This is my first summer as a mum. Perhaps that is the reason why I notice them more than ever. They seem to be everywhere, redefining the definition of cuteness. And as I stand and watch and chuckle to myself, imagining my own wee boy bouncing up and down on a little fur ball in a few years time, I’m reminded of those icons of British rural life – the Thelwell ponies and their diminutive riders. But in addition to causing much hilarity, Norman Thelwell also managed to capture an important message: kids should have fun with their ponies, learning by doing, and most importantly, getting a thorough grounding in the principles of horsemanship.
Nowadays though, the main focus of those childhood years seems to have moved from all-round horsemanship to doing well in competition. Considering the price tags on some of the ponies on offer, it’s actually not all that surprising: Parents who spent tens of thousands of pounds on a miniature mount might wish to see a return on their investment, preferably in the shape of a medal, a rosette or even some prize money. At the same time, they may not be too happy seeing said pony cavorting around the countryside in Thelwell-style. If those illustrations are anything to go by, the risk of injury to child and/or pony are considerable – or so they fear! Still though, this overt concern with the colour of a rosette or ribbon might have some serious repercussions on the sporting attitude of a child.
Researchers in the field of sport psychology and coaching clearly distinguish between athletes who are “ego-involved” versus those who are “task-involved”.
Ego-involved athletes measure their own levels of success on the performance of others, that is to say they are “other-referenced”. Their main aim is to demonstrate either superiority over other competitors, or to avoid being seen to be inferior to them. Riders with an ego-involved mindset are really only ever satisfied when they get to stand on the very top of the podium. Certainly in the long term, but also in a more immediate setting, ego-involved mindsets are likely to lead to motivational problems (“What’s the point in riding today, I am not going to win anyway”) and maladaptive behaviours (use of the whip after the pair has left the ring: “Stupid pony didn’t do as I wanted”). Unfortunately, these types of attitudes are ripe in environments that focus on “winning at all costs”, where mistakes are punished, social comparisons are drawn, or riders with the better (read: more expensive) ponies are being paid more attention.
Task-involved individuals on the other hand define success through personal levels of accomplishment. They are “self-referenced”, i.e. they compare current to previous levels of performance. In essence, these young athletes (riders) feel successful once they have mastered a new task, witnessed personal skill improvement or gave their best effort. More importantly, they are likely to feel that they have achieved their goals as long as they did well within their own frame of reference – even if, for example at a show, another rider went home as the winner.
There can be no doubt that a task-involved approach to riding is both healthier and more sustainable in the long run than an ego-involved obsession with winning. Equally evident is that during their formative years young riders will develop appropriate goal-orientations as taught to them.
I know I’m only at the beginning of parenthood. I know I’ve only just started to scratch the surface of what it means to be a “good parent”. Yet I truly hope that, in a few years time, I’ll be able to encourage personal development and horsemanship skills over winning in my own little boy; that I’ll be able to highlight the joys of horsemanship over the economic value of a pony; and that, on occasion, I might use Thelwell as a source of inspiration!
Then again, perhaps my son will end up wanting to play football instead….