3 Reasons to Stop Chasing Perfect with Your Horse

3 Reasons to Stop Chasing Perfect with Your Horse

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.

Away in a manger

Away in a manger

It’s that time of year again – although I don’t need to remind any of you who have children, or who watch television, or who shop; (although, since the Christmas decorations debuted sometime before the Halloween candy went on half-price, it’s getting harder to tell when Christmas finally arrives…)

The hustle and bustle build to a fever pitch as everyone tries to out-gift whatever they did last year. Many of us are feeling buried under “stuff” even before we unwrap (and wonder where we’re going to store) the large packages under the tree.

One of my favorite things on any night was going to the barn to do night check and hearing the contented munching as the horses  worked through their haynets. On Christmas Eve, it was even more special as I thought about that manger a couple of thousand years ago, and about the magic tales told of the animals talking at midnight on Christmas Eve.

Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza, Alban Arthan,or another day, we have a universal desire to find peace on earth.

And in the barn on those magical Christmas Eves, I heard, in every soft sigh the peace on earth we’re all looking for. It’s here, you just need to stand still long enough and quietly enough for it to find you.

 

When hope arises from the mud and darkness…

When hope arises from the mud and darkness…

December is not my favorite month. Neither is January. Or February, for that matter, despite it being my birthday month. (Possibly in part because it’s my birthday month…)

Why do all of these months fall to the bottom of my “most loved months of the year” list? Blame it on growing up in Connecticut, and then (perhaps somewhat foolishly) owning and operating a large horse farm there for a decade or so. Yeah, some of us are just not that quick to catch on…

Although I now live in Virginia and all of the aforementioned months are far less trying here than they were in the land of my youth (and early middle age), I still think of them as the months of dark, cold, mud, frozen mud, dark, cold…. you get the point. For someone who’s come to love my creature comforts, I sometimes look back and wonder, “What was I thinking!?”

It’s somewhat ironic that now that I’m in a far more temperate climate, I no longer make a living working outside anywhere from 10 to 20 hours a day. Usually the worse the weather, the longer the hours spent outside – it’s known as The Law of Relativity of Equine Colic and Miserable Weather. (OK, so I just made that name up, but those of you with horses know it’s a real thing!)

It always seemed that we’d get a hard freeze right after a particularly wet period, so all of the deep hoofprints in the mud around the gates would become ankle breaking obstacles to be traversed while wearing clunky boots pulled on over 2 paris of socks, (one of which has slid down and is now in an uncomfortable lump under your arch). This all happened in less than optimum light, often with frozen precipitation, and with at least one horse in hand. And yet….

And yet, I knew that once we hit the end of November, I could begin the countdown (in days, not weeks or months) to the day we turned the corner and headed toward spring: the Winter Solstice. Long a favorite of Druids everywhere – the shortest day of the year (in hours of daylight – sadly it still has 24 hours, just like all the others) falls around the 21st of December, and once we hit that day, we’re firmly on our way to spring. Well, OK, maybe not so firmly, there were still months to go till it was warm enough that water buckets didn’t freeze solid overnight, but the addition of that 1 minute of daylight every couple of days was enough to keep me going… I used to buy an Old Farmer’s Almanac every year, just so I could keep track of the number of minutes of daylight we’d gained. (Never mind if the weather was so horrendous that the amount of daylight was verifiable only through said Almanac).

Somehow, hope arose from those days of mud and darkness, and that small glimmer of hope was enough to keep me moving forward through the next 2 or 3 months of miserable weather. After all – we were gaining a minute or two of daylight, and soon (although perhaps not soon enough), it would be spring.

Is this mistake hurting your relationship with your horse?

Is this mistake hurting your relationship with your horse?

Do your clothes from 9th grade still fit?

Chances are good that your answer to this is a resounding “NO” (or maybe, “I wish!!) Over the intervening years, our bodies have changed. Whether altered by childbirth, injuries, or simply more calories consumed than expended, most of us are differently proportioned than when we were teens. We accept this (although we may long for that slimmer physique at times), just as we accept that our life experiences have given us greater wisdom, more compassion, and a host of other useful skill sets. So why are we so upset that our riding is now very different than what it was when we were young?

I don’t remember it hurting like this!

If we haven’t ridden in a few (or a few dozen) years, we may have creatively edited our riding memories. We remember that wonderful trip around the cross country course at a Pony Club Rally (that’s me on my first horse, O’Malley above), or the trail ride our parents signed us up for on a long-ago vacation. It could be riding double on a friends horse as the first snow fell – looking back to see the perfect hoof prints, hearing only the clopping of his hooves as the snow muffled all other sounds…

Often we don’t remember things like a sore back, thigh abductors screaming in protest when asked to carry us upstairs a day or two after our most recent ride, or the inability to lift our left foot more than 18” off the ground, necessitating the use of a (large) mounting block.

Selective memories can be a partial explanation, of course, but more likely is that we simply havne’t used those muscles in a while… and all too often, we beat ourselves up over it. “I don’t remember it hurting like this!”, “I remember when I could vault on my 15.2 hand horse – now I can’t even get on a pony from the ground!” [Tweet “The memory that so many of us feel, but so few vocalize: “I don’t remember being afraid”.”]And the memory that so many of us feel, but so few of us vocalize: “I don’t remember being afraid”.

Don’t make the mistake of viewing all of your changes as negative.

It’s time to stop making the classic mistake of thinking that riding a horse is like riding a bike and you never forget how to do it. Bicycles, except in the case of Calvin and Hobbes, don’t have minds of their own. Calvin and Hobbes by Bill WattersonThey don’t weigh 1,000 pounds, and if you decide to take a pleasure ride on a bike, chances are you’re not thinking that if you get bucked off you could end up in the hospital, out of work, and generally in deep doo doo physically and financially…

Please stop beating yourself up, my friend. Understand that sore muscles are normal. If you had taken up running in 9th grade, you would have experienced sore muscles in the beginning. Coming back to riding, sore muscles are normal. And just as sore muscles are normal – fear is normal. It’s actually our amygdala (the prehistoric, reptilian part of our brain) working overtime to keep us from being prominently featured in the Darwin Awards.

Unless your fear is extreme, in which case you might want to consider working with a trainer, a sports psychologist, or a life coach, treat yourself, your sore muscles, and your fear with a gentle sense of acceptance. Understand that the changes we’ve undergone since riding in our teens aren’t “our fault” – they are a part of the process of aging, and better embraced than vilified.

Remember that the changes we view as negative are only part of our story. While we may not be as slender, flexible, or brave as we once were, we are now wiser than we were – and that’s a change we should embrace.

Horses, Writing, Life – What to do when it all heads south

Horses, Writing, Life – What to do when it all heads south

Things were going so well.

I was writing, spending quality time with my family, hanging out with my horses, exercising, loving teaching my therapeutic riding students – and then suddenly I wasn’t. Things stopped going so well.

In the space of a week, I was diagnosed with a heart condition (no wonder I’ve been so exhausted!), and I injured my knee severely enough to warrant surgery. I missed a few days of writing, a few days of exercise, a few days of spending extra time with my horses… and then it was a week, and then it was 2 weeks…it felt like I had lost my way. Can you relate?

Plans and Dreams or Pain and Drudgery?

The truth is we’re all faced with stuff that crops up and knocks us for a loop. Health, horses, family, work – none of it runs smoothly all the time. But how we cope with those unexpected issues can be the difference between returning to our plans and dreams, or getting stuck with pain and drudgery.

We can do what I did for about 2 weeks – we can wallow, play the poor me game, whine a little (or wine a lot ;-), and just let it all wash over us. In fact, that’s probably a useful thing to do. It gives us the chance to sort out and deal with all of the ramifications of our unwanted circumstances (like teaching my therapeutic students while on crutches and having major bouts of dizziness and lightheadedness.)

[Tweet ” But there comes a time to put away the pity party hat. It’s time to move on.”]

If you read my post about meditation, you’ll remember that I recommend the app 10% Happier – Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics. One of the teachers in 10% Happier is Joseph Goldstein, a man with an amazingly calming voice and manner. Joseph’s advice when your mind wanders in meditation is, “simply begin again”. I think Joseph is on to something.

We have a choice. We can continue to focus on the problem, or we can look for the solution. Lamenting the time I’ve lost exercising isn’t going to heal my knee or move me toward my weight loss and health goals. Far better to find ways to exercise that don’t compromise my knee, and simply begin again.

Throw my plans for my blog, my coaching courses, and my book out the window because I’ve abandoned my writing schedule for a few weeks or push my self-imposed deadlines a little further out, and simply begin again?

Fuss that I’m not riding or keeping on my training schedule for Bella, or spend my time doing ground work and relationship building with my horses, and simply begin again.

It’s a choice we all have – wallow or win? Whine or work?

For me? I think I’ll simply begin again.