I am a crazy competitive humanoid, probably thanks in large part to my upbringing with a crazy competitive mother. My boyfriend thinks that there’s actually a huge hole in my brain regarding working on and in teams, because I only ever did individual sports (swimming, gymnastics, math competitions – oops not a sport) growing up, and resultantly kinda suck at team work. Because of this, I can really make riding hard on myself, as I’m constantly doing what I shouldn’t be doing, namely comparing myself to other riders around me. However, being super competitive isn’t really a healthy way to interact with your friends and can quickly land you at the bottom of your social pile. Ask me how I know.
Competing against your friends can be both a blessing and a curse. It’s great to be surrounded by friendly faces, but both winning and losing are bittersweet. Regardless of your level of competition or familiarity with your competitors, good sportsmanship is extremely important, and can really make the difference between a good show and a bad show. With show season right around the corner — my first show of the year is a week and a day from today! — I’m sharing some of the strategies I use to make myself a better competitor and friend.
- Congratulate your friends on their rounds and rides – good or bad.
Last summer, at Murray’s and my first horse trials, I was beaten by 0.4 points by my friend R on her mom’s 15 year old Arabian trail horse, who was a last minute show sub when her horse went mysteriously lame before the show. I had moved up from last place after dressage to second after cross country, and there were 8.4 penalties between us and the blue. R was a super good sport about it, and we joked all through dinner about how her horse would probably crash through every fence as his jumping career was limited to trails and shits and giggles prior to his entry at this show. Murray and I put in a double clear stadium round and watched as R rode her round. She and her horse took down two rails, and knocked the last rail on course, but it miraculously stayed up, keeping her the blue and me the red. Though I would have loved to come home with a blue ribbon at our first show, R did an incredible job that weekend through every phase, and I congratulated her about it repeatedly and we laughed together about those 0.4 points.
Congratulating your friends on their rides is one of the first steps in sportsmanlike behavior, even if you don’t believe it or feel it at the time because you’re burning up with hatred that a 15 year old Arab just stole your blue ribbon. If you pretend you are something enough times (in this case, happy for your friend who won!), eventually you’re going to start to be that thing. And if that thing is kinder and more sportsmanlike, I’m not sure there’s a problem with that. Whether you compliment your human or equine competition, there’s something to congratulate after every round, even if it’s just making it out alive. “Good ride!” “Great round!” or “Congratulations!” are all you need say.
On a similar note, wish your competition good luck as they are about to start their round. I was blown away when I was visiting a rated event and saw competitors wishing one another luck as they were about to enter the start box on cross country. You would never have seen me wishing someone good luck as we stepped up to the diving blocks at a swim meet, and certainly not as I was about to listen to the opposing team at a debate (not a sport but something I also relished winning in middle school). This sport is too dangerous for people not to have good luck and good rides when doing it – so build yourself some karma and be a good sport.
- Graciously accept comments or compliments after your ride.
There is nothing worse than congratulating a competitor after a round and hearing them respond “Oh that was such an ugly ride,” or even worse, “My horse was TERRIBLE.” You do not want to be the person who blames their horse for a bad round, especially when he doesn’t deserve it. (This is not to say horses don’t have off days, but it’s not their choice to be at a show, it’s yours.) So when someone congratulates you on your ride, open your mouth, and say “Thank you.” You can add more if you would like, some excellent suggestions include “I had a great time,” or “She tried so hard for me!” or “We just moved up and I’m really proud of us.” If you can smile and mean it while you do so, all the better.
Did you maybe have some rails or a refusal in your round and accidentally scream “DICKHEAD” when it happened? Did you get penalized in your dressage test for your horse kicking out as you tried to pick up the canter right in front of the judge? Did you have a sweet runout at the water in cross country, nearly shooting you over to the novice down-bank into the water and narrowly avoiding crashing through a flag by hauling hard right? (Definitely none of these things have ever happened to me…) Despite any of these things, appreciate that someone is congratulating you on the good parts of your ride and accept the compliment on behalf of your horse, if not yourself.
- Accept responsibility for your role in your ride – be it good or bad.
Though I’ve definitely blamed Murray for a bad ride immediately after it, I know that in the end, I’m responsible for our performance. And if we’re getting 45s in dressage (penalties… not dressage scores!!) it’s not because Murray wasn’t doing what I was telling him to do, it was because I didn’t tell him the right things to do.
By the same token, if I have a good ride, I know that it’s not all on Murray. Sure, he is a super honest angel who will jump anything I point him at, but to get there he still needs someone to do the pointing. Last time I checked, he can’t read a course map. So I let myself glow a little bit even though I give Murray the majority of the credit.
- Stop comparing yourself to your competition. Seriously, stop it.
Despite what the ribbons say, and the rankings, and the points, and the end of year championships, the person you are competing with most at any given competition is yourself. You are trying to put in your best ride, bring the best out in your horse, and the only person whose performance you should be concerned with is yours. Maybe other people have nicer horses than you – nothing you can do about it. Maybe other people have been riding for longer than you – nothing you can do about it. Maybe other people have ridden at a higher level than you and are at an advantage at this level – nothing you can do about it. Are you sensing a theme here? If you stop comparing yourself to other riders, you can concentrate more on making you and your horse look like absolute BAMFs, which is what it’s really all about.
He knows what his job is!
- Respect the judges’ rulings, even when you disagree.
Let’s go back to my most glorious dressage score: that one time I got a 50. Yeah, it reads the same in eventing and dressage, don’t worry about it. I didn’t get the most entertaining score in eventing or dressage because the dressage judge had a wicked hate-on for 5’1” Australian girls riding scrawny bay thoroughbreds — I got it because we sucked and even then the judge was generous! (And on the off chance that the dressage judge does have some kind of weird, discriminatory hatred for me, there is nothing to do about it, so there’s no point dwelling on it.) I know nothing about the hunter world, but I imagine that hunter judges also make riders upset sometimes. However, these people are officials for a reason, and regardless of what you think about their ruling, it happened. And you should respect that it happened, no matter where it puts you in the standings.
Deriding a judges’ decision is not only disrespectful to that judge, but it is also disrespectful to everyone else who was judged by them. Inevitably, people were judged differently than you were, and to say that your scores were inappropriate also says that others’ scores were inappropriate. And yes, that means you’re diminishing the good scores as well as the bad. So look for the good in any judges’ decision and keep any negativity you might have to yourself – or get it out quietly in private and never say it again.
This judge tried to disqualify me for horse abuse (Murray threw an epic tantrum during the second canter circle, long story), but all of her comments on my test were reasonable, fair, and accurate — even if I didn’t think so while I was bawling at the time. (Also, my kitten kindly obscured the judges’ name for anonymity. Thanks Milo!)
- Keep trash talk to a minimum.
This is not only polite behavior, because ears are everywhere and somebody will probably overhear things you don’t want them to hear, but goes back to something I touched on in number one: if you say something enough times, you’ll probably start to believe it. And the things you might say in disappointment are probably not actually true. Talking smack about your competition might feel good at the time, but it is really not a sustainable strategy long term. And think about what you’re really saying: if you deride the person who won as having a mule-like horse that looks lame and can barely jump, what are you actually saying about yourself? Logical rejoinder: it’s that your horse did worse, moves worse, or looks worse than a mule who looks lame and can barely jump. Don’t talk smack. Just don’t do it.
Seriously — I pay more attention to this than trash talk.
- Don’t sweat the small stuff.
I left little hints about this all throughout the blog – it’s kindof my life mantra. It’s hard, I know. It’s taken me the last seven years to learn not to sweat the small stuff, with consistent coaching from my boyfriend, and I still fall into that trap. But if you can let all the little stuff fall away from you, then you’re going to find yourself having a much better time, and a lot less stressed out.