not blue ribbons and accolades, it’s betterment. I want to be a better horseman and rider. Period. Full stop. And show results have absolutely no impact on that.
The biggest thing, of course, is that I’ve realized that I get to CHOOSE how I feel about any of this. Instead of going “omg I fell off I must be such a loser and I suck and I don’t belong here and what a waste of time” – which is really just you being controlled by your emotions in the moment – I get to say “well that wasn’t what I wanted but what was good about this experience and what did we learn?”. It is 100% within our own power to decide how we look at things and how we feel about them. Realizing that was not only incredibly liberating, it’s also made me a better rider. I’m more patient with myself and my horse, and better at seeing and pursuing the things that are best for both of us in the long run.
The other big thing, for me, is having a spirit of gratitude. The simple act of appreciation completely changes how your brain is firing (for real, it’s a true story). The negatives quickly start to fall away. It’s easy to forget, in the day-in-day-out drudgery, just how lucky we are to do this. All of this is such a privilege, something that could be taken away at any moment. I don’t want to waste one second of it being bitter or negative, especially about things I have no control over. The best way for me to do that? Practicing gratitude.
I’m grateful to my horse for taking me places I never thought I would get to go. I’m grateful for the relationship we have and how hard he’s willing to try for me even when I’m not much help to him. I’m grateful for the circumstances in my life that have allowed me to find ways to afford to do this. I’m grateful to the people around me that support us, and are invested in our journey. I’m grateful to the team of professionals that keep my horse feeling his best. I’m grateful to the people that spend countless hours organizing and putting on horse shows, to allow us to participate in the sport we love. I’m grateful that I get to leave a horse show with a healthy horse and healthy rider, so that we can go home and work on all the things we learned and, hopefully, try again another day. When I really sit down and think about it, the list of things I’m grateful for could go on for a really really really long time. It’s overwhelming.
The morning that I went out on cross country at Coconino is the same morning that news broke of Ashley Stout’s accident, which claimed her life and that of her horse. She was doing everything right, and still, tragedy struck. The same could be true of any of us on any given day, whether it’s on the back of a horse or in a car accident or some random health problem that we never saw coming. And then we remember how incredibly fragile our horses are too… they come and go from our lives all too quickly and easily. As I’ve gotten older it’s become more important to be grateful for everything we get to do, and everything that my horses give me, even if some things don’t end the way I might have wanted. There will come a day, for all of us, when we don’t get to do this anymore. Even my worst day on a horse is better than my best day without them.
I think that sometimes we get so bogged down in the intricacies and goals and plans that we lose touch with that 10yo girl inside of us that just freakin loved ponies. Loved being around them, loved watching them, loved brushing them, and went to sleep with a smile on her face just because she got to pet a horse that day. That kid is still inside all of us, and that kid is why we really do this. To her, show results and bad rides don’t matter. She’s just thrilled to be there, doing what she loves with her favorite horse. I’ve lost sight of that kid before, and I never want to lose sight of her again.
I also never want to be bitter, whiny, or entitled about any of this. I’ve always thanked volunteers, but over the past several shows I’ve made it my goal to seek out organizers to thank them as well. Without them our sport wouldn’t exist. They make facilities available to us, they organize shows, they put in hours and hours of their time, and usually the only real feedback they get is the negative kind. The poor show secretary (that I sought out to thank for being so flexible and accommodating when I changed my entry TWICE) looked absolutely terrified until she realized we weren’t there to yell at her, and then seemed blown away when we thanked her instead. It kind of made me sad.
What I’ve noticed, in talking to them, is that for the most part everyone is genuinely trying to do the best they can. Just like us (the riders) organizers don’t always make the right decisions or do the right things, because they’re human after all, but they’re trying. They deserve to be acknowledged for that, especially if we want them to continue slaving away for our sport. And if we want to offer constructive feedback, it almost always works better when it’s prefaced by a genuine thank you for all the things that DID go right. In the process of talking to all these people, there were great conversations encompassing all sorts of aspects of the show, from footing to courses to format, and all the positives and negatives of each. I gained more perspective, more gratitude, and in turn made my own experience feel more positive. It’s a win-win. And it all started with a simple thank you.
So if you’re struggling or frustrated or upset, maybe try making contact with that inner 10yo kid who just loved horses. Look for the positive. Thank someone. What are you grateful for? I also challenge you to ask yourself what success truly means to you… you might find that it changes your perspective completely.