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Troubleshooting: Perfectionism

By Sarah Wanless

The definition of a perfectionist is a person who “refuses to accept any standard short of perfection”. However, while many would assume that the label of perfectionist is one to be coveted, it is in fact a highly stressful state in which to live and often leads to disappointment and disillusionment.

Perfectionism is often a trait that we have had in-built since childhood, and it comes out of a noble urge to ‘get it right’. The issue with perfectionism, however, is that it so easily becomes an absolute standard and that standard is commonly unrealistic. This leads to stress, and when we ride horses, that stress affects our horses and their behaviour. The stress also risks creating a ‘win at all costs’ mentality, which is often not healthy for you, your horse or your partnership. It is therefore something that we need to tackle head-on.

This is not to say that you should abandon all goals. Goal-setting is vital for progress. The thing is that we need to ensure that our goals are realistic. Striving for excellence and achievable goals is a hugely rewarding process and allows both you and your horse to grow, but seeking to win every show between now and the end of time is impossible and the pressure this places on you and your horse is unhealthy. To move forwards you just need to ensure that you are striving for your own, realistic goals, not trying to achieve some elevated standard that you feel you must aspire to.

The problem

Since we started at school we have all been conditioned to believe that we need to be the best. Maybe in your school you were the best at something? Perhaps a sport or a particular subject? That feeling of being the ‘best’ is addictive, but also not a realistic reflection of how things work in real life. There will always be somebody better than you (and reassuringly worse than you), and once you leave school you suddenly realise that you are a small fish in a much bigger pond, and it is at this stage that your perfectionism can really become an issue. Trying to be the ‘best’ or ‘perfect’ in an imperfect world, filled with lots of very talented people, is beyond stressful. It is also fruitless and even if you are still at the top of your field, it is almost impossible to guarantee that you will be the absolute best every single time.

Social media has also not made the perfectionist’s life any easier. The problem with social media is that we forget the fact that nobody shows their average or bad rides on Instagram. Instead, people show their highlights reel – they don’t post to say ‘look how much muscle my horse has lost, because I can’t work him correctly’, but instead post the magnificent flying change they achieved in 1997. This leaves the perfectionist thinking that every ride must be perfect. Obsessing over the images and videos of other people can either put huge pressure on you and your horse or stop you riding altogether, as you are waiting for the day when you feel you are ready to have that perfect experience – just like you saw on Facebook last week.

The cure for perfectionism

Horse riding, in some ways, is the greatest cure for perfectionist tendencies. It’s hard to ‘control’ and ‘guarantee’ outcomes when your partner is a 600kg flight animal with a mind (very much) of his own. In this regard horse riding can humble you. Your horse is a living, breathing being, and while sometimes a ride will be great, it’s never entirely perfect. Even Charlotte Dujardin can’t hit the full 100% and has to make do with a measly 94.3% ;).

To really cure this problem, however, you need to take everything back to basics. Sit and write down exactly why you started riding in the first place. Remind yourself of what it is that really makes you enjoy your horse. Is it the rosette? Or is it that amazing jumping round you did last week when your horse was really listening to you? On the back of doing this, sit down and write out some realistic goals. Make those goals without factoring anyone else into the process – it doesn’t matter what your instructor wants, what your friends are doing on social media or what you think you should have achieved by a certain time. Instead be realistic and set goals that are there to improve your horse and your own riding, not to ‘win’ or ‘be the best’. Competitions can certainly feature, but the goal should not be to ‘win’ at a particular show but simply to improve your score compared to last time, or even just to have your horse calmer this time round.

Then, once you have set some realistic goals, create a sensible programme for achieving them and stick to it. Don’t crank up the intensity or change the goal posts because of someone else or something you see on social media, and similarly don’t panic if your programme goes astray due to an injury or other unforeseen circumstances.

Once you have your programme in place, enjoy the journey! Perfectionists are too concerned about the outcome. Instead, enjoy getting where you want to go, and remember that all of the mistakes along the way are opportunities for you to learn. Learning and improving is the aim of the game – not winning and achieving that elusive 100%.