few weeks ago I finished reading Unstoppable by Maria Sharapova – one of tennis’ most badass blondes. In her autobiography, Maria talks about how she grew up always aiming to just get the ball to the other side of the net, and, in doing so, she would sometimes choose effectiveness over technique. She also mentioned how, at some point, she was dating a very talented tennis player who had a very different strategy: playing perfectly was his ultimate goal. This got me thinking - in riding, we have to make a similar decision, every single time we step into the show ring. From my own experience, and from working with many riders, I know we often have a preference for either riding to win, or chasing that 'perfect ride'.
In this series (there's just too much to fit into one article), let's get real and dive deep into the pros and cons of both approaches so we can all make a more educated - or at least more conscious - decision as to which strategy we should adopt and when.
In equestrian sports, we have an extra thing to think about that most sports don't: working together with a living animal. We need to train them as much as we need to train ourselves. Some riders are fiercely competitive and always ride to win. They will train their horses at home or at a training show, but when the game is on, they are only focused on one thing: victory.
Other riders always ride to train their horses, or to ride a ‘beautiful’ round. They don’t want to strain their horses and want to give them the best possible ride they can, or they're aiming to look polished, smooth, and capable. Riding young horses can trigger this mindset, so can comparing yourself to a specific standard of what a 'good' ride is.
And then there are riders, including top riders in the show jumping sport, who are of the opinion that you just can’t always ride to win. There have to be shows where you educate your horse and teach them how you want them to jump, turn, or react. There are times to just chase a nice, quality round, but not necessarily a ribbon - when you’re focusing on improving your horse, yourself, or regaining confidence as a team. However, they also have clear goals that they work towards and, at certain events, without a doubt, they ride to win. This is the key difference between the mindset of trying to look good or prove yourself, and using certain rounds to improve, train, and move forward. Same concept, totally different intention.
I don’t believe that there is only one preferred or ‘better’ approach. Riding to train, chasing that perfect round, or riding solely to win depends on you, your focus, your experience, what motivates you, your goals, and what kind of horses you ride. However, I know from experience that many of us are taught, guided towards, or prefer a specific way of riding for a specific horse, goal or show.
In the next few installments of this series, we'll go deeper into each approach - really getting down to the nitty-gritty, uncovering when they're useful, why, and how to figure out what works for you and your horses. While lusting after the ever illusive 'perfect' round or trying to show that you measure up can be detrimental to your competitive mindset, there's definitely a time and a place for both riding just to work on and improve yourself and your horse, as well as channeling your inner Maria Sharapova and going after the victory.
What is your mentality in the show ring? Let me know in the comments, and any questions you have when it comes to perfection, training, and going for the win and I will try to address them in the next few installments.
Photos by Thomas Reiner.