The trap of comparing yourself or your horse to others

As much as we would all like to be confident in our abilities, it's inevitable that at some point in our riding/horsey journey, we start comparing ourselves to other people. Or worse, we start comparing our horse to other horses.

It's unavoidable - the equestrian community is massive, and practically everywhere you turn there's an incredible rider with a stunning horse to observe. From the side-lines at shows, when you're wandering past the arena at your agistment centre, or when you're scrolling through Instagram of an evening - you really can't escape the constant influx of people to compare yourself to. 

I'm absolutely guilty of this. I spend plenty of time watching videos of other riders and trying to memorise their position, while thinking to myself how do they make it look so easy?? What am I doing wrong?

Or I look at people I know, who are lovely riders but also have horses that are more willing than mine about certain things, and ponder whether it would be easier for me if I had a different horse (even though I can't imagine parting with my mare). 

The thing is, despite the rational part of our brain that knows that there's no point in comparing ourselves, it's easy to think the grass is greener under someone else's boots because we only ever get a small snippet of the full picture. 

The moment at the show when you watch someone glide over an oxer with ease and grace is the result of months of training, probably including some genuinely awful rides, to get to that point. Or the professional rider who you follow on Instagram probably has days when they're exhausted and wish they could have a job that doesn't require physically gruelling work for 12 hours each day, even while you're enviously wishing you could ditch your office job for their life. 

And for every horse that seems so much easier and more willing than my mare Penny, I know they have their own quirks and habits that would compare poorly to Penny's better qualities. 

But this logic doesn't really prevent us from falling into the comparison trap. To really stop the constant churn of jealousy, frustration and self-doubt, we have to look at the root cause of the issue. 

For me, and for a lot of the riders I know, the key factors are impatience and perfectionism. We know what we want, and what it will look like when we get there, but it's taking much longer than we expected, and we can't stop fretting over what isn't working instead of acknowledging what is working

A coach recently said to me, 'You looked stressed in that clinic, and I was ready to adjust the exercises, but you just kept doing them anyway. And you did them well, but I did wonder if it might have been a more positive experience if you had talked to me about it and we adjusted.'

This was a fascinating insight for me. I had been alarmed at some of the jumping exercises in the clinic, and would have been more comfortable if we had put the jumps down, or reduced the number of them in the grid. But I also had this voice in my head saying, 'If you ever want to be good, you just have to be able to do these things.'

I felt like it would have been a failure and a waste not to do them. To be fair, sometimes you do need to give yourself a push and extend your comfort zones. But what I was actually doing was denying myself and Penny a chance to really learn in a safe environment, because I wanted us to be closer to our goals than we are. 

This impatience is what causes 99% of the frustrations I have with riding. One factor I have in common with my riding mates is that we're generally driven people who set goals and achieve them in other parts of our lives. Horses don't fit inside the neat trajectories we might set at work or at home, though. 

They are more variable, and less controllable. So my impatience is still there, but it has no productive way of escape, because actually the only way forward is to let go of the end goal in favour of smaller, more meaningful ones. 

Then I look at other riders and horses, and it looks so easy that my impatience gets even worse, and it's a downhill road from there. 

Goals are a good thing, if they're productive. But expectations of perfection that don't take into consideration the reality of where you and your horse are at, only lead to disappointment. 

So, I've set myself a challenge. Every time I want to compare my riding or my horse to another, I take a step back and think two things:

1. 'They must have worked really hard for that, I'm happy for them'; and 

2. 'What's something I'm proud of achieving with Penny this week?'

Often the answer to question two is really little, like, 'We had a really nice bonding moment when I hand walked her around the property' or 'We got an awesome canter transition where I sat really stable yesterday'. But reflecting on the small, measurable positives has been really good for me. 

Gratitude, reflection, and generosity is the only way forward - it won't happen overnight, but the journey is as important as the end goal.

(Image: Jeremy Bishop)