“Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” — Robert Kennedy
Eventing is not one of those sports for the vain and proud — you can ask anyone who’s ever had a fresh load dropped on them from above while they were picking a back hoof. The sport itself is rife with moments that remind us how much we have to learn. Maybe that’s part of why it can be so addictive and heartbreaking at the same time.
Back when I was a kid, I wasn’t in a riding program so much as I was a barn rat at a trail riding facility. One day, they took pity on my ill-fated childhood ambition to be the next Margie Goldstein-Engle and they took me to a local county horse show.
It did not go great.
Other than my mount breaking loose from the trailer and terrorizing the entire show ground, I don’t fully recall the gruesome details of the day, but suffice to say I was a nervous, mortified wreck. Margie has big boots to fill, after all, and I just wasn’t measuring up.
What I do remember is the cigarette in the corner of my instructor’s mouth bouncing up and down as she said to me: “No need to be nervous. We ain’t getting paid for this, we’re doing it for fun.”
That simple little statement was like a weight lifted, and I still think about it sometimes when I’m epic-failing my way through eventing. I don’t have anything to prove to anyone, except to my horse that he can trust me.
Sometimes, it feels like we just suck at riding, and if we’re not careful it’s easy to let our (perceived) failure as equestrians steal our joy as riders. We all could use a little elbow room from all our self-created pressure.
We do this because we love it, not because we love to be good at it. If we loved to be good at something we’d take up a pursuit that is considerably easier, like full contact football or learning to read/write in sanskrit. But we love horses, and we love riding.
The serious pursuit to become a great, good or even halfway effective rider is not easy. Even five-star rider Lainey Ashker recently shared some failure-acquired wisdom through social media: “Don’t be afraid to make mistakes because that means you’re striving for progress.”
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“Show me a guy who’s afraid to look bad, and I’ll show you a guy you can beat every time.” -Lou Brock 👊🏽👊🏽👊🏽 PSA: Even professionals make mistakes guys…that’s how we become professionals…by testing the limits and pushing ourselves. If you would have been out in my jump ring yesterday you probably would have counted over 500 jumps I took (cumulatively) on all the horses I rode and I didn’t stop until I felt each horse had accomplished what I felt he or she needed to. I post this “fail” to show you that I make mistakes and this was NO FAULT OF TORO’S in fact he was a blessed Saint sent from the stars above to be honest and continue down the line for me like he did. Truth is I COMPLETELY missed my striding into the line and it sucked but we were no worse the wear and came back and corrected the mistake I made. The point of this post is quite simple: don’t be afraid to make mistakes because that means you’re pushing the envelope; you’re striving for progress. And when you do make that mistake because undoubtedly you will make one, do your best to make the most of it in that very instant so you can take away all the positive so you come back even better from it the next time! #LÆsquad #failfrenzy #goodboytoro #ottbaward #holdyourline #nowthatsaneventinghorse #mindgym #eyesontheprize #trainhard
So day after day, we board the struggle bus and embarrass ourselves in front of God and everyone. We tell ourselves not to give up, and we practice, we screw up, we practice more, we screw up more, and after a tough ride we silently apologize to our horse peacefully grazing at the end of a lead rope, and then one day it all falls into place and we don’t have to think about it. In fact, the harder we struggled to get there, the more satisfying it feels when we finally do.
And then, a new struggle bus pulls up at the station and guess what? Now we suck at something else.
Don’t be afraid to ride that struggle bus — it will take you to success if you stay humble. Really learning to ride — not just steer or even equitate — takes guts, humility and courage. So cut yourself some slack when you screw up. Take a deep breath. We do this because we love it.
It’s okay to feel the pressure of doing well, as long as you don’t exert that pressure on your mount, your coach or the people around you. It’s okay to screw up over and over and over again, but know when to take a step back or change the topic before your horse pays the price for your screw ups.
So if you’re the weakest link in your clinic or lesson group (side note: this is my disclaimer every time I attend a clinic), shake it off and soak up the learning opportunities. Don’t shy away from tweaking your position down the banks so you can find the ideal balance — even if it means going ugly and getting left behind/dropping ahead a few times until you get there. Seize the opportunity to train your horse at the schooling show, even if you knock all the rails down with everyone watching. You’ll come back stronger for it, even if your cheeks burn with embarrassment now. You’re tough enough to fall off and hit the ground, you can stand a little humiliation.
We all hit walls, no matter how long we’ve been at it. Just on the other side of those walls is growth. So keep the faith, and keep flailing around ‘til you get there.
Go forth and look stupid (and give your horse a few extra carrots for saving your ass when you need it)!
Beth Clymer is a lower level eventer based in Atlanta, GA. You can often catch her chattering away like a weirdo to her OTTB, Ima Iny Too, as they gallop around the cross country course. She also owns/operates Firefly Farm and Pony Lessons, where she teaches beginner riders the ropes of english riding.