How Being a Perfectionist Made Me a Better Rider

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Photo © Treena Hall Photography

BY SUSAN GILSTRAP

I was in 5th grade when my drawing that I worked so meticulously on wasn’t chosen to be hung in the hallway with all the other kids’ artwork. I was beside myself, although that was a defining moment of perfectionism that would mold my future decisions on how I would operate in this world.

By definition, perfectionism means refusal to accept any standard short of perfection. But by whose standards? Maybe it’s a parent, teacher or trainer that we perceive as asking for the impossible. Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best or self-improvement. I believe it’s the standards we set on ourselves.

For me, perfectionism in riding has meant that I will never have a “bad leg day,” will always know how to react in every given situation, always have a “perfect spot,” and will never get nervous at shows. In reality, can these standards I’ve set for myself be met? If not, what happens then?

My thought process usually unfolds by berating myself for not living up to my expectations. I become melancholy, depressed and angry with myself. There are definitely those who handle setbacks with much more grace, but I have always struggled with my negative self-talk. And, because I demand that my riding be perfect in every lesson and show, the self-talk becomes cyclical. Expectation=not met=failure.

How can we move past this without applying some cliché quote that we read on social media? What does it take to get out of a deep groove of years of negative self-talk? Here are some things that I’ve discovered over the years:

Photo © Treena Hall Photography

1. Letting go of what people think.

I had to stop comparing, which can be especially difficult in riding. As an Adult Ammy, it’s been difficult when I’ve been as brave as I possibly could be at a show only to get a 6th place ribbon or not place at all when all the juniors are winning Champion or Reserve. It’s hard when I want to progress so badly and I feel like I have to “keep up.”

2. I had to embrace the idea of struggle.

I forget in this age of perfect profile pictures that we all experience struggle. What if I embraced every seemingly “failure” as much as I embrace the “victories?” What if I missed that lead change in that one round and chalked it up to just not being “my day?” What if I struggled through schooling over every oxer? Isn’t struggle part of the human experience? I need to remember that we all have struggles just by the mere fact that we’re human.

3. Letting go of the need for certainty.

Experience has taught me that there are no guarantees. There is no guarantee my horse will never colic, or that I won’t be in the top 8 at a show. I had to let go of the results and the outcomes and trust that I did the best that I could.

Photo © Treena Hall Photography

4. Have some Self-compassion.

This may sound New Age, but how can compassion serve us? I’ve found that self-compassion has served me well to combat my unrealistic expectations. Instead of saying, “I should have…” I now tell myself, “That’s ok. No one is going to die just because you didn’t find the perfect spot at every jump.” This goes back to embracing the idea of struggle. We’re all human.

5. Gratitude.

Adapt an “attitude of gratitude.” I have to remind myself at the end of the day, that I love riding. That it is a privilege to get to be around these beautiful animals. I love the feeling of going over a jump even if it seems “imperfect” to me. I love the joy it brings me.

6. Help others!

The last thing that helps me not focus on what didn’t go “right” is focusing on others. Looking outside of myself has never failed me. I can’t be reminded of the human struggle if I’m always focused on myself. Just know that we all go through life imperfectly and that it’s what helps us grow and mature. We are not alone when we share what’s going on with each other.


Susan spends her time riding when she can as an Adult Ammy and lives in Dallas, TX.

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