BY PIPER KLEMM
I am a perfectionist. Which sounds wrong, because my computer desktop is a catastrophe. There are dishes piled up in my sink. On my front porch, the paint is chipping off the first and third step. I live with imperfections, but I know exactly where each one is.
I love horses. I love green horses. I love horse shows. I love competition. I wish I could wake up everyday to the smells of tack cleaner and fly spray to start my morning currying until my arm aches. But, that’s not my life. So instead I love shows, visiting back at the barns, and watching the occasional horse show sunrise while hand grazing.
No matter how much I love horses no matter what they do, I am a perfectionist about my own riding. I never want to miss. I obsess over it. Never want to have a rail, miss a change, pick up the wrong lead. Never ever. I can tell you every mistake I’ve made in the last decade. Seriously—I can rattle them off.
Does this obsession with perfection make my riding better? No, it makes it terrible. I’m so nervous, I shake at the in-gate. I have to fight every fiber of my being not to cry around people I respect. It takes everything I have to not let my frustration at myself make me a less sympathetic rider and horseman.
But much more importantly, it also made me a quitter. Why am I a timid amateur whose life isn’t built around riding? Because for a long time – I didn’t. For eight years, I didn’t sit on the back of the horse. I wasn’t perfect, so I was done.
Many kids that grow up in competitive sports quit by high school. Of course, there are many reasons and factors, but one lingers. They get to a higher level of competition, one that demands perfection, and it swallows them. Riders become obsessed. Parents become success-orientated, and so much effort is given for the pursuit of winning. For what? Failures at all levels become the end of the world, or at least the end of sport for young riders.
Perfectionism leads to body issues too. A study by the Kinesiology, Health Promotion and Recreational Studies Department of the University of North Texas found over one quarter (25%) of women in NCAA sports have disordered eating, compared with The National Eating Disorder organization that states 1-2% of women will develop anorexia in their lifetime. When we aren’t perfect, we try to force ourselves to be.
How do we move forward with this information? How do we foster healthy learning, instead of the constant failure to live up to impossible standards?
Let’s start with what we can change and control. We can parent better, coach better. Be empathetic friends, role models and humans. We can praise what matters the most: being coachable, taking the time to shine our boots, thinking about what the pony is thinking, supporting other riders. We can praise the ones who get back up after they have a very imperfect moment. We can help each other find comfort in our failures and keep coming back to try again. We can change the conversation.
Two things got me riding again: a supportive team of amazing professionals, and my deep love of these animals. Because, perfect or not, I love the incredible sport we’ve built around horses. I’m addicted to stringing together eight amazing jumps. I am constantly learning and growing as a person from these creatures and this industry. Even when I start to doubt myself, I can’t stop throwing my hat in the ring to try again. My choices are to succumb to my imperfections or love the sport despite my flaws.
And I love it. I’ll always love it.
I’m starting a journey with a new horse, and it’s a clean slate. We haven’t failed yet. We are “perfect.” As I thought about attending our first show together, I started to panic and called my mom.
“Do you stop loving Reuben when he’s not perfect?” she asked.
Of course not! I was horrified by her question, but she pressed on.
“You know, he feels the same way about you. He loves you even though you’re not perfect. The reason he’s your horse is your imperfections were matched to his. You were tailor made to take care of each other. To love, forgive, and show up for the next ride to make each other better.”
There are 800 ponies and their riders at the Kentucky Horse Park this month. A lot of them will be imperfect. A lot of them will go home without a ribbon, but each rider can win every day if we shift the standards. Think about what matters most, and praise it.
Our community is what we make it. Riding and horses (and life!) will always be hard, but we must teach the younger generation how to handle, excel and figure that out. Those are the skills that will serve them throughout their lives, far longer than a champion ribbon.
So this year, tell your daughter, I’m so proud of how hard you’ve worked all year.
Tell your son, I love to see you take such good care of your pony.
Your student, I love how you thought about your pony’s needs and feelings and took her for a hand graze.
I love to have the opportunity to watch you ride.
I’m thankful for this time we get to spend together.
I’m so glad you have a sport you love this much.