I've got this favorite story about the summer day in 1991 when I bumped into Ronnie Masarella, the British Olympic Team chef d'?quipe, before the grand prix at Luxembourg. I was there coaching Beezie Patton, professional rider for my John Madden Sales barn, on French Rapture for the big class.
So before the class, Ronnie said to me, "Your girl is going to win today. I just have a feeling."
I said, "Ronnie, you got any tips on how I can help her win?"
He said, "Just tell her to go out and have fun."
At the time, his advice sounded like a real cop-out. Luckily I knew him well enough to tell him what I thought. Then he explained what he meant: "You've got a great rider and a real good horse. Whatever happens, she'll be in other grands prix. The sun will rise tomorrow. There'll be other weeks, other years, and other classes. The important thing is that, each time she goes in, she has fun and lets herself be as good as she can be and her horse be as good as he can be."
Ronnie's words struck a chord with me. Ever since becoming a professional on the A circuit in 1982, I'd thought about how everybody was under pressure to win, and how focusing on that pressure made winning harder, not easier. I'd seen trainers intent on winning make decisions that were ultimately bad for their horses.
I'd said to myself, even way back in '82, "This isn't right. I want to do things a different way." But it took a while to figure out what the different way was. Here are the important pieces I came up with.
Build Your Foundation
Slower is faster. Another story: When I built model airplanes as a kid, I was often in such a rush to get the plane flying that I couldn't wait for the glue on the engine mount to set properly. Then when I went to fly the plane, bzzz! - the engine flew off. And fixing it didn't always work. I finally learned: Glue it the first time, let it set properly, and you never have problems with the engine falling off.
Training horses and riders is the same way. Competitive success isn't about quick fixes or having a lucky day. It's built on attention to basics and the details of your horse's soundness, the steps of his training to the level where you're showing, and your own preparation. Skip steps to try to get yourself and your horse ahead faster, and you'll spend longer correcting the problems that result. I think it was Mark Twain who said, "It's amazing how there's no time to do it right the first time but always time to do it over again."
I also got help in figuring this out by watching Olympian Michael Matz, whose entire operation is built on solid horsemanship and making horses last. I gradually realized that if you're diligent, and if you're interested in every step of the process - not just in winning - then you start to enjoy the steps themselves, and competition becomes a way to evaluate how you're doing. Say you don't win, but one thing you're working on has really improved. You not only feel like a success; you are successful in a real sense.
Show a little pride. I'm not sure when I started saying "How 'bout a little JMS pride?" But by now that's the unofficial motto of my business, even for the customers - and it sticks. It means we assume that all of us - the grooms, the students, Beezie, the horses, everyone - will do our best. We don't look over each other's shoulders or second-guess; we support each other. If something doesn't work, OK; anyone can make a mistake. This support allows people and horses to be themselves, and to push the envelope and take the risks required to really excel.
Now, About Having Fun...
The human mind can only think about one thing at a time. When you go into the ring, you should be thinking only about riding that course. If you do that, and do your best, the solid foundation you've already put in place by habituation will stay with you; you've created the situation that automatically gives you the best chance of winning.
If you fall short, the reason will undoubtedly be lack of habituation of good basics in one or more areas. But even that isn't a problem - it's a fun challenge to go out and continue to develop the good habits you're lacking.
So since that day with Ronnie, I almost always tell students going into the ring the same thing I'd advise you to keep in mind at your next competition: "Forget everything we've been working on. What sticks, sticks; what doesn't, we'll keep working on. Just go in, ride the course the best you can, and HAVE FUN!"
This article first appeared in the April, 1998 issue of Practical Horseman magazine.