The Day I Learned That Winning Doesn’t Matter

Photo © Andrew Ryback Photography


I remember it the way people remember big events in their lives—in exquisite and insignificant detail, in sounds and feelings, in visceral emotions. I remember it with a clarity that can only come from the passage of time. I remember it the way I remember things I have known my entire life.

I’ve always been a competitive person. I barely have enough athleticism to make it off the bench in the traditional sports I’ve tried my hand in, and trust me… I’ve tried. What I lack in Olympic-level prowess, I make up for in book smarts. High school, followed immediately by an undergraduate degree, followed immediately by law school, followed immediately by taking and passing the California bar exam, followed immediately by becoming not just an attorney, but a litigator. (No, it isn’t like SVU. Yes, it is kind of like Suits). The only area in my entire life where I have felt both marginally athletically competent and intelligent is around horses.

It was a Saturday afternoon, and I had just finished an incredibly long day of showing. One of those days where you’re 11rounds out at 8:45am, and somehow 14rounds out at 10:30am. I had moved up a division and despite giving the round everything I had and then some, it wasn’t enough. Not by a long shot. I was excused from the class, and left the ring sagging in shame. I couldn’t look my trainer in the eye, and burst into tears. It was barely 10:45am, and I had already decided that I failed.

Photo © Andrew Ryback Photography

I still had two more over fences rounds to go that afternoon. So I swapped my green coat out for black, polished my boots, put my hair back up, and tried again. Again, it wasn’t enough. Still not even by a long shot. My mare, my best friend, was giving it all that she had, but we weren’t in sync. We weren’t working as a team. I left the ring defeated, again. I left the ring feeling like I didn’t deserve to be there in the first place. Because in my book, if you weren’t winning, you were losing.

Bumping along in the back of a golf cart on the way to the barn, I no longer cared if my boots and breeches got splattered with mud. I clutched my eighth place ribbon like it was something I was proud of. Not because I was proud, but because I didn’t want to be empty-handed amongst my barn mates and their tricolor ribbons.

Someone had made a comment earlier that afternoon that she never wanted to win eighth place, because it was eighth place and brown ribbons were ugly. Her innocent comment echoed in my head on that ride back to the barn. I am not good enough. I failed. I got the sympathy ribbon. I am wasting my time and my money. I am not good enough for my horse. I do not deserve to be here. I will never win. I wanted to throw my ribbon in the trash, because I wasn’t proud.

Back at the barn, I continued to wear the weight of my day on my shoulders. I didn’t join my barn mates at our setup, didn’t grab a glass of wine or a fistful of snacks to sit down and relax. I quietly set my stuff down, grabbed my mare, and took her for a walk.

Photo © Andrew Ryback Photography

I kept looking over at her as we wound up and down the tent stalls and barn aisles. She just kept walking along, occasionally nudging me if she thought I was going too slowly or spending too much time looking at my phone. We kept walking, and I moved one arm to rest on her neck as we continued on. We walked like that, together, until it was time to go back to the barn. I took off her halter and she let me give her a kiss on the forehead – a rare event. I have always believed that she knows when I am sad or upset or hurting, and that night was no different.

Riding back to the house with my trainer, I was unusually quiet. She looked over at me and said, simply, that it will get better. That it won’t always be this difficult; that I will get back to winning; that I will be able to move up divisions and ride confidently and be successful.

I told her, through barely stifled tears, that I didn’t feel like I belonged. That it wasn’t about winning, but that it was hard to be the only person who hadn’t won. That, although I worked hard and saved all year to make this show a reality, it felt like I had made a massive mistake. In return, she reiterated her earlier sentiment. It will get better, she promised me. Winning isn’t everything, and it will get better.

The next day, I finished out the show with mediocre rounds and a long drive home ahead of me. As if the golf cart ride of self-inflicted shame of the day before wasn’t bad enough, I now had nearly two hundred miles to think about all of the ways in which I had failed.  It’s amazing what you can convince yourself of, if you try hard enough.

Behind the wheel of a car has always been a strangely sacred place for me. When I am alone in a car, I give myself the space and freedom to feel things authentically and without judgment. And as the miles of desert landscape, palm trees, and wind turbines blurred into gridlock and chain stores and express lanes, I did just that. I left myself feel.

I found myself thinking back to earlier in the week, when I was walking around the show grounds with a friend. She laughed at my enthusiasm and awe, despite having been to the facility countless times, and asked why I was so excited. Because this is the first time I’ve really shown here, I told her. Except for a few classes on a sales horse half a decade ago, this show had never been in the cards for me. But I did it. I got to show there with the first horse I have ever owned. Finally showing up to the literal and figurative arena.

After I finally got home, I woke up the next day and stopped by the barn before work the following morning. As I walked up to my mare’s stall calling her name, I realized that I was as excited as ever to see her. I couldn’t wait to see her pink nose with its perfect kissing spot sticking over the stall gate.

Photo © Andrew Ryback Photography

As I left the barn that morning, my mind already on the e-mails that had come in since I checked a few minutes ago, I ran into one of our grooms. With a kind eye and a big smile, he excitedly asked how the show had gone and said he heard that I had won. I didn’t, I said, to which he didn’t know how to respond. I didn’t win, I said, but I did have fun.

When I got home that evening, I picked up my eighth place ribbon from the pile I dumped it into. I proudly placed it on the memory board in my bedroom. Right where it belonged—featured prominently with some of my other favorite, most important memories.

It was a Saturday afternoon when I realized that winning didn’t matter. And a few evenings later, I realized I had already won.

Sara Zimmerman has lived in Southern California for over a decade, but still considers herself a Northern Californian. She takes great pride in being “that adult amateur” who runs out to the barn during her lunch hour just to give her horse a kiss. 

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