We all want to do our best with our horses.

Whether we trail ride for relaxation, compete at schooling shows, or hit the big circuit, we want to do what’s right by our equine partners. And this is a good thing. The trouble creeps in when we’re so busy striving for perfect that we miss excellent.

If you’re a dressage competitor, you’re familiar with the 0 – 10 scoring system. Fortunately, in all of my years scribing for dressage judges, I’ve only had to put that goose egg into a score box a few times. Sadly. I’ve only had the pleasure of writing that rainbows and unicorns score – the “perfect 10”- a few times as well.

The perfect 10 is something we’re used to pursuing culturally – from the 1979 Movie starring Dudley Moore and Bo Derek to the Olympic athletes that capture our attention and our hearts every 4 years – everyone wants a 10. But the truth about 10? It doesn’t stand for perfect – it stands for excellent -and there’s a very big difference: excellence is attainable, perfection usually isn’t.

Why Perfectionism Doesn’t Serve You

An article in Psychology Today compares how people pursuing excellence rather than perfection cope better with setbacks, learn from their mistakes, and are able to feel good about themselves, even when they come in second.

Let’s break these down a bit.

People pursuing excellence rather than perfection are better able to cope with setbacks.

Picture this – you’ve been doing well at shows all year, and if things go well at the last 2 shows, you’ll walk away with a year end championship. You’re so excited – you’ve dreamed of this for years! And then your horse goes lame. Nothing serious, but it puts you out of the running for that long-coveted 4 foot tall trophy, embroidered cooler, and bragging rights with your friends and family (and anyone who stands still long enough at the tack shop).

Your response is:

  1. They never drug test at these shows. I’ll just bute him up for the next 2 shows and then he can have the winter off. Nothing is coming between me and that trophy.
  2. OK, I’ll give him this first show off, bute him up, and then enter him in enough extra classes at the last show that we’ll still have a shot at that trophy.
  3. It’s only a trophy. My horse is more important to me than any trophy, no matter how big and shiny it is. I’m in it for the long game, we have years ahead of us. I have so many good memories of this year – the ribbons we’ve already won are so far above my hopes. I’ll go to those last 2 shows and groom for my friends.

If you answered 1, you’re probably (as in 150% definitely) a perfectionist. You need to cut yourself (and your horse) some slack. One or both of you are going to end up burned out, used up, or permanently injured.If you want to push yourself that hard, go into a sport that doesn’t require your horse to pay the price for your dreams of glory.

If you answered 2, you’re in the bargaining phase. Not quite resigned to giving up the trophy, still holding onto that child-like optimism – you’re walking the line between being a perfectionist and an excellentist (I don’t know why that isn’t a word, don’t you think it should be?) Hopefully, the optimistic child in you loves her horse enough not to do anything stupid, or should I say “ill-advised”, and you’ll give your horse the chance to heal properly.

If you answered 3, Are. You. Kidding. Me? What planet did you just fall from?? I mean, it’s awesome that you love your horse and you’re taking the setback in stride, but seriously – you’re going to go to the show that could have been the answer to your childhood dreams and groom for your friends? That’s almost frighteningly nice.

But I digress. The point here is that when you pursue excellence, you really do deal with setbacks better than the average perfectionist. (Is “average perfectionist” an oxymoron?)

People pursuing excellence rather than perfection are better able to learn from their mistakes.

So – to revisit the lame horse in our previous scenario – the vet feels the lameness issue could be because you forgot to call your blacksmith and your horse was over a week late for new shoes. Since his toes had grown out a bit, the change of the angle caused him to be a bit off… From now on, the blacksmith’s next visit is scheduled before he packs up his truck and drives out through the gate. You learned from your mistake – voila!

People pursuing excellence rather than perfection are better able to feel good, even when they don’t win.

So you’ve spent all season working toward that championship. You’ve cleaned up your aids, worked on improving a little every day, and when the day arrives, you and your horse just aren’t on your game. You come in 3rd. Or 10th. Or last.

Can you brush it off (after you go back to the trailer and have a good cry) and understand that it simply didn’t come together today?

Can you look at a “loss” and not beat yourself up about it?

Spend a little time thinking about how your mind works when you’re having a riding lesson, trying something new with your horse, or even preparing dinner for guests. Do you note the things that go right or the things that go wrong? Fretting over the fact that you got expensive wine for dinner and neither of your guests drink may stress you out, but fretting over the fact that your horse always bulges through the outside shoulder in leg yield to the right is going to affect him as much or more than it does you. This is where you call a time out, take a deep breathe (and don’t forget to breathe out again…), and find out what’s really going on – both with your horse and with your mindset.

If you’re in a perfectionist mindset, you’re likely to be having thoughts that include words like “should”, “always”, “never” and “why-the-heck-can’t-you-get-this-right-we’ve-been-working-on-it-for-two-weeks!?!” None of those words are going to help your horse stay straight in a leg yield. Try instead, “What’s actually happening?”

If you discover that he always budgets his shoulder when circling to the right, you’re also likely to realize he bulges his shoulder when leg-yielding to the left. Break it down until you can isolate a specific body part (or a few specific body parts).

If you’re not able to feel it, have a friend give you a hand (actually, a pair of eyes). If your friend happens to know what “bulging a shoulder” is, well then, you’ve got some pretty awesome (and useful) friends. If not, have someone, anyone, (even a spouse works for this) take a quick video on your phone. Then have a look and see if you can tell what’s going on.

By taking this step in curiosity, and a genuine desire to know what’s going on NOT so you can beat yourself up, but so you can thoughtfully and consciously work for improvement.

Perfect really isn’t somewhere we’re ever going to dwell for too long, but “better” is a great journey for you and your horse. Even though it may still be a stretch, “better” is attainable, realistic, and the “perfect” way to get to excellent.

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