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Canter Chronicles: Redefining good riding as good sportsmanship

Three things happened recently in my riding life. I took part in my first ever training show where I jumped the 20 and 40cm classes. A few days prior to that, in a lesson, I jumped 75cm, and a few days after it I had a bareback riding lesson.

Arguably, all three things are things I should be happy about and proud of but, if I’m honest, I wasn’t. The 75cm jump was messy, I felt like I didn’t have enough control during the show, and I still leaned too far forward when cantering during the bareback lesson.

This frustration with my own riding is a trend in my equestrian life. A friend recently pointed out that any comment I make about my riding comes with a caveat. Any bit of excitement is followed (or preceded) with “it wasn’t very good but…” or “I know there’s still lots to improve” or a myriad of similar explanations. In another recent conversation, my “it wasn’t very good” was met with “what do you mean by good?”.

It was one of the very few occasions in my life where I had no answer. What do I mean by good? When I think about it more deeply, I realize that I define good as perfect – or, at least, very near to it. And the more I think about it, the more I realize that equating perfect and good makes no sense at all.

Perfect, of course, means that there can be no improvement whatsoever. Which, on its own, is something I don’t think any equestrian will ever reach. Even if we do manage a perfect seat, or course, or dressage test, we can always strive to be softer, or more effective in our cues.

My first step in trying to stop this habit was being more specific about what I was evaluating. When I told myself I rode well, what was I referring to? My balance? My position over the jump? My lines in the course? I very quickly fell into the answer being “all of the above” which, of course, leads right back to asking myself for perfection.

So where does that leave me? The answer came from a strange place and another conversation. I was giving my usual caveats about my riding and, halfway through, I realized that this person – the person who’s so self-critical – is not someone I would like very much if I met them. I have become so worried that people will think I over-estimate my abilities, that I’ve become – quite frankly – annoying. And I don’t think “annoying” is something anyone wants to be.

More than that, I realized that my particular brand of annoying is bad sportsmanship and can, very quickly, lead to bad horsemanship. Being overly concerned about things being perfect is a quick way to start forgetting about the horse and its wellbeing. And that is something I never want to have happen.

I think it’s important to evaluate our own riding. It’s important to acknowledge what you need to work on, and I think it’s equally important to celebrate what you did well. But in a team sport where half the team can’t talk, I think it’s more important to evaluate whether you’re a good sport and a good horseperson. Do you win and lose with grace, and do you step into the arena for the love of the sport, the horses, and as a celebration of the hours of work that have gone into getting you here.

Thinking back on that training show, there’s plenty I could have done differently. I could have improved my control during the show by having better contact, sitting back, and using better leg aids. But I also had a really good position over the jumps, and I carried on trying, even when I nearly fell.

That’s a much more helpful – and accurate – assessment of the day than simply saying “I didn’t ride well” or, even, “I didn’t ride as well as I would have hoped”.  

And as much as I will always strive to be a good rider and will continue to try and identify where I did well and what I can improve, I think it’s more important to ask myself, every day, whether I was a good sport.

Author: Rochelle Jacobs