As an undergraduate student, I did not start university with any goal other than to do my job to the best of my ability. I followed three rules from day 1. Rule number one was “never miss a class.” Rule number two was “go to class prepared.” Rule number three was “begin assignments and/or study for tests well in advance of the due date.” I used my grades to measure success.
I printed those rules and they were posted in my home office throughout my university career. I followed them religiously and they paid off.
I was, and am, proud of my academic performance as an undergraduate. Indeed, I’ve often said that you could take away my M.A. and Ph.D. However, you’d have to fight me to the death to take away my B.A. My B.A. is the degree of which I’m most proud because it involved learning how to learn. I treasure that document beyond measure.
What Not to Do When You Get a Grade You Don’t Like
As proud as I was/am of my performance as an undergraduate, I regret that my grades were the only way I knew to measure success. Once, as a junior, or third-year student as we say in Canada, I earned an A minus on an essay. I was devastated. I was also mad. So, I wrote the professor a letter telling him that he didn’t know good writing when he saw it. I also suggested that he reevaluate his career choice. (Note: if you’re a student, don’t ever do this.)
Not only did I write that letter–this was before we used email for everything–but I actually mailed it. The professor wasn’t impressed. He called me in and reminded me, in no uncertain terms, that he was the professor and I was the student. In the end, I learned more about writing from him than I did from anyone else. Years later, I sent him a copy of my book when it came out. My worst fear was that he’d write an A minus on it and send it back. He didn’t, thankfully.
How Horse Showing Taught Me New Ways to Measure Success
It has taken me much longer than I like to admit to find other ways to measure success. Showing horses has taught me that one can measure success in ways that have nothing to do with grades or ribbons or buckles.
I did not begin showing until I was 30. I was fortunate to have a very seasoned, competitive, show horse early on in my horse showing career. Tiffany Two Spots, who turns 25 years old today, was/is the kindest, most generous horse in the world. The less a rider knew, the harder Tiffany tried. Such characteristics are rare among horses. Not once, in the years I competed with Tiffany, did she ever cheat in the show pen. Cheating in the show pen can be anything from resistance or misbehavior to not focusing on the job at hand. I don’t think the idea of cheating ever even occurred to her.
With Tiffany, although there were ups and downs as in any competitive sport, winning came easily. Tiffany made me think I was a pretty good rider. Indeed, we did very well together until I retired her at 19–she was a 7 time World Champion with many Reserve World Champion titles to her name also.
Then, I bought a couple of young horses. My youngsters quickly taught me that I was not as good a rider as Tiffany had led me to believe. Whereas Tiffany said to me, in her own way, “Don’t worry, I’ve got this, Just sit back and let me take care of us,” the youngsters said, “Hey lady, you’re on your own. I’ve got my own stuff going on.” It was humbling, to say the least. I realized that, in the interest of my own sanity, I had to find ways other than winning to measure success in the show pen.
My friend Dr. Christine Woodford would be the one to teach me that. Christine, a veterinarian who is certified in Animal Chiropractic and Acupuncture, is one of the most talented riders and disciplined people I’ve ever met. She has enjoyed enormous success both in and out of the show pen. She showed her beloved gelding, Jackson, for a long time, earning many World and Reserve titles along the way. Those wins didn’t always come easily though.
You see, Jackson could not trot to save his life. Christine would be the first person to tell you that. However, Jackson had what we call “try” and “heart” that made up for his lack-luster trot. Christine also has tons of “try” and “heart” and, most important, resilience, and so she and Jackson enjoyed a long and successful career.
Make no mistake, though. Christine and Jackson had their fair share of struggles. Trail, a class in which the rider and horse navigate a series of poles arranged in a pattern on the ground at all three gaits without touching them and with style, didn’t come easily for Christine. Showmanship did not come easily for Jackson. Yet, Christine worked and worked and worked until eventually she and Jackson won a Reserve World title in Showmanship and a World Champion title in Trail. Those wins didn’t happen because Christine set out to win. They happened because Christine paid attention to the little things day in, and day out and because she worked her tail off.
Understand that Christine likes to win. Who doesn’t? However, she does not show horses so that she can win. She shows horses because she loves horses. She also loves the challenge of learning to excel with her equine partner in a range of events. What I admire about Christine is that she never enters the show pen without at least one or two very specific goals in mind. Often, I’ve heard her say that her goal is to “give clear signals” to Jackson or “to exhale” before transitioning between gaits in a pattern.”
Sometimes Stuff is Just Plain HARD!
When Christine exits the show pen after her performance, no matter how she has placed, Christine assesses whether she achieved her specific goals for that class. Sometimes she does; sometimes she doesn’t. One of our favorite “Christine stories” is about when she entered a bareback class on Rose, her young mare. Her goal was to keep her heels down. As she left the arena, she asked the trainer, “Did I keep my heels down?” “Nope” he replied. “Darn!” Christine exclaimed, “That s***’s f****** hard!” Understand that Christine is NOT a potty mouth, which is part of why her response was so funny.
Humor aside, Christine did not beat herself up for not keeping her heels down. She did not turn her not-down-heels into evidence of a character flaw on her part. She did not blame her horse. She did not blame her trainer. She did not cry. She did not pout. She just moved on to the next class, set her next goal, and committed to continue working on keeping her heels down.
Christine measures success in the show pen, and elsewhere I think, in a very calculated fashion. Long ago, she decided what mindset would be most conducive to her growth and development as a rider and as a person. Then, she went about the business of practicing the behaviors that would create that mindset until that set of behaviors became habit.
I am thankful that I have people like Christine in my life to show me other ways to measure success. Christine never fails to encourage me even when I feel like I’ve failed and respond like a butt. I admit that measuring success on the basis of anything that isn’t particularly concrete, such as buckles or placings, doesn’t come easily to me. For me, “that s***’s f******* hard!” The more I practice, though, the more I enjoy competition and the better I feel about myself in many realms of life.
Sometimes You Win By Just Getting On
Take yesterday. My mare, Bree, and I were competing at horse show in Mississippi in the Amateur Walk Trot division. This is a division in which the riders do not lope or canter the horses in any class. There are myriad reasons for competing in the division.
I am competing in the division this year because my confidence was badly shaken after having a fall last summer, which resulted in a broken back and shoulder. Physically, I’ve recovered 100%, but mentally, I’ve got a long way to go. Although the fall was the result of an equipment failure–Bree did absolutely nothing wrong–every time I climb on her back, I panic. I worry that something will happen to cause another fall. If Bree reacts to a sound or a sudden movement, however small her reaction, I panic and usually grab the saddle horn like a five-year old. It’s not pretty. Loping, for the time being, is out of the question.
My accident happened in August. I started riding again in October. Since then, my trainer has warmed up Bree for me. This makes me feel safer because, if she has any wind in her sails, it is gone before I get on. Yesterday, however, my trainer asked me to warm up Bree myself before our English classes. He had a lot of other riders and horses to get ready. I thought that would be fine. However, when I went to put my foot in the stirrup to mount, I panicked.
My heart starting beating quickly, my chest grew tight, and I started sweating. My eyes filled with tears. I felt really stupid and embarrassed. I stood there beside the mounting block for what felt like forever, putting my foot in and taking it out of the stirrup, trying to work up the courage to mount. Finally, the trainer came over and asked me if everything was okay. The tears that sat in my eyes slid down my cheeks and I said, “I’m afraid to get on because you’ve not ridden her yet.” He said, “okay, hang on. I’ll get my spurs.” For whatever reason, I replied, “no, that’s okay. I have to do this.” And I got on.
Bree was a little fresh when we started to warm up. I felt like I was on the edge of a panic attack while we were riding. Still, lo and behold, I did not die and nothing bad happened. We went on to do very well in all our classes and won the High Point Amateur Walk Trot award at the end of the show.
The wins felt good, of course, but they were not the best part of the day. After the show, the trainer asked me what my favorite part of the show was. I replied, “When I rode Bree without you having ridden her even though I was scared to death.” To me, warming up Bree myself was the most important measure of my success at the horse show. No one else may care and hardly anyone else even knows that warming her up myself was a huge deal for me. Nonetheless, I know and that is what matters.
I am thankful that I am able to take part in activities like horse showing and Crossfit where measuring success takes myriad forms. Learning to measure my own success without relying on grades or prizes has been liberating in ways I never imagined. In fact, finding new ways to measure success has allowed me to experience more fully the joy that ought to come from competition and challenge.
I think most of us have “head trash” that, from time to time, gets in the way of our evaluations of our own performances in many realms. How do you measure success? Where did you learn to measure success in the ways that you do? What lessons have you learned along the way? Please share your story with me!
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As always, thank you for reading. I appreciate you.