Photo: Abi Kelley gives her horse, Ishana III an appreciative hug after a great round in the Low Junior Jumpers.
By Kirstie Dobbs and Hailey Johns
What’s the first question that you ask a young rider when they return home from a horse show? Is it, “How did you ride?” Or, is it, “How did you pin?” Is it, “What new ribbons did you bring home?” Or, “What new knowledge did you bring home?” This subtle yet meaningful exchange of one word can make all the difference when conversing with young riders.
A parent’s interaction with their child after a round in the ring has lasting implications for how young athletes view themselves, their horse, and the sport. About 75 percent of young athletes across all sports quit by the age of thirteen. One cause of this is the intense focus of parents on the outcomes of an event (such as getting a ribbon or beating their fellow barn mates), rather than a focus on the process. Focusing on the outcomes rather than the process is also something that usually runs counter to what the rider is taught by their trainer, which can leave a young competitor feeling frustrated. The aim of this article is to offer a platform in which parents and other caregivers of young riders may critically reflect on how they engage with their child after their rounds and how this impacts their child’s development on their path to becoming horsemen. As our young riders gear up for one of the most coveted and prestigious pony events of the year, USEF Pony Finals, as a community, let us reflect upon how we interact with our youth.
To start, is the industry of competitive show jumping becoming too obsessed with winning? Although this is a hard question to answer in the aggregate, everyone can take a moment to critically assess how they approach their child about winning and losing. The “winner takes all” attitude can plague a sports community, and it can create a backward mentality in young riders. For example, treating a child differently whether they win or lose can have detrimental effects on a young rider’s mental evaluations of themselves. As Bruce Brown of Proactive Coaching LLC states in the article What Makes a Nightmare Sports Parent and What Makes a Great One, “Many young athletes indicate that conversations with their parents after a game somehow make them feel as if their value as a person was tied to playing time or winning.” We must adjust this attitude so that the focus is on gaining knowledge and experience, while celebrating personal successes and improvements, even if they are small. In order to ensure that our industry continues to be founded upon horsemanship, we need to make certain that valuing our youth as competitors does not override their value as horsemen. This type of adjustment may start quite simply with a new vernacular.
Do Not Ask:
“How did you pin?”
“What new ribbons did you bring home?”
“How were your scores?”
“What classes did you win?”
“Did you get your points?”
“Who did you beat?”
“How did you ride?”
“What new knowledge did you bring home?”
“How was your horse?”
“What do you want to work on for the future?”
“Do you have any new goals?”
“What did you learn when watching other riders?”
“Did you have fun?”
These questions will help turn the focus of horse showing from the points and the ribbons to the experiences and the knowledge. Overall, this will create a more positive learning environment and produce better horsemen with a hunger for bettering the sport over winning blue ribbons. The outlook of our young riders is shaped largely by the trainers and other riders that they look up to, so it is critical that this new vernacular is adopted not only by the young riders themselves, but by those who influence them. This type of change starts at the top.
Regardless of age, position, or level, you too can impart this critical adjustment to the mentality of our community. Each and every person that adopts this new dialogue and mindset is a step in the right direction. So, let us make a change, one question at a time!
1: Henson, Steve. (2012) “What Makes a Nightmare Sports Parents – And What Makes a Great One.” The Post Game.