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All About Heart

By Bob Avila, With Sue M. Copeland

I recently went to a bull-riding competition. The event coordinators asked me to say a few words to the young bull riders about what it takes to be a winner. Here's what I told them: "Don't worry about yesterday. Think about tomorrow."

That's something I've learned through decades of riding and showing. You can't do anything about yesterday. Dwelling on it won't do you any good. Sure, you can learn from mistakes. But sometimes manure happens, and there's really no lesson but that.

Still, I see talented riders who let the "woulda, shoulda, coulda" mental game haunt their performance. They make a mistake, or something unexpected happens. and they can't recover from it.

The Road Ahead
I've had some pretty bad things happen at some really big shows. In 2000, I was at the national Reined cow Horse Association Derby. I was so far ahead of the other riders, points-wise, that all I had to do was circle up the cow to win. It was a great feeling as I started circling that cow—I'd won the event. Then manure occurred: My horse fell down. Splat. My score? Zero. Zip. Nada. Not only did I lose a score, I also lost around $50,000 in prize money. Ouch.

Yeah, it was tough. But I couldn't sit around and dwell on it. I had to finish showing my other horses. It was hard, but I did it. I had to keep my mind off the rearview mirror, and focus on the road ahead.

It's like mentally falling off a horse: You pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and get right back on. If you can't, you aren't a winner. Maybe that's harsh, but it's true.

When you have a setback in riding or competition, don't take the time to stew about it and play the "woulda, shoulda, coulda," game.
Photo by Cappy Jackson

Look at what happened to reiner Shawn Flarida at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Wequestrian Games. He was favored to win the individual reining championship on RC Fancy Step. He was the last man to ride in the finals. And he was having a helluva run. Until his left stirrup leather broke. And he had to reach for the saddle horn to catch his balance.

Touching the horn is an automatic five-point penalty. Plus, he had to step off the accelerator for the rest of the run, because he was down to one stirrup. Shawn watched his dream of being a repeat world champion (he won in 2002) go up in smoke. He didn't even make it onto the medal podium.

Did he whine and moan? Nope. He complimented his horse. And he talked about turning his focus to his next big show, the All American Quarter Horse Congress, which was just days away. Guess what? He won there. He could've beaten himself up forever over the WEG thing, but he didn't do it. That's what winners do.

Hard Luck
In 2009, Todd Bergen, who used to work for me, had his own hard luck. He was at the NRCHA Snaffle bit Futurity aboard Smart Luck, and he was winning. But their luck ran out in the finals. In the fence work, the stallion fell during what could have been Todd's second NRCHA Futurity championship.

What did Todd do? He won the NRCHA Derby with the horse in 2010. That's what winners do.

Todd Crawford had it happen to him aboard the great mare Hickory Holly Cee. They were so far ahead going into the 1997 NRCHA Snaffle bit Futurity finals that practically all they had to do was show up. She fell during her run. But the pair went on to win many major titles.

I've "played hurt" lots of times, mentally and physically. (Ask me about the time a steer ran into my leg going down the fence in a cow horse event.) When I show, I'm in the zone. I don't feel the pain...until I finish showing my last horse. That's what winners do.

You can't ride if you're constantly worried about what "might" happen. Can you imagine driving if you were afraid of being hit at every intersection? You'd never get anywhere.

You have to let the negative thoughts go. You have to dig deep inside yourself, mentally and physically. You have to want to win. That's the difference between winners and losers. It's the same thing that makes a horse a winner. He's the one that won't quit you, even when something goes wrong. It's called heart. and winning is all about heart.

A multiple AQHA world champion in a variety of events, Bob's also won three NRCHA Snaffle Bit Futurities, the NRHA futurity, and two World's Greatest Horseman titles. He was the first recipient of the prestigious AQHA Professional Horseman of the Year honor. His Avila training stables, inc., is in Temecula, California. To learn more, go to

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