Monday, May 3, 2010

Lessons from my Daughter

My favorite horseback rider on the planet, bar none, rides out of a barn in Concord, Massachusetts.

She is passionate about horses, competes frequently, and would probably be at the barn every day if her parents would let her. I know her pretty well, since I am her father.

Caroline has been riding horses for nearly all of her life. Don't ask me how she got interested in horses - neither my wife nor I ride. But even though she is a very good student, and thinks she would like to be an environmental engineer someday, her true calling at this stage of her life is the horse world.

Last weekend, Caroline competed in an eventing competition at the University of New Hampshire. For those who don't follow the horse world, eventing consists of three different events, usually spread over two days.

First, on Saturday, is the dressage competition, where riders go through a series of very intricate maneuvers on their horses in front of a judge. While this can be very nerve-racking - since points can be won or lost based on very small movements - the riding is very controlled and temperate, as you would expect from riders wearing jackets and white pants.

Then there's Sunday, where the two other events take place. One is called stadium jumping, where riders jump over a variety of different obstacles in a enclosed rink. Finally there is cross country, where riders race through fields jumping over walls, ditches and cross rails, all within an allotted time period.

The Sunday events always make me nervous. Riding horses that are moving at a gallop and jumping over rails and walls may seem exciting, but to a parent watching it also presents plenty of opportunity for injuries. Horses have survived for 3 million years on this planet by spooking and running away from anything that looks unfamiliar, even if there is a rider on their back. Given the fact that the typical horse weighs around 1,500 pounds, a panicked horse can usually overcome the most determined rider.

But here's the part where I really learned something this past weekend.

On Saturday, after the dressage competition, most of the riders went home with their horses to rest for the next day. Not my daughter, however.

Caroline and I walked the cross-country course three times on Saturday afternoon, twice with a measuring wheel so Caroline could figure out the correct pace between jumps. She wrote down notes on her arm (literally) so that she could easily refer to the times while she was riding. She and I also walked the stadium course a couple of times so she could mentally plot the correct sequences between jumps.

Then, on Sunday, we arrived at the show early so we could walk the courses again.

Why did Caroline do all of this?

Well, as the great UCLA coach John Wooden once said, "Failure to prepare is to prepare to fail". Caroline wasn't just walking the courses to look around - she was mentally preparing herself to give herself the best possible chance at success. Moreover, the fact that she had walked the courses several times meant that there was very little chance of any "surprises", so that she could focus her entire attention on getting her horse to perform at the best possible level.

And so yesterday, Sunday, I felt relaxed, probably for the first time ever at a horse show. While there is always the chance for injury riding horses, watching Caroline study and prepare meant that she was treating the event as a competition rather than an excuse to ride her horse through the fields and make a few jumps. Anything can happen with horses, of course, but the combination of strong training and careful preparation meant that she had significantly reduced the risks.

After Saturday's dressage event, Caroline was in third place in her class - pretty good, I thought.

But on Sunday her preparation paid off. Her stadium ride was flawless. And her cross-country ride was, as she said, the best she had ever accomplished.

Meanwhile, the two riders ahead of her both had several penalty points, and faltered.

And so, on Sunday afternoon, Caroline was awarded the Blue Ribbon - she had won, even though she had started the day significantly behind the girls that had been first and second.

Her Blue Ribbon was great, of course, but I was even more impressed by how hard she had prepared. Preparation doesn't always guarantee success, of course, but it sure does increase the odds in your favor.

Way to go Caroline!