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Free from Failure

Shift your mindset about failure to enjoy your riding journey more.

Article by Alexis Bennett, with Gilead Friedman

Courtesy of the NRHA Reiner Magazine - August 2023

"I should’ve done this.” “My horse did that.” “If the judges hadn’t done this, then … .” You’ve probably heard these lines and maybe even used one or two yourself to explain away a run that didn’t go quite as you hoped. The only challenge is this: Failure is inevitable in horse showing — or, at least, the type of failure defined by winning and losing. That’s because the simple fact is that there is only one winner at each level. With the exception of ties, there is only one champion. That means everyone else competing — potentially hundreds of riders — has lost. So, given the reality that everyone, including you, will fail at some point, you must make a choice about how you handle it. You can beat yourself up, play the blame game, or realize that it happens and use it as a learning opportunity. The option you choose comes down to mindset. Mental Athletics founder and NRHA Professional Gilead Friedman shared his perspective on failure, what you can gain from it and how you can make a mental shift to approach the experience with a learner’s mindset.

What Is Failure? Failure is typically defined as winning or losing but, in reality, it’s more subjective than that because it means something different to everyone. Your definition of failure is based on your goals, expectations and experiences. For example, if you’re a professional who has had success, you might enter an event expecting to win. However, if you’re at your first show, your goal might simply be to have a clean pattern or earn a certain score. In both cases, there is an expected outcome. If that outcome isn’t achieved, it’s a failure from the individual’s perspective. Your perception defines your expectations, and your failure might be someone else’s success.

Why Does Failure Matter? People fear failure. It’s scary. It’s uncomfortable. It’s disappointing. It makes them feel emotions or have physical reactions they’d rather not have. A lot of those feelings have to do with the amount of time, energy, resources and emotion invested in their horsemanship. When that effort doesn’t translate to the outcome they’re hoping for, it’s frustrating. Showing tests your horsemanship and your connection with your horse through performance. The competitive aspect comes from the sport itself — the human construct around the performance. Showing off your horsemanship isn’t inherently competitive, at least not rider-to-rider; the sport is what drives that. For you personally, the competitive element should be your horsemanship versus your horsemanship — your individual progress.

What Do You Gain From Losing? There’s something about failure that’s motivating. As humans, we have an innate fight-flight-freeze reaction, which doesn’t leave any room for failure. Failure in early contexts meant death. With horse showing, you won’t lose your life. The only negative impact is on your self-esteem. If you don’t risk losing everything from failure, and if you know it’s unlikely that you’ll quit because you love it and you’re invested, then it’s productive to focus on what you can gain from the experience — learning. Every run, score and show provides important information. They teach you areas in which you’re proficient and areas where you can use some work. You know your skills and what you bring to the table when you show. When you compete, you demonstrate your strengths and weaknesses, and you are evaluated on them. That’s it. Some days you highlight your assets well, others you don’t. It’s easy to blame your horse or the arena or the judge — aspects beyond your control — when performances don’t go as planned; however, these external factors are not usually the cause of an outcome you’re unhappy with. The judges are simply scoring what they see in front of them. After your run, evaluate yourself. Watch your video if it’s available. If you know you can do better, take note and mentally prepare yourself for next time. Failure provides feedback that things didn’t go your way. It allows you to grow. If you want a different outcome next time, then work on what you can control.

Reviewing your run video allows you to gain feedback you can use to adapt and work toward a better outcome the next time you show.

How Do You Shift Focus From Competition to Performance? First, it’s important to know your purpose and values, and to understand your motivation. Why did you decide to show in the first place? Is it the publicity? The money? Are you trying to test your skills? Does it seem like the next step in your horsemanship journey? Goals are finite, and once achieved, they’re no longer relevant. On the other hand, purpose and values remain consistent, and they can guide your decisions and feelings about your performance. Secondly, focus on learning more than achieving goals. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t have goals but try creating goals to keep you motivated and disciplined, not only as measures of success. Develop a learning plan or progress map so you can measure achievement in your horsemanship over time. Then, look at each performance as a marker on your journey toward improvement and celebrate that progress versus focusing only on the outcome of a single show. Finally, worry about what you have control over and let go of what you don’t. If you and your horse are improving, and you’ve done everything you hoped or planned to do during a run, then you’ve won — even if that progress isn’t reflected as a win in terms of the outcome in the sport. ❖

Gilead (Gil) Friedman, founder and head coach of Mental Athletics. More than twenty years' experience in the horse industry as a trainer, competitor, and coach has highlighted the importance of a strong mindset for sports performance. Mentals Athletics approach is to assist riders of all skill levels and disciplines gain the knowledge and practical tools to step up their mental game and reach their Peak Performance Mindset (PPM). Gil works in person and virtually with trainers, non-pros and amateurs worldwide, sharing his firsthand knowledge of performance psychology to help riders step up their mental strength in a competitive environment. Learn more at

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