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May 15, 2014

How To Win At Losing

Laughing at misfortune is as essential a skill in riding as heels down. Photo by Amy K. Dragoo

I am a competitive person and I like to win. However, I think I am particularly talented at losing. For me, being a good loser means that you can maintain a sense of perspective and still be a fun, positive person to be around all weekend. 

A few weeks ago I took Lizzie out for her second preliminary run. From start to finish, it was a bit of a train wreck of a weekend. All three phases left me wanting large quantities of alcohol, but I also figured that if you are going to bomb out in a phase, it might as well be all phases on the same weekend instead of one phase at three different events.

This way I wasn’t left with the trouble of thinking “what if…”. Rather, I was undoubtedly going to be at the bottom of the leaderboard no matter which way I looked at it.

Off The Rails

I arrived to the event hopeful, as Lizzie has been really consistent in her schooling and events for a while. In fact, her last hiccup was back in August at her training move up when she took a disliking to the water and picked up a stop.

The morning of dressage she was cool and composed, and we had a fabulous warm-up. It is her strongest phase, and she is rarely out of the top four or five after dressage. I went in to do my test and knew immediately that it wasn’t the most polished test we have done, and lacked a certain sparkle we often have, but it also wasn’t that terrible. She was obedient, it was accurate, it was just the kind of test most of us would immediately forget.

When the score was posted a bit later, I was confused. A 40? I have never gotten anything in the 40s with her…..ever. Further, we were third to last. I mean, it wasn’t the kind of test that makes angels sing, but it certainly wasn’t bad!

I picked up my test, read through the comments, and was sure the judge used my 6 minutes in the ring to file her nails because—while my test was a lot of things—“tense” wasn’t one of them. Whatever. I told the team I had achieved a new dressage worst score and suggested we hold a vigil later in the evening and symbolically burn the test.

It was time for showjumping, our weakest phase, so this day wasn’t exactly looking up. The footing was deep and slick and lots of horses had been stopping. Lizzie isn’t a stopper, but she isn’t a ballerina in the air either. I warmed up and tried to adjust to the feeling of her hooves being sucked in by mud on take-off and her hurling herself into the air to compensate, but eventually decided the time of my reckoning had come and went in the ring.

I had a perfect approach and spot to the first fence, but then her hind legs slid out from under her on take-off and we went flailing across, black legs flying in every direction. I got my stirrups back and kicked with all I had to fence 2, only to come skidding in too close to it and awkwardly leaping over while rails scattered the ground. I thought to myself, “This is really not the plan; I’d better sort this out.”

I composed my mind as we did the roll back to fence 3, which was going OK until she slid again and I realized we were a perfect one and a half strides away and power was fading fast. I couldn’t kick any harder, so I resorted to flailing anything that could flail in an attempt to muster both confidence and power. We scrambled over as my arms, head, elbows, legs, crop, and curse words all waved about.

For a moment, I considered retiring. This truly was a tragic round, and there were SO MANY fences left to jump. Shortly after letting this thought enter my mind, I thought about trying to explain this to my trainer, and decided if I was going to go down, I had better go down fighting. So I kicked and kicked. Lizzie jumped out of her skin and got better with the footing as we went.

This was only her 14th or so event, and only her third time jumping on grass, and her first in mud. She was shocked, I was shocked, but we both just kept trying. We made it through, and when they announced I had three rails, I felt like it was a gift from God himself.

In Perspective

On cross-country the next day, while I left the box expecting redemption, I got a fat dose of penalties at the second water jump. I mean really, Lizzie? The second water?! It was a puddle!

She went through the huge first water complex fine, sailed over the jumps and corner and skinnies and sunken road, and came to a screeching halt at the puddle at the end of the course. I got her through it, and we finished on a score of roughly 1 million.

I could only laugh about my misfortune. I think it is silly to ever take horse showing too seriously. I mean, we should all be properly trained and our horses properly conditioned, but that aside it really is just a somewhat absurd endeavor. When I hear someone having a meltdown over having too many rails or storming about because they didn’t get the dressage score they wanted, I always picture myself trying to explain the dilemma to the average person.

“Well, I had a really horrible day. I took my giant expensive pet horse to another state to play in the sunshine and grass and see my friends, but my horse didn’t prance as fancy as she has been prancing at home. Further, my horse has been a great stick jumper but today it was muddy so my horse hit three of the sticks. Then my horse decided that it did not want to go into the water, even though I have trained it to go into the water. Worst day ever!”

While competing is important to me, I never forget that it isn’t that important in life. I got my Master’s at Georgetown University, and my area of specialty is genocide. I never for a second confuse the horse show world with the world at large. In my opinion, each and every one of us is so absurdly privileged to even be able to compete that we have won long before the event has started.

The luxury of being an amateur is that I don’t have to answer to anyone but myself. When my results are a mess, I don’t beat up on myself, because I spent too much money to have a bad time!

Instead, I spend the weekend cheering on my friends, helping them however I can, and loving on my horse because she does her best every weekend. Who needs a ribbon when privileged enough to enjoy the sport you love?

As I left Plantation in my rearview mirror, I left with a happy healthy horse and a ton of great memories. As for the score and the sticks and the puddle, better luck next time!

And a few weeks later, we did have better luck at her third prelim, with Lizzie winning the dressage despite an error, jumping a positive show jump round, and sailing around a big cross country with some time to finish sixth.

Sometimes it all goes your way and sometimes it doesn’t, and that is true in every part of life. I’ve learned to laugh at my misfortune and to embrace my share of bad luck, because horses and life are a bumpy ride, and you might as well enjoy all of it.

One of the Chronicle's bloggers, Kristin Carpenter juggles her riding with running her own company, Linder Educational Coaching, running the shows and events at Morningside Training Farm in The Plains, Va., and riding her two horses, In A Trance and Lizzie. She grew up in Louisiana and bought "Trance," a green off-the-track Thoroughbred, as a teenager. Together, they ended up competing at the North American Young Riders Championships and the Bromont CCI**. She's now bringing another OTTB, Lizzie, up through the ranks. 

Read all of Kristin's blogs...

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