The Enemy of Good

A rider’s manifesto on overcoming perfectionism.

There are some things that just go together in life: Peanut butter and jelly. Mac and cheese. Popsicles and summertime. Hugs and kisses. Equestrians and perfectionism. Socks and shoes. Bread and butter.

See what I did there? It just fits right in. Type-A personalities and equestrians, specifically dressage riders, are a natural combination. I’m sure everyone has their own theories on why this is the case. Personally, I believe it has a lot to do with the way we are trained to think. We are always asking ourselves Where are the flaws? In competition, we are judged against the ideal: a score of 10. So it becomes second nature for us to look at a picture or video or even our own reflection in the arena mirror and see only our imperfections glaring right back at us.

There’s good and bad in this mindset. In some ways, this helps us attack problems directly. We don’t withhold criticism. We look for the problems and then we determinedly set out to fix them so we can inch closer and closer to that elusive 10—or maybe 8, if you’re a mere mortal like the rest of us.

Illustration by Margaret D. Paulsen

On the other hand, many of us then live our lives asking where the fault is in everything. Isn’t that an exhausting way to live? It’s great to have high standards, but when does “perfect” become the enemy of “good”? At what point does this idea of perfection actually get in our way and prevent us from having enough confidence to even be good? Perfectionism can be paralyzing.

I encounter this as a rider and also as a writer. Would you believe I’ve been working on this article for no less than two years? Case in point. My mom, who has had a lifelong passion for art, has described similar feelings. We both suffer from “overanalysis paralysis.” She didn’t paint for more than two decades because she was terrified to produce something that wasn’t perfect in her eyes. I didn’t compete for several years because I was scared to ride an imperfect test. When I finally did show, I had such a tremendous amount of self-induced pressure built up inside of me that I could barely function. Bless my kind, generous horse who carried on despite me.

Over the years, I’ve not only worked to improve my technical skills, but I’ve also tried really, really hard to get more comfortable with just putting myself out there. I’m learning to show up—flaws and all—and do the damn thing. It’s important for me to regularly prove to myself that a few mistakes in a dressage test aren’t earth-shattering. Despite my complete and total shock, the world does continue to turn! And I certainly won’t lose my spot on the Olympic team because lord knows I never had one to begin with.

But you know what does happen when we decide to show up, despite our flaws, for that thing we care so much about? We challenge ourselves. We uncover hidden strengths. We get the satisfaction of knowing we did something really hard. And sometimes within that process, we even manage to nail the test, paint the masterpiece or write the best seller.

To be clear, as I encourage this acceptance of mistakes, I’m not advocating that we take training shortcuts or carelessly rush up the levels. What I am saying is that we should give ourselves some grace and be realistic in our expectations. Most importantly, I think we should ask ourselves whether it really is our education and skills that hold us back from our goals—or simply the size of our comfort zones.

I also know that this “Just do it!” mentality isn’t right for everyone. For many riders, it is important to earn the absolute highest score possible. On the other end of the spectrum, some people are much happier not even setting foot in the show ring and that’s great, too. But for me, an Adult Amateur who enjoys the learning process and the occasional competitive success, aiming to be good instead of perfect has helped me feel more fulfilled in my dressage journey.

For me, I had to go out there and earn the crappy score to prove to myself that the world didn’t end. Do you know how much better you ride when you aren’t terrified that your bad riding will single-handedly cause the apocalypse? If the 2020 murder hornets didn’t do us in, that accidental “5” canter transition won’t either. We offer ourselves a much better chance to be good when we aren’t fixated on being perfect. Giving ourselves permission to be flawed can be liberating. It frees us from a crippling fear of imperfection. And then we can perform to potential.

The sport of dressage does not give us permission to be imperfect. But this is it. This is your permission. Make your mistakes. And then do better when you know better. Because just getting out there is so much better than being paralyzed by the agony of waiting for the ideal circumstances that, I promise you, will never, ever come. If you wait for perfection, you will be waiting for forever. Don’t wait for when you buy a fancier horse or the day you’ve finally lost every one of those extra 15 pounds. Don’t wait until you have a nicer trailer or the weather is better. So enter that show, or sign up for that clinic. You’ve done the work. Now your only job is to show up. You. Are. Ready.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2021 issue.

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