It’s a question that plays a central role for most competitive riders. How to measure success.
We live (and ride) in a world where one record score is chasing the next. I’m not just talking about that international lot either – even at local, regional, national level reports focus on “highest score of the day”, “the week” or “the competition”. And because of the ever-present social media, it’s become almost impossible to not know about it. So, being a competitive rider striving for some level of recognition, some small measure of success, is tough. Perhaps tougher than ever before.
Therefore, you and many other riders, might tell yourself that being successful equals… exactly, winning! So if you want to make your mark in the horsey world – be that at local or international level – you must win.
You go to a show thinking that you’ll do just that. Win. And why the hell not? You’ve practised hard, you’ve got a good horse, you know your test. So, really, you deserve to win. By the time you get to the show ground, you’re wound up so tight nobody in your entourage dares to talk to you any more.
And then you find out who’s judging today.
Oh no! That judge hates your horse. But you’ve set yourself the goal to win. You’ll never manage now. But you must! You really, really, must.
So you get on your horse. You manage to calm yourself, telling yourself how hard you’ve practised and you walk him to the warm-up arena.
But there, heaven forbid, is your biggest competitor. What is she doing here? She rides that really expensive horse, and her trainer’s always by her side. That’s not fair! You were going to win, and now you probably won’t.
But you’re here now, so you might as well go through with it. You warm up your horse – keeping an eye on your nemesis the entire time. Her horse is more collected than yours, isn’t it? And in the extended trot, her horse has got a lot more reach.
But it’s almost time to go in, so you rush through another few of the movements. Your horse feels less through than usual. But how can that be? You’ve been practising so hard…
Never mind, you’re in the ring now. Just before the judge (that dreaded judge – she isn’t even smiling. Gosh, she really hates your horse), rings the bell, you notice your old trainer (friend, owner of your horse, etc.) standing at the enclosure, watching you. What will he think of you? Oh dear, he might think your horse is going much worse than the last time he saw you. And now your horse is dropping off your leg, and going against the contact.
That’s when the bell goes.
You muddle through as best as you can. The final score is not great. You didn’t win.
You go home. You’re so disappointed.
Okay, I admit, that example was perhaps a little over the top. But many of you will recognise yourselves in some, if not all, of the micro-scenarios described above.
The problem almost always starts with the wrong definition of success. To many riders today success equals winning. Not so! At least not in my view.
If you focus on winning from the outset, you’re putting yourself in a situation that is almost impossible to control. There’s simply too many variables to control: The judge, other riders, the horses other riders sit on. But if you want to win, everything needs to go in your favour. That’s luck, not skill. Deep down, we all know that we cannot influence luck – and it makes us terribly nervous.
The result is that we keep thinking about the things we can’t control, rather than the things we should control – namely the horse we sit on.
Much better than to shift your mindset from wanting to win to riding the very best test you possibly can. That means thinking about all the things you can do to make sure your test really sparkles: solid practise, good management, leaving on time, knowing how to ride your warm-up, and, most importantly, knowing how you need to ride your test (e.g. do you need to keep him sharp throughout, or does he need to stay relaxed instead, that sort of thing).
If you manage all that – if you manage to achieve everything you yourself set out to do – then you are successful. No matter where you end up compared to the rest of the world (in all honesty though, if you’ve done all of that, in all likelihood it’ll be reflected in your final score anyway).
P.s.: It’s quite obvious that I’ve used the disciplines that are judged, i.e. dressage, Western or vaulting as an example. But it equally applies to other, non-judged, disciplines too.