When I was around 11 or 12, I was in an equitation class at a horse show. Equitation classes are judged on your riding ability and, in this class, the judge was observing over a dozen riders in the ring. As you can imagine, watching over a dozen good riders ride around the ring for ten minutes can be difficult to score them on their riding ability, so this judge did something different. She had everyone line up and asked us one at a time to, “sit your trot in a straight line to the fence.” At first everyone was able to trot straight to the fence, but them one rider veered to the right so now riders had to make a bend to the right if they wanted to get to the rail. Towards the end, one rider, who was not known for having a great position, trotted her horse straight and stopped behind another horse NOT on the rail. I remember thinking, “she didn’t listen to the directions, what was she thinking doing something different?” The judge awarded her first place and gave us all a speech that has stuck with me over the years.
“Everyone was good, that is why I asked for something to set you all apart. This one rider (who was standing with a big blue ribbon) thought outside from what everyone else did. That took courage and says a lot about her riding abilities.”
Man was I mad. I thought to myself, “if the judge wanted us to be original, why didn’t she just say that!? Why didn’t she emphasize trotting STRAIGHT instead of TO THE RAIL. And why would the rider do something different? She made it all awkward for us!” I think I got third place but I was being a perfectionist and I was learning a lesson.
I now see how impactful that class was on me not only in my riding, but in my life. There is something courageous about doing things differently and either people respond with inspiration or they come with criticism. I find that there is a lot of criticism, the same way I criticized that girl so many years ago. “Why did she make it awkward for us?” At that point, I realized there was no right way to ride, there was my way and either people were going to judge us or not. Some might like the way I do things, and some might not. My point is that if we take the focus off of being perfect and we move from our original self, yes that is courageous, but it also changes the brain from focusing on others’ judgements and helps us focus more on our ability to think outside the box and be creative.
One question I like for either riding students or clients is, “if you lived on a deserted island, would this still bother you?”
This question points to a scary point, that we are in some ways alone. Our opinions, our choices, they are ultimately ours and we can’t keep changing them to make others happy and comfortable. Making others comfortable is not our job, it is theirs. We can listen, experience, and change but we need to “ride” for ourselves and our horse, not for the blue ribbons. The blue ribbons will come if they are meant to come.
Some of my students are around that age of 11 or 12 and they struggle with wanting to be perfect, and I tell them there is no such thing as perfection, and then they talk about engagement and roundness, and distances to their jump and they tell me their job and give an evaluation of how well or not well they are doing at their job. They have a good point, but sometimes I hear that judge’s voice coming from my own, and I say to the girls, “Riding with courage says a lot about your riding ability,” and little light bulbs go off in their heads as they contemplate the meaning of riding perfectly versus riding courageously. Can you imagine what it would be like to ride from our hearts, ride with courage to try new things, to dream about the unknown possibilities, and give up own agendas. Indeed, I wonder what it would be like if we all decided to live our life that way.
Kaia Livingstone is a psychotherapist who runs a private practice outside of Boulder, CO. She specializes in helping horses and humans bond in order to help them relate and connect on a deeper level.