The Thing About Bad Beginnings

In Aristotle’s Politics, the philosopher quotes an ancient Greek saying: Well begun is half done. Not being an Aristotle scholar, I learned the phrase from Mary Poppins, who, most will agree, made Greek philosophy cool again. This catchy axiom stuck with me over the decades, and I still find myself reciting it when undertaking a household project. However, a few decades of life have convinced me that Aristotle’s observation is only occasionally true. In fact, the best or most meaningful enterprises often begin poorly—and it is from these bad beginnings that we learn how to finish well. 

Here’s my alternative axiom:  A hot mess may augur success.

Which naturally brings to mind my daughter’s experience as an equestrian.

From the time 7 year-old Mattie took her first trail ride up Maroon Creek in Colorado, she loved horses. A few months after returning home from that vacation, she asked to take riding lessons at a local barn. Not having any idea what happens when girls get a taste of riding, my wife and I said, Sure! Sounds like a great idea. Things escalated quickly. One weekly lesson turned into two, and then three. Eventually Mattie’s trainer suggested she “half-lease” one of the ponies at the stable. Half-leasing means you devote half your after-tax income to riding lessons. 

They come for the other half later.

When I say that Mattie loved horses, I use the word “love” only because it’s the strongest verb available. The attachment young riders feel for their horses surpasseth all understanding. I don’t know if it’s the musky smell of a horse, the glassy serenity of the animal’s eyes, or the languid sway of its hips as it walks to the wash stall, but horses cast a sort of spell on their young owners. And parents are powerless against it.

A Study in Imperfection

Mattie leased various ponies during her first three years of riding. Then, because my wife and I apparently have no common sense, we agreed to buy her a pony. To be fair, we recognized riding as a potential life-long passion for our daughter. What’s more, Mattie is our only child, so if we blew her college fund on boarding and vet bills, we’d be traumatizing only one kid. The risk seemed reasonable at the time. Consequently, when Mattie turned 10, we bought a 22-year-old bay pony named Princess Kelshi. Technically, at 14 ¼ hands, Kelshi was a small horse, though her previous owner explained that, if you removed her shoes, she could qualify as a pony at horse shows. This meant nothing to us at the time but sounded vaguely unethical, so we left her shoes on.

In any case, after we bought Kelshi, Mattie’s riding took off. Every day after school, we drove her to the barn where she moved purposefully through grooming, tacking up, hacking or lessoning (respectively, riding for leisure or taking a lesson), cooling off, and grooming again. On summer weekends, she spent entire days at the stable. Some of my most bittersweet memories conjure Mattie as a willowy blonde gamine dressed in breeches and paddock boots, standing in a meadow with lead line in hand, watching as her old mare nibbled at tufts of spring grass. There is something uniquely alluring in the imagery of equestrian sports, and so I took countless photos back then—both at the barn where Mattie rode and at the horse shows where she competed each spring and summer. 

At weekend horse shows, we often accompanied Mattie to the photographer booth where they posted images of each rider’s round in the show ring. We’d linger over the photographs for what seemed like hours, picking out the best ones and shelling out ridiculous money for prints. One such photograph hangs in my study—on the wall just behind the club chair where I do my writing. This particular photo, taken at the 2009 Saratoga Classic Horse Show, we had printed on canvas and mounted on a wood frame so that it looks like an oil painting. In the image, Mattie and Kelshi are taking part in the Short Stirrups competition. At this very junior level the jumps tend to be under two feet and the courses are fairly basic figure eights. The photograph shows Kelshi halfway over a low, white fence, her ears pricked forward, her front legs raised evenly to clear the jump. Her braided black tail trails elegantly behind her. Mattie, meanwhile, looks every bit the young equestrian in her dress breeches, tall boots, and navy blue show coat. Her gaze is fixed on the next jump, as her trainer instructed, and her demeanor is calm.

When we laid out $200 for this photo, however, we missed one small detail. Mattie’s seat—as one refers to a rider’s posture in the saddle—is, to put it politely, sub-optimal.

Okay, it’s a mess.

Ideally, when horse and rider go over a fence, the equestrian’s rear end remains poised just above the saddle. Her heels press down in the stirrups, her hands move forward with the reins as the animal’s neck extends. The idea is to allow the horse to clear the jump without impediment, and to remain secure in the saddle during approach, takeoff, and landing. 

The problem with Mattie’s seat in the photograph is that she has risen some 18 inches out of the saddle, pitching her upper body forward onto the horse’s neck and tilting her legs backward. Rather than easing forward with the motion of Kelshi’s head, Mattie’s hands are clutching at the reins as if she’s learning to water ski. The effect of her posture is to inhibit the horse’s free movement over the jump—and telegraph uncertainty to the show judges. The photograph is a study in neophyte imperfection, the portrait of a hopelessly flawed beginning.

Failing Forward

Over the course of eight years, Mattie went on to compete all over the East Coast, winning countless ribbons and trophies, first with Princess Kelshi and later with her Dutch Warmblood Lapis Blue. By the time she left for college she was sailing over fences of 3′ 6″ in fluid synchrony with her equine partner. I have dozens, maybe hundreds of pictures of her riding in classic hunter-seat form, gloved hands supple at the reins, heels low in the stirrups, hips and legs positioned perfectly at the saddle. 

Every time I settle into my club chair to start writing, I see that photograph on my wall, with little Mattie hanging on for dear life. Her trainer would inevitably ask why I chose that picture. The honest answer is, I thought it looked pretty cool at the time. What did I know? The more relevant question, however, is why haven’t I replaced it with something more flattering? 

This consideration brings me back to Aristotle and Mary Poppins. Mattie began her riding career as an exuberant, red-cheeked kid taking lessons at a modest barn in Middle Grove, New York. In those first years, she fell off more times than I can recall, ended up at the hospital at least once, and endured sometimes withering critiques of her riding form. As much as she loved Princess Kelshi, she admits to having been scared to ride her for many months. And when she “moved up” to a larger horse, she mourned the loss of her partnership with the old mare. Her career was characterized by one challenge after the other: injuries (both equine and human), illness, bad weather, unkind competitors, crushing losses, and, eventually the death of her beloved pony. By the time she went to college in New York City and wound down, at least temporarily, her show jumping, Mattie had become an elegant and accomplished  equestrian—modest in her success and tempered by her failures.

I don’t replace that photograph because it memorializes the long, untidy process of achieving something meaningful—the seemingly never-ending shit storm we encounter on the road to ending well. “Well begun” may foretell success in a simple task, but when it comes to longer projects—becoming a person of character or forging a career of consequence—I’ll place my bet on the person who starts out as a hot mess and stumbles her way forward. Frankly, I’m not sure I trust anyone who succeeds by any other means.