When is Zero Greater Than Sixty-Five?

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.File Jul 23, 4 30 21 PM.jpegPhoto 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.


Grit Isn’t Just For Chickens

By Karen L. Waite, Ph. D.

If you are a friend on my personal Facebook page, I’m sure at some point you’ve thought “Why does this insufferable woman post so much?  And why does she always post about her FAILURES?  Who DOES that?”  Great news.  I’m hoping to clear that up for you with this post.  But first…one of my “failures” (in quotes because “failure” is a relative term.   I was on the horse, I stayed on the horse, and was in the pen, so…).  On this particular occasion, we started one set of spins with a little too much enthusiasm, and then V got VERY excited about her fancy lead changes so she threw in an extra for good measure.  Plus I’m still getting used to the idea of just “letting her go”.  Anything that resembles speed feels like super turbo to me.

Back to the matter at hand, there are two main reasons for my either daily, or several times daily, Seinfeld-esque posts about “nothing”.  First, my almost 83 year-old mother can’t get out quite as much as she once did, but she can use Facebook.  She loves people watching, and now she can do it from her chair!  Facebook is a great way for her to keep up with what’s happening and I want her to know what’s going on…and even more importantly, when she “Likes” something I’ve posted, I know she’s ok.  The peace of mind that comes with that is priceless.

Second, Mark Zuckerberg says I can.  Facebook is my personal scrapbook, diary of daily events, or whatever else you want to call it.  Russian hacks not withstanding when I’m 83, my memories from 30 years ago will pop up in that delightful orange box, asking if I want to share them.  You betcha, I do, Mark Zuckerberg.

In addition to those two things, however, there is one additional reason I post so much about the good things, the bad things, and the totally mundane, ridiculous things.  I think that Facebook, and social media in general, lacks the authenticity and “realness” that makes up an actual life.   Success happens, failure happens, happiness happens and sometimes, very, very hard times happen.  I work with a fair number of youth and college age students, and sometimes even adults, and I try to be a good role model. (And yes, I fall down on this front consistently as well.) I want them to see that a person can have a pretty successful life full of things they enjoy, judging horse shows, being blessed to travel all over the country and even world, while at the same time being afraid of chickens, and forgetting which way or how many times to spin in a reining pattern.  Repeatedly.  And they can own all of it.  It’s 100% theirs.   Someday, they’ll realize that IRL (in real life, for those who don’t know), the journey to the success makes up a much larger and more interesting part of the actual success. Oh sure, your mom cares that you won, but honestly, If someone wins at a horse show, I’m MUCH more interested in the effort that went into it for weeks, months, or years prior.   How they fell down 7 times and got up 8.  What they had to overcome, and just how much grit they have.  That to me is much more interesting than the (nifty) cooler they won.

But what if you’re just not particularly gritty and you can’t possibly imagine that you’ll EVER be as successful as “those people” you see on Facebook?  What if grit is genetic, or you’re born with as much as you’ll ever have?  The good news is that grit isn’t just for chickens anymore!  Grit is an actual psychological skill that you can develop if you’re lacking.  There is an entire book about it, in fact.  You might want to check it out: Grit: The Power of Passion and Perserverance   Duckworth says of the high achievers she has studied “Apparently it was critically important-and not at all easy-to keep going after failure.  “Some people are great when things are going well, but they fall apart when they aren’t.”  This book shares accounts of those who learned to keep going, and in all honesty, that’s what sets them apart from others.  That’s why I post the good and the bad…a failure is just a step on the staircase.  And yes, I realize that in the big scheme of things, “failing” at a horse show is pretty small…but we learn to handle big things by surviving the small ones.

If you don’t have time to read an actual book, you can get the audio version and listen while you drive, clean stalls, or even while you work out.   And one day (probably before you’re 83), maybe Facebook will show you that memory of the day when your horse leaped into a spin in Green Reiner.  And hopefully by then you’ll have stuck with it long enough that your Green days are long behind you, “speed” is actually fast and maybe you’ll even be a Rookie by then!


Work Smarter AND Harder

goal-setting-signPhoto credit: lpatuscon.org

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

  1. 1. 
the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.

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.


When Your Mom is “That Mom”(Ok Not MY Mom)


It was bound to happen sooner or later. I’m not sure why I wasn’t more prepared…in hindsight, I should have been. I was speaking at a scientific section meeting on the topic of the human aspect of show horse welfare (part of my “day job”, so to speak).   The conversation turned to educational programs to address the topic, including parent education programs.

Afterwards, a young man who had been enthusiastically engaged in all of the presentations of the morning, and who was likely a graduate student approached me and said “I have a question. What if your mom is “that mom”?” I asked for a bit of clarification to which he responded “My mom was “that mom”. She showed horses growing up and she had no interest in being educated. About anything really. I had to go to clinics and workshops by myself. She was the one who yelled at me across the arena, and all the way home in the truck. What should I have done?”

Ouch. Poor kid. We all know that person, but hopefully, we don’t have to go home with her. You young man, should not have done anything. You were a kid. What were you supposed to do, I wondered, as I formulated a response and said a little prayer that something useful would come to me.  Something eventually did.

“You shouldn’t have done anything, but someone should have. Maybe the judge or other parents should have asked her to stop “coaching” from the rail. Maybe the show managers or other leaders should have asked her to be quiet or leave. But whatever was done, it shouldn’t have impacted your participation. You should have been able to show even if your mom couldn’t be there. I know that would have been difficult, but you obviously loved it, because you’re still working to be involved in the industry, right? I mean, you’re here.”

He got a little teary and said “yes”.

I told him that I was very sorry he had that experience growing up, but that he could make a difference going forward. Naturally, he asked “how?” And fortunately I was ready by this time.

“In the future, or even now, when you see a young person in the same situation, be extra kind to them.   Find something they are doing well and point it out to them. It may be the only kind word they hear that day. If you’re around them frequently, be a role model. Take them under your wing and model good sportsmanship. If you can, get to know the mom as well. It may be that she is hurting too, or feeling like she can’t contribute anything positive. It doesn’t excuse her behavior, but it might explain it. Ask her to volunteer. Give her a job so she has something to do other than yell at her kid. And let her know when she does a good job too. When you were a kid, you couldn’t really do anything, but as an adult, maybe you can help another kid.” He seemed satisfied with that, smiled and thanked me.  And I thanked him.

If you find yourself being “that parent”, stop and think.

When you were a kid, you couldn’t really do anything, but as an adult, maybe you can help another kid.

The Power of -Er…It Ultimately Comes Down To Comparisons


One of the most difficult things to remember when showing horses is that it is ultimately a game of comparisons, and while you have control over some things (how much effort you put in, how well you take care of your horse etc.), you don’t have control over others (like when the World Champion shows up at the horse show, the weather, if your horse happens to be lame that day, if YOU happen to be lame that day). But even if everything goes perfectly, you need to always be aware of what could be called “The Power of -Er”.

So I know you’re thinking “What on E(a)rth is she talking about?!” What I mean is this: when judges place horses at horse shows, they are always comparing one to another, and even if you do everything perfectly, there is always a chance that someone (or someone’s horse) is doing it better. Or bettER.

As an example, I occasionally get approached by exhibitors wanting to know how they can improve, and typically, depending on where we are in the horse show, I have no problem sharing (when they seem to be polite, and don’t argue).   I am all about people doing the best they can to improve. The trouble comes when there is no realistic way it can be improved upon, or when it’s just a matter of someone else’s horse doing “it” better that day.  That’s usually when judges get a bad rap (and typically that’s not fair).

For example, in Western Pleasure (with stock type horses) I am looking for a horse that is demonstrating true gaits, flat through the knee, using it’s hock, and staying consistent throughout the class (and before anyone gets upset, that was in no particular order there). The winner is usually going to be the horse that is truER gaited, flattER through it’s knee, driving hardER through it’s hock, and more consistent than the horses placing below him.   At all gaits. Both ways. Except when all are close in ability. (See Losing Doesn’t Mean You’re Bad (and Winning Doesn’t Mean You’re Good), for more on that situation).

When making comparisons, we use the “Power of –Er”, and some horses when compared to others, are just flattER through the knee. It’s a matter of stride length, shoulder length and angle, and several other issues of equine anatomy.   In short, how flat a horse is through it’s knee is ultimately pretty hard to change. Sometimes, how true gaited they are can also be hard to change, although how they are shown can influence that. The point is that sometimes, no matter how good you thought your ride was, it’s physically impossible for a horse to change enough to beat a particular horse that happened to show up that day, and for some people, that is a difficult pill to swallow.

Similarly, in equitation classes, I like to see riders who are deepER in their heel, strongER through their leg and seat, and quietER with their hands. You may execute a pretty good pattern, but if you want to actually win the class, you also have to do all of these things, or at least do them bettER than everyone else in the class. Classes like equitation, horsemanship, and showmanship, are all classes judged on the rider, and typically things that the rider has much more control over.

I really think that as people start to grasp this concept, they can also start to enjoy showing horses more…and this is also true for parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.   Just because your rider does well, does not always mean that they did bettER than everyone else in the class at everything that was evaluated, and likewise you can’t let a judges placing dictate whether or not to be happy and proud of that rider (or yourself).

This is why setting very specific performance goals (execute a perfect 360, a straight trot line, the correct diagonal), and making a big deal of it when these things happen, and subsequently taking the primary focus off of placing, can increase the fun factor considerably. If your rider takes the correct left diagonal when they typically struggle with it, it’s ice cream for everyone!!! (Or whatever). But you have to agree on this with them ahead of time…or they’ll just roll their eyes, and think you’re weird. Heck, they may do that anyway, but you’re getting ice cream, so who cares? Seriously, though, if you make this kind of non-placing based goal setting part of your regular routine, you’ll be amazed at how eventually, the placings you’re after will become a reality…and if they don’t, there’s always ice cream!

A Smooth Sea Never Made a Skilled Sailor (or Rider)

Photo by Jaye Nevins
Photo by Jaye Nevins

One of my favorite quotes is “A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor.” I’m not sure who said it first…it may be an African proverb, or an English proverb, depending on where you look on Pinterest. Anyway, I like it because it can easily be translated into “ A totally broke horse, who never acts like a real horse as opposed to a motorcycle 1) doesn’t exist and 2) never made a skilled rider.” If you show horses, there will be a day, and maybe several days, when you will struggle with your horse. Which is totally fine. Judges know this, recognize this, and appreciate it for what it is, because I’ve yet to meet a judge who wasn’t also a horse(wo)man.

Now, I am not saying that when kids (or adults) are starting out, they shouldn’t learn the ropes on an old campaigner. Provided they are healthy, sound, and of good weight, I’d RATHER see newbies start out on a horse that is very broke, that ignores almost everything but it’s rider, and most of all that will WHOA upon request. Immediately. (I’d also rather see walk trotters be able to get through a pattern before they ever do a rail class, but that’s another story.)

What I am saying is that true horse(wo)men recognize that you will never know it all, that every horse is unique, and that there will always be challenges to work through.  Those moments are what can make you a better rider, if you handle them well. Unfortunately, horses seem to be very good at waiting to share what they (or you) don’t know, until you are somewhere where everyone is watching.   Note: While it may FEEL like everyone is watching, most people, except for your mom and possibly your trainer if you have one, are much more concerned about what to have for lunch. You may be certain that the entire world thinks you are a total clown, but if you are fairly schooling your horse, they probably aren’t actually thinking about you much at all, but rather, if they should have a hotdog or a salad.

So, this is all well and good, but what should you do when your horse decides that rather than jog, he’d just as soon keep loping merrily down the rail (or worse)? An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, so making sure that your horse has seen the arena and what is around it, and making sure they have been properly warmed up for their temperament will help a lot. Keeping an eye on the horses around you, and refraining from riding up too close to other horses will also help prevent a ruckus. Finally, and probably the thing you have the most control over, is deciding how you will react when things go wrong. The most important thing you can remember is that when your horse gets wound up, you need to calm down. Take a deep breath or two, quietly go to two hands if you need to, look at your surroundings, and calmly and safely get your horse out of the way of other riders. Despite the fact that you may be upset, overreacting will only make the situation worse, GUARANTEED. Once you get the horse safely out of the arena, do not go straight back to the barn. Ask the horse to work a bit, if you safely are able to, even if it’s doing a few drills that you know he can do, or just walking and trotting for a few minutes.

The day you accept that sometimes you’ll have to help your horse work through problems in the show ring is the day you become a true horse(wo)man. Once the gate closes behind you, you’re the only one that can do it. You won’t necessarily get a blue ribbon (or any ribbon) on that day, in that class, but if you don’t give up, you will be one day closer to being a skilled sailor, with many more ribbons down the road.  Come to think of it, that’s a good lesson outside of the show ring, too!

I Heart Winning

DSC_0027Photo credit: Tim Waite

When I look back over these blog posts, one of two things tends to happen. Sometimes, my heart grows a size or two at the responses I’ve had from those who enjoy what I’ve written. I really, really appreciate all of the kind words, and find it humbling…and about the time I feel this way, my inner fourteen year-old rolls her all knowing eyes and says “Yeah, well, you don’t sound like much of a competitor…in fact, you don’t sound like someone who even likes winning…or has ever even shown a horse, much less won”. I figure it’s time to set the record straight…or smack my inner fourteen year-old. One or the other.

I. LOVE. SHOWING. HORSES. I love everything about it…and most of all, I LOVE WINNING. (There. I said it.) There is plenty of research to suggest that kids start any sport…and stay in any sports, because it’s fun. And let’s face it ladies and gents…winning is much more fun than…not winning, so of course there is a certain level of fixation on winning. Nothing makes my heart race faster than the click of the announcer’s microphone just before the placings are read…especially when I know my horse and I had a great go. I also enjoy prizes of all kinds…jackets, ribbons, trophies, plaques, plastic cups…I even won a giant lucite paper clip once and thought it was the best thing EVER. (Truthfully, it was weird, and I still don’t know why it was a prize, but the point is I WON IT.)

Unfortunately, as I mentioned in my previous post “Get Out of Your Box Stall” , I enjoyed the competition end of horse showing so much, that I became fixated on that part instead of the myriad of other things that make horse showing great…like the horses, and (most) other horse people, for example.   Sadly, at times this made me a bratty fourteen year-old in a 20 plus year old body. Not a good look. Plus when I didn’t win, showing horses stopped being fun.

Fortunately, with time, a series of hard knocks, and a Ph. D. in Sports Psychology, I changed my perspective on competition, and horses and horse shows became fun again.   Looking back, there were a few other things that sped up my trip back to horse show enjoyment.

1) Judging horse shows-The view from the center of the ring is much, much different than most people assume. By judging, I developed a new found understanding of not only the rules and specs of each class (which everyone participating should know) but the fact that sometimes the difference between first and second is only a point. Or half-a-point. Or even one unfortunate look in a particularly unfortunate time frame. While it’s important to be evaluated by others, understanding the process judges go through made it clear to me that what really IS important is your ride…

2) The ride (or go)-You’re ultimately the only one that knows your horse, and what the two of you have been through or are trying to improve upon. Once I started focusing on those little details…getting my horse to respond immediately when asked, finding the softest cue I could give to get a response, and all of the other little details that go into a great performance…achieving those things became more important than the almighty win. And interestingly, the wins actually seemed to come easier.

3) True competition-There is a book called True Competition that completely changed the way I thought about competition, and the kind of competitor I wanted to be. Trying to focus on treating my horses well, other people well, and appreciating the skill and integrity of other exhibitors when I saw it, made me truly appreciate a win when I had one. And I started to think less about beating others, and more about at least trying to make it challenging for others to beat ME whenever I could.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m far from perfect…and my heart still races when the microphone clicks, but now it’s about things that I can actually control. Hopefully if you beat me, you had to do your best to do it. If you did, you’re welcome to that giant lucite paperclip…you earned it.