Recently, after my third (amazingly fun and productive) riding lesson at a new barn, I dismounted, gave my horse an enthusiastic pat, and went to run up my stirrups only to find, to my shock, dismay, and horror, that I had given my perfect mount a spur rub.
It didn’t break the skin, but it was ugly and red - just the way you imagine a spur rub would look. It was about 2 inches long, and at a place lower on his belly than I thought my foot would even reach. I quickly ran around to his other flank to find (thankfully) nothing at all. But the high I experienced from the lesson evaporated into a cloud of shame as I loosened his girth and slowly walked him back into the barn.
As riders, this shame feels ever present sometimes. We’ve all been in the ring flatting with other people, sensing multiple sets of eyes on us as we canter to a pole and miss spectacularly. Or we know the exact sequence of aids to achieve an objective, and still flub it repeatedly. We’ve been yelled at by trainers who have told us we’re not good enough when we miss a lead change, or we don’t deserve that horse if we chip a jump, or what is wrong with us, it’s just ::insert desired outcome here::, it’s not rocket science.
Or, we’ve given our horse a spur rub.
The thing that makes the shame of mistakes in the saddle unique to other sports is that we’re not only feeling shame, but also guilt. When you’re out playing soccer, and you miss a penalty kick, or you’re running a race and trip, your mistake doesn’t have consequences past the ones you give it - the power is truly all up to you in terms of how much weight you allow that mistake to occupy in your mind. With horses, though, our mistakes don’t just affect us - they can bring discomfort, confusion, and sometimes even pain to our horses - the one piece of the equation who is supposed to always come first.
The thing to remember is that as uncomfortable as they are, mistakes are how you learn. Your brain makes progress not by putting down the correct pathway on the first try, but by rewriting the incorrect pathway to the correct one. The phrase “Those who can’t do, teach,” is pretty apt, as those who are naturally gifted at something usually make terrible teachers. They’ve never done it wrong, so how can they explain how to do it right beyond just telling you to “do it”?
As riders, our job is not to avoid mistakes at all costs, but to give ourselves the grace our horses usually do when they occur, and then capitalize on them. And since we’re ultimately accountable to our horses, we owe it to them to use our mistakes as opportunities to improve, rather than just allow our emotions to trap us in place. What can you alter in your approach? What can you do differently next time? Why did it happen in the first place? A mistake is a gateway to a wide variety of questions, each one with the potential to make you better both in and out of the saddle.
So while I of course felt no less terrible at giving my wonderful partner a spur rub, I didn’t allow my guilt to be the stopping point - I pushed past it to a place of how to learn from it and do better next time. I lowered my stirrup another hole, since this horse was much taller than the one I normally rode, and I had the feeling that my leg wasn’t in the correct position. I started to do balance and symmetry work on myself, since I had also a sneaking suspicion part of the problem was an imbalance in myself due to multiple past injuries. I bought myself a dressage whip to use in lieu of spurs until the wound healed and I was confident it wouldn’t happen again.
And of course, I gave my amazing lesson horse a treat, thanked him profusely, apologized, and promised to do better - knowing that because of my mistake, I definitely would.
*image credit: Emma VanNostrand