In an effort to promote everyone’s “self-esteem,” today’s youth sports often reward children simply for having the right uniform and equipment. But when participation trophies are awarded just for showing up, children miss one of the best opportunities competition can provide – the not always welcome, but very important lessons in sportsmanship. In fact, when it comes to equestrian sports, these lessons are as vital a skill to master as that of equitation.
Unfortunately for trainers and riding instructors, teaching sportsmanship and requiring it in a rider is sometimes met with resistance in today’s world, where the blue ribbon is often given a value far beyond its two-dollar purchase price. This focus on winning can be tied to the time and financial commitment required in showing horses. It is not an inexpensive sport; it often involves travel, specialized equipment and a great deal of time. In addition, trainers want to see their customers succeed. A successful client is great advertising and reflects well on their barn. Since there is only one blue ribbon per class, the chances for success at a show are limited to two or three classes. This can sometimes lead to highly competitive behavior, and a loss of good sportsmanship. But trainers and instructors that build a program on sportsmanship as well as riding skills seem to be the most respected and successful in the industry.
Smith Lilly, trainer at Mercer Springs Farm in Princeton, West Virginia, is one of these trainers. In his book “Saddle Seat Horsemanship,” he makes a very valid point that, “Riders who focus their energy and attention on blue ribbons rarely maintain a long term interest in the sport.”
Why is this? Sportsmanship teaches riders how to lose with dignity and grace. It also teaches them to win with humility and gratitude. This is not to say that anyone – rider, parent or instructor – is happy when a rider has a bad class or when a seemingly great ride is not reflected by the judges’ cards. Good sportsmanship does not mean being a martyr or denying disappointment; instead it is the ability to learn from experiences and to grow personally from them.
Of course, sportsmanship is a learned skill, taught by trainers and instructors as well as parents. These role models teach, first and foremost, by their own behavior. Trainers that focus on sportsmanship place respect for the horse and safety of the rider above all, and are knowledgeable about the rules of competition. Good instructors demonstrate positive relationships with other trainers. They enjoy competition within the ring and positive relationships as colleagues outside of it. Alternately, trainers and instructors who encourage criticism of judges or other riders or trainers to their customers set the standard for poor sportsmanship. This becomes an acceptable response to a disappointing class or show. A rider who is allowed to believe that poor performance or lack of skill is not their fault is unlikely to be inspired to grow and improve in their riding.
Proper education aids in good sportsmanship as well. It is important for the trainer or instructor to talk with new parents and riders to make sure they have a realistic expectation of initial show experiences. Depending on his or her age, a child who has only been showing for six months can expect to enter the ring with riders with years of experience. Some riders have shown horses since they were three years old and may be in their seventh season as a 10 & under rider. This reality has the potential to lead to disappointment, but if the parent and child are both prepared for the possibilities and the rider is encouraged to ride for themselves and not against other riders, the outcome is more likely to end positively. Keeping the focus on self-improvement sets the proper tone for good sportsmanship. Good trainers and instructors congratulate a win and support a loss with the same question: “What did you learn from this ride?”
Parker Lovell, owner and instructor of the multi-generational and multi-disciplinary, Cash Lovell Stables in Winston Salem, N.C., takes it a step further. She has led countless riders, both children and adults to national and world titles, all while maintaining a focus on individual growth, and she believes that good sportsmanship begins long before a rider arrives at the show.
She recently shocked a group of her students when she told them that she really didn’t care about their riding abilities.
“I told them, ‘I don't care how you ride a horse,’” she said. “‘At the end of my life, whether you rode beautifully and won a big ribbon won't matter to me one little bit. What I care about is how you live your life. And trust me, how you ride and care for your horse is how you're going to live your life.’”