Failure Is How We Learn

Aug 14, 2020 - 7:39 AM

In this age of social media, there’s this facade that no one ever fails anymore. Everyone looks perfect in pictures, and that’s especially true in the horse world. Because we only get a small glimpse into a person’s life through a picture or post, we tend to believe the biggest lie: That person is perfect! But unless you actually know them, have you ever asked yourself how many times they failed before they arrived where they are now?

Yes, it takes talent to do well, but talent can be beaten by hard work and determination. I’ve watched so many people fail one time and then give up because they’re too embarrassed to keep going. Failure is a teacher; you can’t learn from your mistakes if you do not fail at first.

Your first riding instructor probably told you that you would fall off a bunch of times before becoming a good rider. And you probably did. Did falling make you more determined, or did you give up? At some point, you probably rode that stubborn old pony who refused to trot until you kicked him 828,272 times. Did that pony make you want to learn to kick harder? Or did you get off and never ride him again? If you’ve groomed, you’ve inevitably forgotten to put earplugs in or bring a towel to the show ring, or maybe you’ve put the wrong saddle on the horse. Did you let one mistake stop you, or did you accept responsibility, correct the mistake and move forward?

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Photos of others’ accomplishments on social media can make it seem like their life is perfect. Photos Courtesy Of Nicole Mandracchia

The first summer I groomed professionally in 2010, I was terrible. I failed at something almost every day, but giving up never crossed my mind. I’d been bitten by the travel horse show bug, and I was obsessed. I loved the thrill of going to new places and meeting new people. But because I had very little experience working for a show barn, I didn’t understand how to systematically get things done. This led to several big mistakes early on, as well as a lot of internal stress and self-doubt.

That summer, we had one big eq kid who was in her last junior year competing at the Lake Placid Horse Show (New York). She and her parents had been looking forward to the ASPCA Maclay class because she had a good chance of getting a ribbon. And she probably would have—had I remembered to take off her tail wrap before she walked into the show ring. It was one of those moments where you notice five seconds too late, and the horse is juuuuussssstttttt far enough away that there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it.

My boss noticed and called for her to return to the gate so we could take it off quickly. I might have been able to save this situation, but then my boss told her to come out of the ring while we removed it. Because she entered, left, and then tried to go back in, she was disqualified. The disappointment in her eyes and the tears streaming down her face made me feel so guilty. I apologized so many times on the way back to the barn. Her parents said nothing to me. I felt like I could barely walk as I trudged back to the barn with her. The girl got off, handed me her horse, and after giving her horse a mint, she and her parents left. I felt horrible.

In my defense, the tail wrap was black (who uses a black tail wrap?!?!!) and the horse was dark bay with a black tail. I have terrible eyesight and have a hard time distinguishing between colors if something blends together. Does that excuse my mistake? Absolutely not. I should have been paying closer attention or insisted on using a brightly colored wrap.

When my boss came back to the barn, I was hosing off the horse and crying by myself. I started apologizing all over again. I was going to get fired; I was sure of it. Why would they keep me? I would fire me, too!

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Nicole Mandracchia waiting ringside with one of her many charges from over the years.

Throughout my tearfest, I’d failed to notice that the infected rub we’d been treating on this horse’s leg for many months had finally popped like a pimple. My boss noticed the small line of pus running down his ankle and started gently squeezing out the remaining contents. Ten minutes later, his leg looked normal-sized again, and the horse breathed a huge sigh of relief.

“Wrap that with some ichthammol tonight,” she said gently. “His mom is going to be happy this is gone.”

I was still apologizing about the tail wrap incident, and she cut me off: “All that matters is that this abscess thing is gone now.”

It turns out that the girl and her parents just needed some time to cool off, and they were so happy his abscess had blown that they forgave me. I promised myself that mistake would never happen to me again.

Several weeks later, we went to an A-rated show closer to home. My boss did a warm-up hunter class in the big ring with the same horse to get him ready for the hunter derby. She’d put black polos on all four legs to school. You know where this is going.

The horse had zero white on his legs, so the polos blended right in, thanks to my wonderful eye handicap. My boss was halfway across the huge ring before I noticed them. So did the judge, who stopped her before she started her course. My face turned beet red; I was mortified. This had to be some kind of recurring nightmare. How could something like this be happening again?!?

Because the class was small and only had three people entered, they needed her to complete the course in order for the points to count for the other riders. The judge allowed the jump crew kid to pull off the polos before she started her course. My boss didn’t take my mistake as nicely this time and yelled at me when she came out of the ring. Fair. I deserved it. She warned me to get my act together, and I took that warning seriously.

Guess what I never did again? I learned my lesson. I look for a tail wrap now; I check legs before the horse walks in; I pay attention to every single minute detail. I remember those mistakes, and I do not repeat them. I’ve learned that I have to work harder to pay attention to details because of my poor eyesight.

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Practice and organization help prepare you for the unexpected—and there’s always unexpected when it comes to horses.

To avoid making those mistakes again I practiced more than anyone I knew. I went looking for details for which no one else was looking. After everyone left, I stayed longer to bathe, clip, ride an extra, practice braiding, etc. I skipped parties, bar nights and dinners to improve my skills. I watched how other people did things at shows and observed their routines. I asked “why” all the time. I wanted to absorb all the information I could. I challenged myself to be better and try harder each day. I never gave up.

As the years went on, my attention to detail led to me being entrusted with more responsibilities. Because I’d developed a system it became easier. I knew how to be organized, timely and three steps ahead of everyone else. My increased knowledge meant I knew how to react in difficult and stressful situations, which allowed me to help save a horse’s life several summers later.

If I’d given up after that first summer, I never would have met all of the people I have, traveled to all the places I’ve gone, learned from all the horses that I have cared for, or had the experiences that have helped shape my life. This has made me a better person and a life-long learner.

No matter what you want to do in life, failure is a part of it. Failure shows you what you still need to learn and practice. If you fail at something the first couple of times, good! It means you need more practice. It’s how you react to your failures that determine what your future will look like. 2020 seems like an excellent year for extra practice time, whether it be riding, working with your horses on the ground, or trying out a new discipline for fun. It’s a great time to learn something new and better yourself! Who knows, you just might like it.


Nicole Mandracchia grew up riding in New Jersey and was a working student while in school. She graduated from Centenary University (New Jersey) and has groomed and barn managed for top show barns Top Brass Farm (New Jersey), North Run (Vermont), Findlay’s Ridge (New York) and Ashmeadow (New Jersey). Read more about her in “Groom Spotlight: Nicole Mandricchia Proves The Harder You Work, The Luckier You Get.” After more than a decade working back in the barn, she eventually hopes to establish herself as a trainer. Read all of Nicole’s COTH blogs.

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