Blue Ribbons and Facebook Likes

By Karen L. Waite, Ph. D.

Earlier this year I was speaking at a (pre Pandemic) Horse industry conference and afterwards a young person asked…”how did you learn to be ok with not winning? “

My first response? I was a bit flabbergasted. I stumbled for a minute, because if we’re being totally honest, I’ve never been “OK” with not winning. I LOVE winning. It’s so much better than the alternative! Since I was 12 years old, I’ve recognized that competition motivates me like few other things. Unfortunately, with age I’ve also realized that fear of failing also seemed to motivate me just as much, for a decade (or four).

Once I regrouped and asked a few more questions, I realized that this young lady’s real question was more about how I learned not to beat myself up, and how I learned to be willing to fail at things that I really, really wanted to be good at. Like Reining after 40 years of all-around events, or in her case, at the fair or open show.

With some reflection I realized that to get good at anything, you have to take some risks and be willing to “embrace the suck” and do it for yourself and not the approval of others. As an example, I started CrossFit a year and a half ago, long after this blog was called Out of the BOX Stall. (God does have a sense of humor.) For the first 6 months I promised myself I’d go 3 days a week, and I’d plan to be awful every. Single. Time. And I did. And after 6 months I was 20 lbs. lighter and a whole lot stronger physically and mentally. If you really want to make a positive difference in the world, you have to try the things that others are afraid try. Be willing to fail, to take risks, and ask difficult questions about yourself. But know that every failure puts you one step closer to a success of some kind.

Having that, it’s important to choose your location wisely…if you need to get through some hard things, it’s probably best for you mentally to do it in a smaller pond before jumping into the ocean. Figure out what you can do with the horse you’ve got (and what you can afford) and work from there. Surround yourself with supportive people as best you can. Try an open or virtual show and work your way back to wherever you want to be.

No, I never stopped wanting to win, but I changed they way I thought about the process of competition, both in the show ring and out, because let’s face it, it sure doesn’t stop once you walk through the out gate. Even if you’re trying to better yourself, others may look at your attempts as a threat. People don’t stop throwing shade just because they’ve reached a certain age, unfortunately, and I’ve also learned that age and maturity are two very different concepts. The bullying never stops…and only your response can change.

Some will “borrow” your work and call it their own, others may try to disprove the things you’ve done not to be helpful but to be hurtful. Some will feel so threatened by what you’re good at, that they’ll do whatever they can to make sure you recognize every single thing you’re NOT good at, or that you screw up. And all of that can “change the shape of your soul” to quote a former First Lady.

The good news, though, is that you (and you alone) can work within the new shape. Eventually you’ll recognize that you don’t need outside approval for inside approval. I’m not saying it’ll be easy to get there, because it won’t. Old habits die hard after all, and when you grow up showing horses you’ve got a deep seated need for outside approval, whether you think you do or not. Blue ribbons and Facebook likes are all part of the same family, sorry to say. But it’s definitely possible to recognize and appreciate how far you’ve come and leave the rest behind. If you’re willing to try.

Building Mental Muscle

Karen L. Waite, Ph. D.

One of the least useful phrases in the English language is “just relax”. I can’t think of one time in my life when someone said it when my response was “By golly, you’re right! Why didn’t I think of that?? I’ll just relax and knock this Horsemanship pattern/Reining run/whatever else out of the park.” And yet, we hear it all the time. Sadly though, in our modern world, full of constant information and boredom avoidance tools, “relaxing” is often a foreign concept.

The thing that’s interesting about sports psychology and mental skills training is that while the most successful competitors know they need to control their mind, few recognize that the “mental muscle” needs to be trained and developed just like anything else. And long before we get to the horse show. Would you jump onto a green broke 2 year-old and head for the NRHA Futurity? Hopefully your answer is a resounding NO. Yet why do we so often think that we can perform at our best without doing the work to prepare the actual driver of the bus, the mind?

Many elite athletes say that once you have the motor skills, everything else about sport is mental. Relaxation, visualization, setting good goals, improving self talk, developing useful competition routines, avoiding self handicapping, even getting the most out of practice takes…practice. And every one of those tools is a skill that can be developed with time. But no one ever relaxed by being told to relax.

Of course, it’s obviously not enough to develop JUST mental skills…you DO have to quite literally get on the horse, to work through the physical. You can’t just think about learning to swim, you have to get in the water. For others though, they need to think through and then work through how they’ll handle this, that or the other before it happens, so they feel confident they can deal with whatever comes along. And yes, they ultimately need to practice handling what comes along…both mentally and physically, ideally with a coach or trainer or someone else who can who can watch, make suggestions, appreciate how their client is wired, and guide them through.

Next time, we’ll talk about ways to develop the ability to relax, and why it’s an important skill to call on for both you and your horse.

Getting the Butterflies Back on Pattern

By Karen L. Waite, Ph.D.

Have you ever wanted to do well at something so badly that everything you do is somehow connected to it? It’s (almost) all you think about, and you plan your free time, budget, living arrangements, wardrobe and hairdo around it? Have you spent more on horse health care, nutrition and shoes than your own? Have you made a house payment to your horse trainer so your horse can live a better life? If your answer is yes to these questions, you probably show horses. If none of this has ever happened to you, then quit reading here, please. I am not your people. But what if you invest every bit of your life into showing horses, get to the horse show, and things don’t go well…not because you didn’t prepare physically, but because you weren’t ready mentally? Take it from the judge in me. The Harris saddle won’t hide the fact that you’re off pattern.

I became interested in sport and performance psychology for many reasons…the main one being that for years, I was the person described above. I was the original AQHA Nervous Amateur and in spite of wanting to do well more than anything, I often tried so hard that I failed. Repeatedly. When you have so much invested in a sport that comes down to 2-5 minutes of performance, it’s easy to 1) be so tense that your horse is also tense and 2) make a mistake or 3 when it counts. Add to that the fact that your teammate is NOT aware of your investment and could really care less, and things can unravel pretty quickly.

Looking for a way to get a handle on “show nerves” I realized that elite athletes in many sports use Sport Psychology techniques and mental performance training (Michael Jordan, Tom Brady, anyone? They seem legit). I started exploring, mainly for my own benefit, and later because I became very interested in the things that people will do with and TO horses in the name of competition. Before I knew it, I had a doctorate focused on sport psychology in equestrian sport.

To say that I have it all figured out would be a lie. I still get nervous and screw up sometimes, especially now that I’ve started Reining. Now I’m a rank beginner again AND I can screw up faster and with even more enthusiasm! I still get butterflies in my stomach, but can do some things to get them to fly in formation, at least. I have some tools in the tool box to patch things up, and hopefully this blog will let me loan you a tool when you need it.

Horses Take Us Places

By Karen Waite

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…it was Facebook. I have a love hate relationship with Facebook, and lately (and by that I mean for the last 5-7 years) it’s been much more hate than love. Between western pleasure, politics, and pandemics, it’s easy to forget why on earth anyone would spend 2 minutes on Facebook. And then it’s your birthday.

This year’s Facebook Birthday Festivities just hit me differently for some reason. I mean, they’re always a good way to remember friends and feel the love, but this year as I scrolled through the well wishes, I was struck by how many people I could connect to horses. Easily 90% and very likely more. Almost every single memory of the person wishing me a Happy Birthday included a horse…and/or experiences related to horses…and most of them were absolutely fantastic, “in real life” memories.

There were people I showed in 4-H with, and folks who supported me in my early days of PHBA and AQHA All-Around shows. There were also people I’ve met during more recent forays into reining and cow horse shows. As a result of my “day job” there were people from around the country and around the world, each connected to a different breed or discipline. Arabian people, Standardbred people, Draft Horse types and more. People who’ve made a career of researching horses and horse health, and people I’ve judged shows with and for. Former horse judging team members who have made life long friendships, and people I’ve just met in the past couple of years.

I was left feeling so very blessed to have a life that was and is full of horses, and in spite of the fact that sometimes “horse people” can be difficult, as I’ve always said, they’re really the best kind of people.

Even during a pandemic, or during the winter when events have slowed down, there’s no question that horses take us places. Even if it’s just in our memories of the past and dreams for the future.

Go Ahead and Quit. For a Minute.

If you’ve been involved with showing horses for any length of time, you’ve struggled at one point or another. Something you want to do isn’t going right, something you want the horse to do isn’t going right, and you look at everyone else and it all seems to come pretty easily (not accurate, they’ve struggled too, but we’re talking about you. Or possibly me.)You may even think…this is too much, it’s not fun, I’m no good and I’m quitting. At this point, you may be expecting me to say that’s not a good idea. NOPE. I’m not going to.

Sometimes it IS a good idea to take a step back. Rest and rejuvenation is an important part of a healthy life, after all. What you do with that regrouping time matters, though. You can’t sit on the couch and beat yourself up, or ruminate on how terrible things are forever. Maybe for a day or two, but not forever. That won’t help. But you can rest. Reassess the landscape. Figure out what might be going wrong…or at least what might improve the situation…and devise a new plan. It could be you need a new route, a new goal, a different set of eyes, or something as small as changing how or what you ask of the horse (or yourself) and when. If you’re not interested in changing your goal, it could even be that you may have the wrong horse for that particular time in your journey. Doesn’t make it a bad horse, just makes it the wrong one right then. And that horse could eventually be the right one.

We’ve all had some downtime this year…in some cases, it often seemed like WAY too much. But it’s also possible to use this time to our future advantage. Personally, I realized that I was actually filling my time with way too much before “this” started, which made it hard to focus on what matters most, or to even figure out what that might be. We have some time now to develop new dreams (or reformulate plans for the old ones), to figure out where the “holes in our skill sets” are, and to look ahead at how we’ll fill them.

The dumpster fire that is 2020 won’t last forever, although some of the fallout may linger for a very long time. There are clearly bad things happening, and consequences we haven’t even fully realized as yet. If you work in healthcare or other essential jobs, you’re exhausted and need and deserve rest simply to survive.

But for others, we might be able to use this time to our advantage…to think about what we want to let go of, what we want to keep and how to get where we want to be going forward.

After all, if we can adjust our attitudes and find hope and resilience after this year, it seems as though we could be unstoppable.

Drive On!

I shared this meme about steak sauce the other day, and 1) it made me laugh really hard, which like many, I needed and 2) it got me thinking. In one of this country’s darkest hours, human ingenuity found a solution to a problem (yes, I know why this steaksauce was created, and no, I don’t want to think about THAT part). But more importantly, this solution still exists, people still use it, and get some value from it even now. (By the way, if you created this thing first, let me know because you need credit! This is gold!)

There are things I’ve been thinking of doing for years, that I’ve never had (or made) the time for. Things that I believe could help improve people’s experience in the horse industry, or even just their lives in general. But let’s get real…there are far more things slowing me down than time:

“I need to learn how to do this perfectly, before doing it at all.”

“What if people don’t like it?”

“Some people will say really mean things about it, probably all over social media.”

That last one is absolutely a given🙄.

The list goes on and on. But I’ve come to the conclusion that the first version of A1 probably isn’t the same as the current one, there are still people who think it’s the devil’s handiwork, and some may even argue about it on social media.

But that doesn’t stop the company from sharing this yummy, life improving sauce, now does it?

Maybe the best use of one’s time during a pandemic isn’t to stress and stew about the state of things, but rather, to look for and use the valuable skills we’ve learned in the last 8 months. There are some somewhere, and they’re probably quite useful. One of the biggest things I’ve learned, for example, is that sometimes we have to keep going, even when things aren’t perfect. Good enough is better than not at all…and we can work our way to something close(r) to our definition of perfect on the fly. As my friend Joe often says, “drive on.”

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not interested in shaming anyone who is just trying to keep their head above water into feeling like they have to create the next yummy steak sauce…what I’m saying is that personally, I’d like to bring some things to life.

And if you don’t like the things I try, that’s fine. You’re probably a much better cook than I am, and you don’t need them anyway…although if you’ve got time to shame ME on social media, there is likely something more productive you could do. Because what I don’t have time to is worry much about that…I’ve got some sauce to make.

#Judgin’Ain’teasy

By Karen L. Waite, Ph.D.

Photo credit David Lindsay

The first blog post I ever wrote was “The Five Myths of Horse Judging”. At the time, I don’t think I had a specific plan for what this blog would really be “about”, I just knew that I had something to say and that I wanted to help exhibitors develop a better understanding of what judges are trying to do, and how they (exhibitors) could improve.  Typically, my inspiration comes from personal experience, but sometimes (probably more times than I’d like to admit), it comes from social media.  This post is one of those.

It’s not unusual for me to wake up on a Sunday (or Monday), check Facebook, and see one of those posts from an exhibitor along the lines of “we were at a show and the judge did or said XYZ.” It’s usually not good and not surprisingly, the thread often devolves into something that is a far cry from what was really intended or said, but hey.  Social media is like that, unfortunately.  Usually, I throw in my 2 cents and carry on about my day.

For some reason. This morning’s episode hit me differently.  Maybe it was because one of my students started his judging career yesterday. I know how much preparation he put in, how excited he was to be there, and getting the text after the fact saying that he LOVED it will be a career highlight for me. Maybe it was having my own young horses starting to show and analyzing score sheets like it was my job. (Slow your roll, lady.  It’s NOT your job today.) Maybe it was hearing about veteran judges who made unfortunate mistakes that caused show managers problems.  I don’t know, but I do know this…judging ain’t easy, to steal a hashtag from those who are “mommin”.

Sometimes people have the impression that judges pop out of bed looking forward to a day of making children cry, parents angry, and horses wish for a career change.  I’m here to tell you, we don’t.  Judging is mentally and physically difficult, and believe it or not, no one is getting rich doing it.  If you have multiple cards you need to keep up with multiple rulebooks, and attend multiple conferences that sometimes cost more than you’ll make in a year of judging.  If you are judging open shows, you need to understand multiple breed standards that may be vastly different from your own favorite, and just when you think you’ve got it licked, someone comes flying in on a world champion racking Walkaloosa Mule. Yep, you’d better learn to appreciate that, too. You often spend hours finding patterns for people and horses you’ve never seen, and more hours on your feet in the sun while exhibitors sit in the shade analyzing YOUR every move.  Everything that can slow a show or go wrong at a show conveniently becomes your fault.  You’re an easy target, and more often than not you’re not there to defend yourself.

Rereading that paragraph does beg the question, though.  “Why do it then?”  I suppose I can only share my own motivations and not speak for every judge in the world.  But I do know a lot of judges and as best I can tell, it’s because we love it.  We want to give back to an industry that gave so much to us.  We love watching great horses and riders, and we love seeing newbies develop into superstars.  We still get butterflies when we step in the pen just like exhibitors do.  All we want is to do a good job, and leave feeling as though we made a positive contribution to something larger than ourselves.  Once in a while we might make a mistake, and for some of us, we beat ourselves up for weeks when we do. )OK, that’s probably just me.) Typically, however, if we can explain our placings to the grandmas on the fence, we can leave with that “judges high” that makes us look forward to the next event.

Judging ain’t easy, but it sure is worth it.

Three Cheers for Aqua-Net! (Or What Have You)

(Reboot 😊, but the timing seems right)

This one is for the ones who are just getting started, or even those who’ve been at it awhile, but can’t quite figure out how to get better. The ones who go horse shows weekend after weekend, place 5th or 6th or 8th if they place at all, but keep telling themselves not to quit because they love it and someday it will come together for them. While that may be true, as the saying goes, “if you do what you always do, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.” Not to mention the fact that sometimes people in this bracket blame judges, industry trends and the world in general for their misfortune. So here are a few tips to speed up the process from average to excellent.

1. Cones Matter-In pattern classes, the side of the cone you’re on throughout the run absolutely matters. When learning patterns, make sure you know what side to be on at all times. Also make sure you execute transitions between your horse’s muzzle and shoulder…anything later is too late, anything sooner too early. If a turn at a cone is involved, determine where best to stop to execute the next maneuver.

2. Leads Matter-Know your leads, and if your horse takes off on the wrong one, FIX IT. None of this awkwardness thinking the judge doesn’t see you. They do. Better yet, learn to set your horse up to take the correct lead before departing at all.

3. Diagonals Matter-Just like leads, learn to take the correct diagonal and if you don’t, switch to the correct one ASAP. This will factor into your placings in Equitation especially, but it’s a good rule of thumb regardless.

4. Your horse’s condition matters-Even in those classes where the horse is more of a prop to demonstrate your skills, their overall health and condition matters. In addition to the fact that an underweight horse looks bad for the show industry, a thin horse may have a more difficult time handling the stresses that naturally come with showing. Understand body condition, and how to safely add (or remove) weight as needed.

5. YOUR condition matters too! Comb your hair and make sure your clothes fit and your hat is clean and shaped. Showing a horse is a bit like a job interview…and that means putting your best foot forward and making a good impression. Ask for help from someone who seems to have it together if you’re not sure on this one. Bobby pins and Aqua-Net-like substances are the unsung heros of horse showing for all involved.

6. Thinking Matters as Much (or More) Than Riding-When you’re first starting to show or even ride, you’re often just glad if you achieve the basics without an accident. If you walk, jog and lope and stay on throughout, sometimes that’s a win in itself. But after that, you’re going to need to learn to develop two things: ring etiquette and strategy. And both of these things require the ability to think about more than just yourself. Learn how to safely pass other horses, and think about what you’re doing while doing it. Actually ride your horse, and strategize when you’ll ask for what in a pattern class.

I recognize that showing horses can be stressful, but learning to manage that stress and think through what you’re doing is what makes the difference between the middle of the pack and the top.

Open Horse Show Judging: One Part Super Hero, and a Whole Lot of Satan

By Karen L. Waite, Ph.D.

If you’re a 4-H member, the Horse Judge at your county fair is an odd combination of one part rock star, one part super hero, and a whole lot of Satan, depending on the day, class or minute…and each designation has the potential to change a child’s (or volunteer’s) life for the better or worse.

When others in the horse industry talk about 4-H Horse Judges it’s sometimes said with extreme reverence and other times said from a place of, well, something far less than reverence. The 4-H Horse Judges card for some is a starting point for something “greater”, “bigger”, more “important”…maybe a breed card (or multiple breed cards) or to promote an equine business of some sort…and that’s fine unless your ego becomes that “greater, bigger, more important” thing, and sadly, that happens occasionally. I’d submit though, that being a 4-H Horse Judge is one of the most important things one could ever do for or in the horse industry, and no matter how much you know, think you know, or have done in the horse industry, not everyone is qualified to do this particular job.

At the risk of sounding overly dramatic, when you’re a 4-H (or any entry level) Horse Judge, it’s not just a gateway for personal aspirations…you’re the gatekeeper for the future of the horse industry. And that’s probably the most important responsibility there is.

If you’re considering getting started in horse judging at the introductory levels, here are a few things to keep in mind.

Meet People Where They Are

The open show level is the “front door”of the horse industry…and by way of some background, it’s important to remember a couple of things. First, most people don’t grow up in rural or farm settings anymore. Roughly less than 2% of the population is involved in any form of agriculture, which includes horses. As such, often (but not always) people showing horses at the introductory levels are just getting started with large animals. Somewhere along the way, they obtained access a horse and decided to try horse showing, whether or not Dobbin really fits the part or wants to participate. Often, that also means parents (who also may not fit the part or want to participate) with little or no experience in the horse show world are willing to help their kids, volunteer, and so much more, because that’s what good parents do. Gates may not open quickly enough, show offices may not run smoothly enough, and/or kiddos may not be in the right place at the right time in the right clothing. Horses may be borderline unsafe, or may be even make an unexpected run for that particular border. Granted, in a 4-H situation, there are many experienced leaders who can help, but it takes a village, and at least for the day, you’re part of that village.

When you judge a 4-H Horse Show or other open horse shows, patience is your biggest virtue and it’s a judge’s job to politely and professionally do the best they can to keep everyone safe and support an enjoyable environment when possible. If this sounds like more of a circus than you can handle as a judge, then maybe this level isn’t for you.

Be an Educator

When you judge an introductory level horse show, it helps to approach the event as an educator. You are there to help teach people about horse showing techniques and traditions, and to keep them coming back for more. Depending on what part of the country you’re in, this may also mean learning more about breeds and disciplines you’re less familiar with, and recognizing the good in every one of them. Praise and reward that good and provide positive, respectful, constructive criticism when you can…and be open to learning yourself.

Frustration happens

Often in the early going, exhibitors want to do well, but don’t (yet) have the tools to do so. This can be really frustrating for all involved, including the horses. As a judge, sometimes you’ll have the opportunity to hand them that tool, or teach them to use it properly. Do it as you are able, please. You’ll be surprised at how appreciated it usually is, if delivered in a helpful way.

Take Pride in Your Work

Judging introductory or open horse shows can (and should) be as much a source of pride as any major breed event, at least in my mind. Maybe even more so…if they have a good experience with you, they might just buy that “step up” horse, or consult the services of a trainer. Depending on your “day job” that trainer could be you, if you take your judging role seriously and professionally.

Develop and Support the Next Generation of Judges

If you’re an experienced and successful introductory level horse judge, one of the most important things you can do is help the next generation learn to be successful as well. Depending on where you are, not every state or association has an organized system for training horse judges, and as you have learned “judging ain’t easy”. You may reach a point where you no longer want to, or simply can’t stand for 12 plus hours in the sun. Presumably, you’ll want to leave the horse judging world a bit better than you found it. Teaching other judges is how you can do that. Help local horse judging teams, or take apprentice judges when possible. Share your hard earned knowledge. You won’t regret it, and neither will the horse industry.

Thank God For Aqua-Net…and Other Things I Can’t Always Say When Judging Horse Shows

Photo credit: Rick Barnes

By Karen L. Waite, Ph. D.

This is for the ones who are just getting started, or even those who’ve been at it awhile, but can’t quite figure out how to get better. The ones who go to horse shows weekend after weekend, place 5th or 6th or 8th if they place at all, but keep telling themselves not to quit because they love it and someday it will come together for them. While that may be true, as the saying goes, “if you do what you always do, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.” Not to mention the fact that sometimes people in this bracket blame judges, industry trends and the world in general for their misfortune. So here are a few tips to speed up the process from average to excellent.

1. Cones Matter-In pattern classes, the side of the cone you’re on throughout the run absolutely matters. When learning patterns, make sure you know what side to be on at all times. Also make sure you execute transitions between your horse’s muzzle and shoulder…anything later is too late, anything sooner too early. If a turn at a cone is involved, determine where best to stop to execute the next maneuver.

2. Leads Matter-Know your leads, and if your horse takes off on the wrong one, FIX IT. None of this awkwardness thinking the judge doesn’t see you. They do. Better yet, learn to set your horse up to take the correct lead before departing at all.

3. Diagonals Matter-Just like leads, learn to take the correct diagonal and if you don’t, switch to the correct one ASAP. This will factor into your placings in Equitation especially, but it’s a good rule of thumb regardless.

4. Your horse’s condition matters-Even in those classes where the horse is more of a prop to demonstrate your skills (Showmanship, Equitation etc.), their overall health and condition matters. In addition to the fact that an underweight horse looks bad for the horse show industry as a whole, a thin horse may have a more difficult time handling the stresses that naturally come with showing. Understand body condition, and how to safely add (or remove) weight as needed, because when it comes right down to it, if I have to decide between a close pair, I’m using the one that looks healthiest most likely.

5. YOUR condition matters-Comb your hair and make sure your clothes fit and your hat is clean and shaped. Showing a horse is a bit like a job interview…and that means putting your best foot forward and making a good impression. Ask for help from someone who seems to have it together if you’re not sure on this one. Bobby pins and Aqua-Net are the unsung heros of horse showing for all involved.

6. Thinking Matters Just as Much as Riding Sometimes (Sometimes Even More) When you’re first starting to show or even ride, you’re often just glad if you achieve the basics without an accident. If you walk, jog and lope and stay on throughout, sometimes that’s a win in itself. But after that, you’re going to need to learn to develop two things: ring etiquette and strategy. And both of these things require the ability to think about more than just yourself. Learn how to safely pass other horses, and think about what you’re doing while doing it. Actually ride your horse, and strategize when you’ll ask for what in a pattern class.

Trust me, I recognize that showing horses can be stressful, but learning to manage that stress, think through what you’re doing, and make good choices is what makes the difference between the middle of the pack and the top. The day you learn to think in the pen and help your horse make good decisions is the day you’ll start winning.