By Karen Waite, Ph. D.
In the last few weeks one of my (least) favorite topics has come up several times…that of the “participation trophy” and the fact that the world is obviously doomed to fail because some organizations have chosen not to place kids (gasp), but to focus more on learning and motor skill development instead. It happens in soccer, and yes, sometimes it happens in the horse industry, especially in lead line and walk trot classes. While I typically don’t say much about placing the littles one way or the other when I’m judging where it’s legal to do so, I’ve gotten to a point in life where I must say that maybe, just maybe, PARTICIPATION TROPHIES AREN’T THE PROBLEM. The problem is that people don’t like to (or don’t want to) do hard things. Case in point: Western Riding and flying lead changes. I suppose you’re wondering how I have gotten from Lead Line to Western Riding quite so quickly. Buckle up. It’s probably going to be a bumpy ride for a minute here, but suffice it to say, I’ve given this a lot of thought.
In my state, as with many others, failure to perform 4 or more flying lead changes in Western Riding results in a DQ at the 4-H level and has for 15 years. Throughout that entire 15-year period, people have howled and carried on such that many shows have simply chosen to ignore the rule because “kids can’t do flying lead changes” and given that fact, it really does become pretty complicated to score if you’re using the 70-point system. Those little scoresheet boxes don’t have enough space for all of the penalties that accompany inability to perform flying lead changes, on that point we can agree. But let’s think about this for a second…(legal) Western Riding should be the pinnacle of training. It is one of the most challenging classes in the western performance world. It absolutely IS difficult…but it’s not impossible. With time, patience, and good instruction, and some TRY young people with some riding time could learn to do it and their horses probably could too. And last time I checked, most classes in a show bill are optional. If I don’t have a horse that jumps, I don’t go in Hunter Over Fences. No one bats an eye.
Now back to lead-line and walk trot for a minute. (Told you it would be bumpy). I hear people complain regularly about how we should be placing kids under the age of 9 lest they grow up to be elitist, or Communist, or some other sort of “ist”. I’m not sure I’ve seen any research to support this theory, nor have I actually seen a high school basketball game where score isn’t kept, but for whatever reason many folks seem to think that a few years of not being placed negates the following 10+ years of a more traditional, competitive system. But the problem is that it is actually about as tough to place kids in Lead line and Walk Trot as it is to score less than ideal Western Riding, for vastly different reasons.
The majority of kids in the Leadline/Walk Trot phase are little (obviously) and cute (even more obvious). Most of the time, they are happy to be there, unless the show schedule is interfering with nap or snack, and they are happy to pose for pictures. At this stage they are often just getting started with their show career, and their bewildered parents are trying to figure out how to get child and horse from point A to point B without a wreck. And sometimes the horses chosen may or may not be the best option…they’re simply available. Of course, there are those “2 percenters” whose parents are trainers or riding instructors, and whose horses have been selected by the best minds and the hand of God as safe walk trot horses. But there is that other 98 percent to consider, who are just navigating their way into the horse industry.
From a motor skill perspective, being little and wobbly can cause some serious issues. Sometimes these kids are so little that their legs don’t reach past the saddle pad, and so wobbly that they need to balance on their hands or whatever else they can snag. Which means that steering can become a non-issue. Consequently, some horses find this sort of facial freedom an invitation to take off with the rest of their horse friends for a romp around the show pen. All of this can make for questionable equitation at minimum, and more excitement than anyone really needs. Unfortunately, the 5-6 year-old set hasn’t always installed a solid emergency plan in their brain as yet, because they are still thinking about that snack. In the midst of all of this, judges are often asked to place these kiddos, because clearly if they don’t do well they’ll have to just “work harder.” Work harder? At what? Growing legs and a cerebellum? As a result, I’m more comfortable with the cute factor. All cute. All can be first. They’ll have the rest of their lives to be sorted into piles of “You’re enough” and “You’re not”, and to “work harder.”
But wait just a second…”work harder”? Why should they bother? No one expects them to do it in Western Riding. No one asks them to reach higher for that class at all. We just change the rules so that they don’t HAVE to do hard things, learn the skills, develop their abilities. They can simple change their way through life, and the world will allow them to not work quite so hard after all. They can earn Facebook likes and Instagram hearts and edit their photos so only the good parts and the successful days show…not the days of dirt and dust and fight to “do better”.
So you see…maybe participation trophies aren’t actually the REAL problem after all.
to explain it,
By Karen Waite
It would appear I’ve lost the ability to count to 2. Or 3. Or at all. While there is every reason to think this is a temporary situation, it doesn’t make it any less annoying, especially when you’re showing a Reining horse and you’re actually a pretty competitive person. If you spin the wrong number of times, you’re off pattern, disqualified, Penalty score zeroed. Peace OUT. But sometimes a zero beats a 65…and I’m sure you’re thinking “Wow. She really can’t count.”. I’ll explain.Photo credit: Kristy Stecker
While it may look easy on TV, Reining is actually anything BUT easy. Especially if you’ve spent your entire life riding horses who were supposed to go sort of slow(ish). There are lots of things to change…using your legs once again becomes a form of encouragement (or lead changes), as opposed to a braking mechanism. But it’s not just the physical motor skills that need to change, it’s the mental skills as well. From a Sport Psychology/self-talk perspective, I’ve spent years telling myself to “slow down, relax, think through the next element, relax, focus, relax…” so much so that’s it’s second nature. And yes, all of that is handy in the Reining pen, too, but something was missing…
This entire show season, I’ve been working to find that missing “thing”. It’s a little bit of energy, a little bit of “let go of her”, and to be honest, I was getting a bit frustrated with the search. I mean, it felt like I WAS going fast. It felt like I WAS letting her go, at least until I looked at the videos and realized that no. My runs were still pretty “Horsemanshippy”, with about a 50% success rate, given that I’ve been DQ-ing half the time, purely as a result of miscounting, or misdirecting spins. Sigh. Good thing that Grit Isn’t Just For Chickens.
At a recent show, I was holding to my usual “50% success rate” program. I completed a run, managed to stay on pattern, and marked a 65. It was correct, but in all honesty the best description I could give was “meh”. My next run, I was planning to spark it up a bit. So I did…and spun an extra time, once again “earning” a 0. UGH. NOOOOOO. Not AGAIN!!! At this rate, I’ll be a Green Reiner FOREVER! A veritable evergreen…the pine tree of Reining! (At least that’s how it feels.)
I always find it interesting when news people interview athletes and ask them what they were thinking at a critical moment. In all honesty, at that level, they probably were only thinking strategy if anything, because muscle memory is an actual thing. Once you get the motor skills down, it’s (almost) all mental. But given that I’m a beginner in this sport, I’m still thinking an awful lot… ”Hands here, legs here, no, not there, HERE. Cue for this now. Wait..WHAT? Where are we? Was that two?”…the chatter almost never stops. But part way through that extra spin, when I realized that yes, it WAS in fact EXTRA, a switch went off in my head. I distinctly remember thinking “Well, you’ve got a set of circles, a figure eight, some roll backs, and a stop to go. You may as well ACTUALLY GO, DINGBAT, GO! What have you got to lose? You’ve already blown it.” So I did. And had the most fun I’ve ever had while DQing. Actually, it felt better than some Showmanship and rail classes that I actually DID win. I came out of the pen happy and feeling like I had ACTUALLY accomplished something. Much more so than the accurate yet boring, “meh” 65 run. And I didn’t die, or even sustain serious injury. In fact, I got better.
The next run I marked a personal best 68. And that never would have happened without that 0. Sure, there are plenty of things that I could have done better in that 68 run (obviously), but it was that 0 that made the 68 possible. So sometimes, a zero really DOES beat a 65.
A lot has been said about Goal Setting. If you Google goal setting or SMART goals, you can spend weeks going through the 18, 800,000 hits, if you’ve got that kind if time. And little wonder…it’s an important skill. It’s hard to accomplish much of anything worthwhile if you don’t set goals…and not just goals, but the right KINDS of goals. As an example, me saying that I want to meet and take a selfie with Ryan Reynolds is a relatively unattainable goal. As the sign says, “A goal without a plan is just a wish.” (Note: I found this image during the above-mentioned Google Search. You gotta love Google.)
SMART goals are certainly a better method of goal setting than wishing. As you may be aware, a SMART goal is Specific, Measureable, Agreed Upon (or Attainable), Relevant, and Time-sensitive. So again using Ryan as an example, a better goal would be “I will meet Ryan Reynolds and take one selfie when he is in town to film his next movie in May.” Now granted, this is probably equally unattainable, but it’s a better-written goal, which is the point. And it IS just a goal…it says nothing about the effort or strategy required to actually meet Ryan Reynolds. Nor does it say anything about what I’ll do if Ryan shows in town up and I DON’T MEET HIM! And that is really the point of this post. Sort of.
If I were Queen, SMART goals would actually be SMART-ER goals. Incidentally, if you search SMARTER goals in Google there are some variations on that theme as well, but not the version I’m thinking of. My SMART-ER goals are Specific, Measureable, Attainable, Relevant, Time-sensitive, ETHICAL, and RESILIANT.
Like I said, there are many articles that detail the SMART part. If you want to review, try this reading this one (specific to horses) or this one (not specific to horses). But lets talk about ethics and resilience.
From an ethics perspective, essentially anyone can “win” through cheating. It’s a shortcut, it’s disrespectful, it doesn’t suggest ability, and frankly, it DOES suggest you don’t want to (or don’t know how to) put in the real work required for whatever it is you’re doing. You know you cheated, and I’d ask you…did you do it because you believed you couldn’t actually DO the hard work? I’ll bet that isn’t true. Did you do it because people are paying you to “win” and win quick? More likely, but that makes you a sell out, not a hero. You may “win” externally, but you should be left feeling a bit hollow inside…knowing you did unethical things to get to that “win”. Would you want that behavior on the front page of ________ (insert the horse or other website of your choice)? Probably not.
Frankly, a win through cheating is no real win at all. You may win the external hardware, and some accolades from the horse show groupies, but it isn’t much good for your internal, mental software. It’s far better to win the right way…with honor, with hard work, with respect for your animal or sport, and those around you. Those are the wins that are impressive. Anything else is weak.
The final thing to consider is resilience. Not surprisingly, I have a personal example to share. Last year, I set a goal to run the Disney Half Marathon before I turned 50 in January. I had 7 months to train for it, and while I wasn’t exactly in the best shape of my life, I was motivated. I trained with a friend for roughly 6 months…through super hot weather, cold weather, and rainy weather. In October, we ran a 10 mile “race”, and even though I was almost the last one to finish (I just said I’d run it, I didn’t say I’d run fast), I was convinced I’d be ready. And come January, I was. I rearranged my work schedule and left a rather important professional meeting early to support my friend Jessica, who had decided to run the 10K (6 miles) due to a nasty bout of tendonitis…and she did.
I did all the things I could think of to prepare for my race the next day…ate right, rested, drank plenty of water. I nursed a painful arthritic knee…but I was determined to complete the race, and I knew I would. Then, we attended a fundraising dinner the evening before, which also served as an inspirational event. At the conclusion of dinner, after being completely inspired, fired up and ready to GO it was announced that the Half-Marathon the next day was CANCELED. Yep. Not happening, due to possible lightning in the area.
While I totally understood why it was canceled, and while I was very glad I was not the organizer of the race, it was REALLY disappointing. Six months of training, and poof. Seemingly wasted. I did all the right things…I SET A SMART GOAL for heaven’s sake. And yet…not happening. Come to think of it, I had a similar experience at the last Quarter Horse Congress that I was eligible to compete in Novice Amateur Showmanship, but I wasn’t the lame one in that story. My equine side-kick was. A story for another day. Anyway, my birthday was later in the month, and honestly, I really just wanted to run around Disney.
I did what most people (should) do in such circumstances. I pouted for a while. I moped for a while. And then I started looking for the bright side. I started making plans. I appreciated all of the time I was able to spend with Jessica leading up to the race, as well as the fact that I could actually run that far (albeit slowly), then maybe I’d just change the goal to “Run a Half Marathon while I am 50. In other words, I showed some resilience:
noun: resilience; plural noun: resiliences; noun: resiliency; plural noun: resiliencies
Yes, I was disappointed. No, it didn’t seem fair. But I could wallow in those things, or I could choose to pull myself up, get out, and appreciate the fact that resilience was something I could fall back on when the SMART goal didn’t quite pan out.
Sometimes in the horse world, horses get sick, hurt, or don’t progress in training like we hoped they would. Sometimes they cost way too much money. Or judges don’t understand that we deserve to win because we’ve worked really hard. (Ok, they probably do understand, but only one person can win, so…), and sometimes we think that based on what Facebook would have us believe, when we set a goal, it just stands to reason that we’ll reach it. But that’s not true. Sometimes we reach the goal, and other times we don’t, and we have to just be glad that we prepared honestly and ethically, hopefully we enjoyed the process, and if we ultimately missed the mark, we showed resilience, got up, and tried again. Not surprisingly, its one more example of what horses teach us.
Photo by Mike Darrow
If you know anything about judging or scribing reining, western riding, or trail, you know that each individual maneuver is given a score ranging from -1 ½ to +1 ½ in half point increments. A -1 ½ represents an Extremely Poor maneuver…you know…the kind of thing that makes you wish you had located the nearest exit in case the horse appears to be headed for your lap. On the other hand, a +1 ½ is an Excellent maneuver, which may be accompanied by the heavens opening, a chorus of angels, and a plate of chocolate chip cookies (still warm). Oddly enough, a 0 just means you were Correct. You did it right. It was fine, but no one is scared and there are no angels, and sadly, no cookies.
Each maneuver is scored separately, and just to shake things up a bit, each maneuver could also earn penalty points…even in the case of a positive maneuver score (WHAAAT?). For example, the horse takes a few steps into a spin, freezes up (earning a 2 point penalty), but then settles in and knocks out 4 of the best spins ever (there are those angels/cookies again). That horse should incur both the 2 point AND a plus on the maneuver. All of these penalties and maneuvers scores are added to 70 in the end, and that is your final score.
I learned how to score Reining from my friend Trevor Walton. He is an NRHA carded judge, has scribed some of the biggest Reining shows out there, and always puts horses first. Which makes him an Excellent, +1 ½, human…but I digress. One thing I always hear him saying when talking about scoring horses is this: ”don’t hold a grudge.”
What he means is…just because you score a horse a -1 on their spins does not mean that you can’t score them a +1 on their circles to the right if they earn it. Every maneuver is a new “ballgame” so to speak. A new opportunity to make a good impression, and to succeed. And even if you screw up one of them, it doesn’t mean that you can’t wake up those angels 30 seconds later. This is also why sometimes, when all you focus on is one maneuver, you may wonder why a horse that botched that particular issue goes on to win the class, when YOUR horse didn’t botch that maneuver. (Harumph). This scoring system is the reason why…you can always go on to do better next time, and the time after that. It’s about the pattern as a whole…not one piece of it.
Naturally, as with all things horse related, there are some pretty important life lessons to be found in this scoring system. If you screw up one phase of your life, there is always, always, another opportunity to do better. To plus your next maneuver. To score a 70 or better, thus making yourself above average. And, there is always another horse show if you manage to DQ yourself completely. There is always the opportunity to apologize to a friend, to do something for someone else, to encourage someone…even a total stranger.
As a relevant and very current example, in many cases, this election cycle has brought out the worst in people. But if you think abut it, it’s one maneuver in a much larger pattern. Despite what we might want to think, the world probably won’t end if our preferred candidate doesn’t get elected. And our friends should still be our friends when this is over, no matter how many penalty points they have incurred with their “crazy, misguided, uniformed viewpoints” in the last year and a half. If they were our friends before, they really should still be our friends. We always have the opportunity to do better.
As usual, Trevor is right. Don’t hold a grudge. And make it a +1 1/2 day!