There are times when my Type A personality comes in handy as an equestrian. I’m always double checking that stall doors and gates are latched, my leg wraps end with the velcro exactly parallel to my horse’s side (otherwise they are getting re-done), I gained the name ‘Mary Poppins’ from my intercollegiate team after compiling a show bag that had everything from extra crops, number strings and boot laces, to a Tide To-Go pen, a complete sewing kit, snacks, and a first aid kit, among other things. There are a lot of aspects of working around horses and horse ownership that an overly-close attention to detail can be helpful.
But where my inner perfectionist becomes a negative is as soon as I put my foot in the stirrup and swing into the saddle.
Growing up, I can’t say I had much going for me as an equestrian prodigy; I had the right build for a rider, and was willing to work hard to spend as much time as I could around horses. I didn’t have a big budget, but volunteered to help with events at the barn in exchange for extra rides. I scoured the tack store for deals when it came to show clothes or borrowed what I could. My mom made an old, size 14 show coat fit me for a season (now as an adult, my soft shell jacket is a child’s XL, so it was a feat of tailoring magic).
Maybe I let that impede my mindset – I didn’t own or lease a horse; sometimes I was only riding once a week. Half my outfit was second-hand or out-of-style. Somehow I didn’t feel I was as good as the other kids I showed with. But I worked hard, and my enthusiasm was undiminished.
I think that attitude transferred over big time when I joined an intercollegiate team. I’d had no exposure to the hunter/jumper world, so no one told me that it is typically a conservative environment. I showed up to my placement ride (not a “try out” per se, but a trial so the coaches can see what lessons will be appropriate) in maroon cotton breeches, a tank top, zebra print gloves and my Troxel. I immediately felt out of place next to girls with their Tailored Sportsmans and polos, especially since I’d never jumped so much as a cross-rail and I didn’t even know what an oxer was. Again, not much going for me other than I was willing to work hard. I traded painting jumps and helping with camps for extra ride time, spent my afternoons studying on the rail so I could watch as many riders and horses and courses and hear as much instruction as possible.
I spent the next four years trying to catch up to girls who’d had more show ring experience than I’ll probably ever have, who grew up riding ponies, eventing and doing dressage. I justified every course filled with baby verticals that I posted on Facebook as ‘not bad for someone who has only been jumping for ‘X amount of time’ rather than being proud of my accomplishments. My equitation wasn’t perfect, I wasn’t going to be picked for point rider, and if I ever got to show over fences it might well be a miracle (I did, twice, and did great – but that was the perfectionist talking).
Then when I bought The Mare, and then brought her to school with me to teach her to jump, the perfectionist grew into a bigger monster. Now, it was not just about my own inadequacies, but now I had a horse directly under my care and training – what if I screwed her up? What if I was holding her back? Looked like a total fool? Those thoughts would scroll through my brain about 25 times a day. The barn was full of imports, horses who’d been big eq mounts, horses worth tens (and some worth hundreds) of thousands of dollars. Horses donated from prominent professionals. And there I was with my $600 rescued Morgan who I thought might like to jump.
As a perfectionist, my worst critic isn’t anyone else at the barn, on my team, the coaches, the judges…it has always been myself. I analyze videos frame-by-frame to pick apart my equitation, I replay the mistakes over and over, I lament what I should have done to prevent those same mistakes.
When we started jumping more substantial things, and then showing, The Mare started to garner more compliments – and I was always quick to give her the credit. I truly believe that she was put on this planet to jump things, and her natural aptitude has saved my sorry behind on more than one occasion, and I was just along for the ride.
Once we moved so I could attend vet school, I felt like I had something to prove – I was operating without a trainer for the first time ever – which translated in my mind to I had to make us perfect to prove we were capable of doing things on our own.
Now (back under the tutelage of Trainer – I fully recognize I am not ready to be on my own), we are starting to unpack the bad habits and push out the perfectionist. It’s difficult – if I had a nickel (or heck, even a penny) for each time I’ve been told to ‘let go’, ‘stop holding onto her face’ or ‘stop micromanaging’, I could probably pay off my vet school loans before I graduate. Old habits die hard I suppose; but with a lot of active, conscious effort to try not to nag my horse every step, things have been getting better.
While schooling at Hoosier Horse Park recently, I got a lesson on myself. I had just finished my first stadium round school and had barely walked out of the ring before trying to justify the mistakes I’d made and Trainer stopped me outright, and in no uncertain terms told me something I don’t know that I’ve been blatantly told.
“You need to have more confidence in YOURself. You need to give yourself more credit. You could not have asked for any more out there; she was great. You are not a scary rider. And even if I was NOT your trainer and I watched that round, I would be thinking, “nice horse, nice rider”‘.
Was she right? The perfectionist was thinking about the chip we had at that one fence, and the fact that we were getting ready to cross-country school and I was freaking out. I tried to take her advice and I pushed that voice aside. And we had a second lovely stadium round, and proceeded to have an amazing afternoon cross-country schooling. Not actively trying to make everything perfect actually made everything go better.
In our last lesson, Trainer put the fences up, something she said she would’ve been nervous to do just a few months ago. As we cantered around (not ran, not half-galloped, not careened – cantered), I was reminded a few times to not touch her face. But less than usual. We chipped into a bounce, and guess what? I survived the imperfection.
“Perfectionism is not a quest for the best. It is a pursuit of the worst in ourselves, the part that tells us that nothing we do will ever be good enough.” ― Julia Cameron
I’m trying to take this quote to heart, and believe myself a little more when I say that I have a nice horse, I’m a capable rider, that it does not need to be perfect, that progress is made faster when you can learn from mistakes, that the success my horse and I have is because I have an awesome horse, but also because of who is piloting her. This mindset – not of what went wrong but rather what went right, what is getting better – is already improving my horse’s attitude, our work ethic, our flatwork and over fences work, my equitation. Once I was coaxed (okay, probably more like dragged kicking and screaming) out of my comfort zone, it feels really good to not be constantly tearing myself apart.
I might not be the next international show jumper, but the thing I still have going for me is that I am still willing to work hard.
Not for perfection now, but for progress.