Julie Howard: Confessions of a ‘Master’ Event Rider – What Is Sportsmanship?

Julie Howard is back with more confessions of a Master Event Rider. This time around, she addresses the idea of sportsmanship and how she has changed her definition of it. What thoughts would you add for your personal definition of sportsmanship? Post in the comments below!

Photo courtesy of  A Horse Life Photography.

Photo courtesy of A Horse Life Photography.

What is sportsmanship?

I’ve thought a lot about this question since completing the application for the Salisbury Trust Scholarship, which states as its mission that it is about promoting sportsmanship and good humor. I’ve had children in sports and I’ve always talked the talk about being a gracious loser, thanking the other team, and leaving the locker room cleaner than you found it. But I’m not sure I ever really knew what sportsmanship meant, and certainly didn’t know what it felt like when the going got tough. This summer, I think I have learned something about sportsmanship from an unexpected source: my horse.

I started to write this essay as a kind of thank you note to the folks who gave me the scholarship. I felt they deserved to know what the scholarship had meant to me and what I had learned. I also wanted to make people laugh if possible.

I thought that by laughing at myself, that meant that I had “sportsmanship”. I thought that if I could demonstrate that I knew I struggled with this “horse stuff,” I was a good sport. I thought it would be cute to get others to laugh and my lesson on sportsmanship would be done. Here’s what I started to write about, and haha, Julie knows that she isn’t good but at least she is funny therefore she is a good sport:

1. Sportsmanship is holding in your tears of disappointment after a poor showing in dressage so that you set a good example for the younger members of your barn family. Then getting caught violating your own rule of sportsmanship as you sob into your horse’s shoulder (well, to the extent you can while your horse is dancing around like a Lipizzaner, which accounts in part for the aforesaid poor showing in dressage (“flying leap” not being a move that is recognized in the Novice A dressage test).

2. Sportsmanship is smiling at your final halt even though you are aware that your horse is smiling at the halt too, or is that just because she has the bit between her teeth while maintaining her open mouth, head up stance while you attempt to achieve a semblance of a halt? Well, it looks a little like a smile, although in your dreams tonight when you finally arrive at your bed (at midnight, but still) it will look like the clownishly creepy permanently fixed-open mouth of a carousel horse.

3. Sportsmanship is noting all of the good things that happened at the show even though there was some bad that might have been more noticeable or even embarrassing.

Example #1: Your horse remained actually attached to the trailer for greater than 15 minutes rather than rearing, breaking the twine and running off. “Loose horse!” causes your autonomic nervous system to kick in, creating arm goosebumps and running feet toward your rust bucket trailer even when it might not be your horse because it likely is.

Example #2: That you were actually able to leave the trailer for three minutes to use the porta potty instead of contemplating for the 23,452nd time whether or not to buy your own portable potty since you can’t leave your horse tied to the trailer for fear she will get herself caught and pull off the bumper clearance light (she did).

Example #3: That only eight people commented on how “hot” your horse is, rather than the usual 23.

Example #4: That your friends saw your stadium round and said, “The first two fences were really good” instead of the usual, “well, the two of you are still learning.”

Example #5: Your horse only took the long spot on 7 of the 9 jumps instead of 9/9.

Example #6: You actually were able to calmly speak your number to the dressage steward this time instead of craning your neck behind you shouting said number as you rocketed by the blissfully-unaware-of-the-imminent-danger steward

Example #7: You were able to stop within a furlong of the end of the cross country course rather than circling around the grounds pretending to be out on a casual warm up hack while simultaneously gritting your teeth, swearing and ripping your horse’s teeth out trying to stop her.

4. Sportsmanship is realizing that only one person can win and that this is about the journey. It might be a journey into INSANITY (shout out to the gals at Eventing Nation), but a journey nonetheless.

5. Sportsmanship is realizing that the journey is the thing that is full of learning and that it isn’t very interesting just to coast to victory. Why coast when you can be a projectile over the fence when your horse crow hops or bounds like an antelope clearing the jump by three feet?

6. Sportsmanship is swallowing your pride at your own disappointing performance and jumping up and down screaming and clapping because your barn sister has just completed her first sanctioned event in many years. She had been injured and was scared, and now overcame her fear…and is wearing a wide smile of happiness and the glow of accomplishment

7. Sportsmanship is laughing WITH the folks who are laughing AT you as you rocket by on cross country, exhausted from trying to get your mount to “rebalance” between obstacles, or at least not run with her head on the ground attempting to evade your frequent attempts to institute some semblance of control.

8. Sportsmanship is going to the competitor party to “talk to people” rather than to “grab whatever alcohol I can get my paws on to calm down from the trailer ride from hell.”

9. Sportsmanship is waking up early to “get through dressage” in order to gallop hell bent for leather over a course that previously terrified me. Now, each jump instills confidence, joy and an adrenaline rush into my life as Sweetie catapults over fences I never thought we could face, let alone conquer, leaving me breathless and glowing with excitement (ok, that may not have been directly about sportsmanship, but I had to throw that in because it was so damn wonderful).

Those things were funny and let me laugh at myself, and made me think I knew what sportsmanship is. But, as I sit here in my air conditioned home after trailering back four and a half hours from another foray/flight of fancy to another state, I am reflecting on the whole notion of eventing a 7-year-old OTTB that I trained myself.

I’m getting the feeling that the word “sportsmanship” sometimes means things that I might not want it to mean, and requires actions I’m really not keen about taking.

It means that I might have to take a dang hard look at the possibility that MY goals just might not be what is best for my HORSE. And that scares me, because I spend a lot of time trying to get to my goals. I’m not sure if I know how to adjust.

At this last event, I trailered with a buddy who has a step up slant load gorgeous trailer with living quarters and a tack room in the rear. I was honored to join her and grateful for a place to sleep that wasn’t a tent. Sweetie, however, wasn’t quite as enamored with the trailer. “Step up” necessarily requires a “step down” when debarking.

She went in fine, but she was terrified of getting off the trailer, stepping backwards curving her bum around the tack area through the small opening in the back and stepping off down into what she believed was the horsey version of a giant black hole.

We spent a long time coaxing her into leaving the trailer, and for a good few minutes of that time she put her muzzle firmly into the crook of my arm as she literally trembled all over with fear. If that horse could talk, and she almost does at times, she would be saying, PLEASE I am scared and I trust you, my person, to keep me safe. I betrayed her trust because I had to get her off the trailer (three times, each time more traumatic than the last), but I feel terrible.

I have some work ahead of me to regain that fragile bond. I may be overthinking this, but I am disappointed in myself for putting her through that in order to do a show because I wanted to be there.

Once at the show, in my 45 minute warmup I think we had maybe two minutes of relaxation. The other 43 minutes consisted of me trying to get her not to slam into other horses in the warmup, to calm down, not flee and to pay attention to ME and not all the sights and sounds that remind her of the track and trigger her subconscious into “race mode”. I just wanted to replicate what we did at home.

After warmup, Sweetie carried into the sandbox what was for her excitement but for me was “lack of throughness” “lack of relaxation” and “tension”. Her “antennas up,” “scan the area for danger” and racing breeding typically translates into a fairly crappy dressage test with occasional strides of brilliance when I get her attention.

I look for the little positives because my expectations based on her performance at home raise my hopes that she can hold it together at a show and demonstrate what I know to be amazing and athletic gaits, calm transitions and a harmonious picture. I have to be satisfied with those little positives because typically, that’s not something my darling 7-year-old sweetheart can do, at least with me in the irons. So sportsmanship demands that I lower my expectations and be satisfied with what we can do. I just thought doing that would be easier than it actually turns out to be.

The jumping phases aren’t that difficult for her but again, the warmup is a challenge. It’s no mistake that I ended up with Sweetie, for her personality is, as is mine, a “just go do it” one. That makes for a difficult wait to go into the stadium ring or to wait for the countdown to cross country. Prancing, grabbing the bit and bolting are the order of the day, and depending on the size of the warmup the experience can be manageable or hellish (for me). Let me just apologize in advance to all my co-warmer-uppers for my screams of “INSIDE” and “OUTSIDE” trying to indicate where I THINK my horse will be in one stride or two or ten, or the three giant leaps I can feel coming.

We did fine in this event, coming in the middle of the pack. All in all it was a positive experience. We managed to get her on and off the trailer one last time, again terrifying her so much that she wouldn’t even get off my trailer despite the actual existence of a ramp when we finally alighted at home. Reflecting on the experience though, I am left with a feeling that something just isn’t quite right.

I have an uneasiness about doing it again that usually I can shake but this time can’t seem to. I could be that I’m tired which I certainly am, but it could be something else. I also know that as a woman who has accomplished some things in life (not through talent, but just by virtue of the number of years since my birthdate), I tend to over think things. Because I know this, I usually discount my misgivings with a lot of encouragement from my friends and coaches (I’m sure they are sick of hearing it by now, sorry gals).

Having said that, as the 2014 season draws to a close, I have one more scheduled event on the horizon. I’ve sent in my entry, but I have to think long and hard about going. Sportsmanship in this circumstance might require that I put my own needs aside and look at the needs of my horse, that four legged giant pocket pony lap-dog-in-another-life brown-eyed sweet girl who whinnies when she sees me and I call her name. That beautiful smart fancy joyous horse who brings so much happiness and fulfillment into my life, and who, when faced with terror, put her muzzle and her trust into my arms and stayed there. What does she need?

Maybe she needs to be relieved of the responsibility of carrying my “I’m 51 and don’t have that many riding years left so I have to accomplish this NOW” dreams.

Maybe she needs to not have the pressure of my need to show off (hard to admit, but that might be true). Maybe what she needs at age 7 and only two and a half years off the track is for me to stop looking at her as my Everest, to be scaled as another goal on the bucket list of MY life.

Maybe she just likes being in New Hampshire, being ridden with her buddies at Green Acres, running around hopping over fences, and sometimes carrying my teenager friends over the aforesaid fences for the squeals of joy her jumping elicits from them (I’m just a big kid, yes, and I hang out with the teenagers in the barn because they are fun and sassy, and they hug me a lot).

Maybe she views my wishes as meaningless and as confusing as stepping off the trailer into what she feared was the horsey giant black hole. Maybe I need to think about sportsmanship as horsemanship, and take my cues from my horse, who is likely trying to tell me something that I’m too proud or selfish to hear. Maybe I need to stop and listen to my equine buddy who is wiser and certainly less selfish than me. Maybe I need to pack up my show clothes now and call it a season, just enjoying fall in New England and riding Sweetie for the sheer joy of it.

I’ll be watching and listening in the next couple weeks for a sign that it’s right or it’s wrong to go, and go with my gut when I have to fish or cut bait, paying better attention to what my horse is trying to tell me rather than what my ego is trying to shout to me. It’s going to be tough, but that’s what is required.

I thought I knew what sportsmanship was. I thought it meant being a gracious loser, being cheerful and self-deprecating. That seemed easy — we all have experience losing and I am no exception. What I didn’t know was that when you have a sports partner that can’t talk to you, sportsmanship means complete selflessness to do what is right for your horse. That, and being grateful for all the lessons she has taught you about life and being a better person, without even saying a word.

Go eventing – with sportsmanship.

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