To be honest, I wasn’t enthusiastic when my daughter’s riding instructor convinced us to let her compete in horse shows. Having grown up a middle-class kid in Colorado, I was suspicious of the whole East Coast horse show scene. It all seemed too focused on who had the fanciest horse and where did you buy those darling breeches, Jessica? My daughter was wildly excited to give it a try, though, and I wasn’t about to play the Grinch to her Cindy Lou Hoo.
As any parent of an equestrian will tell you, once you’ve done a couple shows, you’re most likely committed. My daughter got hooked on everything about “showing”—from the adrenalin rush of a good hunter round, to hosing off her pony at the wash stall, to cruising around the show grounds in a golf cart. It was all pretty magical for a tween girl hopelessly smitten with everything equestrian. Though many of my suspicions about the horse show scene proved accurate, I ended up enjoying that phase of life as much as my daughter did.
Ethics Lessons Served Daily
As much fun as my daughter had guiding her pony over jumps, I was impressed by the gravity of the life lessons she learned in the show ring. They’re not just good lessons for kids, either. Something about our cultural climate in the United States suggests we could all benefit from a horse show or two. As I’m wont to do, I derived broader ethical observations from my daughter’s experiences—and they’re particularly relevant to people in leadership and, dare I say, political, roles.
- To succeed in life, be a good partner. Competing in horse shows requires an extraordinarily trusting and symbiotic relationship with one’s horse. Poorly trained riders who ask their horses to do more than the animals can inevitably end up getting dumped in front of a jump for their arrogance. For all their imposing size, horses are prey animals and scared of pretty much everything; riders must instill trust and confidence in their four-legged partners to win. In this sense, succeeding requires being a good partner as much as having one.
- If you lose, accept the blame and move on. I can’t count the times I saw a kid have a bad ride and, on the way back to the gate, haul off and smack the horse in frustration. It’s an immature reaction to a complicated moment. While there are times when horses genuinely misbehave, most of the time the fault belongs to the human partner. The best riders acknowledge this reality to the point of self-deprecation. Even if the horse spooks at a napkin blown along by the breeze (which happened to me) and costs you a round in the jumper ring, seasoned riders smile and say, “It just wasn’t our day.” They understand that the horse is, well, a horse, and whipping him with your crop won’t change the outcome. In a broader sense, accepting blame, rather than deflecting it to one’s teammates, is a sign of maturity and magnanimity—and the mark of a good leader and person.
- You can do everything right and still lose. Competition means that our accomplishments are considered in context. If a rider goes into the equitation ring and nails every jump, every stride, and every lead change, it doesn’t mean she’ll win. If some other kid has an even better ride, that kid gets the blue ribbon. Period. It’s just a reality of competition that doing your best doesn’t guarantee anything more than a nice, warm feeling of accomplishment—and that will have to suffice. Suck it up and move on.
- Sometimes life isn’t fair. Both hunter and equitation disciplines are judged competitions. In both, the vagaries of human behavior play an enormous role in determining who wins and loses. Some judges prefer bay horses, some are sticklers for clean tack, others prefer warmbloods to thoroughbreds. Or whatever. Their biases, whether they acknowledge them or not, affect their decisions, and there’s precious little anyone can do about it. On top of that, judges are fallible in their observation skills. I’ve seen a kid miss a lead change (an egregious error in show jumping) and go on to win the round because the judge glanced down at her cell phone at the crucial moment. It’s just like in the NFL, where human judgment can result in a Super Bowl win or a crushing defeat. That’s just life.
- Take care of your team. The best leaders know the team is successful only when everyone looks out for each other. The same is true in families and other social units. Conscientious riders tend to the needs of their equestrian partners with a passion: they groom every inch of the horse, poultice the legs, pick the hooves, check for minor wounds. Good riders know that it takes two partners working in perfect unison and at peak performance to win a competition. An investment of effort in your horse is no less than an investment in your own success. It’s also tremendously gratifying to lend support to those around you. Human partners, whether spouses, offspring, or colleagues, won’t require poultice or a bucket of water over the back, but they certainly appreciate our attention, support, and compassion.
Three years ago, my daughter began college, and her riding career wound down—at least for now. I have no doubt, though, that her time in the ring taught her more about about losing with dignity, dealing with life’s injustices, and supporting others than her old man was able to impart. Having witnessed the power of those life lessons, I’ve decided my next mission is to get every member of congress into the show ring for a sweaty afternoon of honest competition. Afterwards we can all get a strawberry-banana smoothie and talk about what we learned.