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What Losing Taught Me About Winning

What Losing Taught Me About Winning

I came off the cross-country course with a scowl on my face and tears in my eyes.

My trainer didn’t say anything to me. She didn’t need to – my sourpuss look told her everything she needed to know. I gave my horse a pat for his effort and we took a long walk back to the trailer. We had three refusals on the cross-country course. This came after a technical elimination from a refusal at the B option of a one-stride combination in stadium (thankfully this was just a schooling event). And if that wasn’t enough, we also had an error in dressage, where I forgot one 20-meter circle in the test.

Clearly, it just was not our day.

I was mad. So mad. I steamed internally on that long walk back through the grass, replaying all the shitty moments on course through my head. We’d finished on our dressage score at our debut at this same level a month ago. I’d spent so much time preparing for this event. I’d prepped as much as I thought I physically could. And if I’m being bitterly honest, I’m not used to failing so miserably.

I’ll be the first to admit it: I put a lot of pressure on myself.

For everything. I’m competitive in my career. And I’m really competitive when it comes to horseback riding. It’s the performance nature of the sport that drew me to it as a kid. I’d always loved animals and being horse crazy was certainly in my blood from the start. But it wasn’t until I won my first ribbon at a horse show that I was officially and totally hooked.

Not much has changed in the 25-plus years I’ve been riding, except for who pays the bills. I remain steadfast in my dedication to learning more with each and every horse that enters my life.

But being a competitive person means I can also be… “kind of intense” as my trainer likes to put it. (My husband probably agrees.) As I go around the show jumping arena, my trainer always whispers to me to “relax.”

I am relaxed, I used to say to myself with the roll of my eyes, while barreling stiffly to the next line of fences. No, clearly I was not relaxed.

I know what it feels like to win. I work hard on making improvements in my training at home. Any improvement at a horse show – whether that’s a few higher marks in dressage or a more consistent effort over fences – is a win in my book. I’m fortunate that I’ve collected my fair share of ribbons, too.

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While I was still feeling sorry for myself, I read an article in Scientific American a Facebook friend had recently shared. “Every winner begins as a loser,” read a quote in the piece about new research published by Northwestern University.

In an attempt to create a “mathematical model” to examine the act of winning or losing more diligently, these researchers looked at years worth of capital startup investments, grant applications and even terrorist attacks. What they found which separated winners from losers is that every winner failed, but they learned from their failures.

Then they tried again, armed with new knowledge.

I thought hard about this while still moping around about my recent poor performance. My mind had already raced through all the things I needed to be doing next: evaluating my horse – was something wrong? Logging more confidence-boosting training rides. Focusing on the aspects where we excelled, and trying to reward my horse more in those moments. Evaluating our equipment. And finally, getting back out there and just trying again.

After all, if we won all the time, would winning still feel so great? Probably not.

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