When I was in grade school, I played basketball and volleyball for my small private school. I enjoyed the sports, the friendship of my teammates, the travelling and the competing. Eventually, as I got more serious in my riding, I stopped playing “team sports” and focused on horses. In the early years of my riding, I essentially showed on my own. My mom and I trailered off to horse shows for the day or the weekend just the two of us. I had horse show friends here and there, but it was more or less just me. I enjoyed that, too, more than the team atmosphere of basketball or volleyball. I got to focus on myself and, being a naturally introverted person, I basked in the alone time that riding brought me.
As I got older, I started attending horse shows with more people, barn mates or riders who rode with the same trainer I did (I was usually a ship-in). It was an adjustment, to say the least, but I enjoyed the camaraderie. Having friends to root for was fun, and gave showing a different feel. Now I wasn’t just at the show on my own time schedule. I had friends with whom to roam the show grounds, go to dinner, watch the derbies, and jump the foot jumps.
As a freshman in college, I was a member of the Gamecocks NCAA Varsity Equestrian Team, and boy was that an adjustment unlike anything I’d ever experienced. Suddenly it wasn’t just me or just my barn mates, competing in different divisions. Now I had a team of 39 other girls, doing everything together and working toward the common goal of winning the meet (and ultimately toward winning SECs and Nationals). I thought before that I knew what it was like to be on a show team, but the NCEA brought teamwork to a whole new level unbeknownst to equestrians outside of the Olympics and Nations Cups. Every ride counted, and we wanted our teammates to win their point not only because it would make them happy but because that point counted toward our team total to win the meet. It was the same way I wanted my teammates to spike on the other team, to make the 3-pointer. Being on the equestrian team was more teamwork than I had any idea existed. We lived together, ate together, worked out together, studied together, went out together, literally lived the vast majority of our lives together. My best friend at the time actually even came back to the beach with me for spring break so we could hang out together. It was being on that team that taught me what teamwork really is.
As a trainer now with that experience then, I notice the disconnect in regular riding. We’re so quick to consider riding an individual sport, aside from the teamwork between horse and rider. Barns have show teams, but with many riders showing in different divisions, there’s typically still the feeling of individualism. You’re showing for your own reasons and your barnmates are doing the same, you just have the same coach. What’s worse is what typically happens when barns have riders showing in the same division. Riders often develop rivalries, or at least competition between one another. Regardless of how good of friends they are outside the ring, there’s often a little part of them that wants to see their barn mate fail so that they may do better than them. A lot of times, that leads to hard feelings outside the ring.
All of this is something that I want to change. My riders are great at working together. They help each other, laugh with each other, and cheer each other on. But what I hope to create is more of a sense of teamwork, like the kind of teamwork I experienced as a Gamecock.
When we won a meet, we won it as a team. When we won the SEC Championship that year, and we all burst into tears and hugged each other tighter than I think I’ve ever hugged anyone in my life, we won it as a team. Sure, we all got individual rings, but the trophy belonged to all 40 of us. That’s the kind of thinking I want riders to develop as they attend horse shows. Your ribbons belong to you, but the banner belongs to your entire team. When you put your ribbons up on the barn valance, they become the ribbons won by not just you, but by your entire barn. You won them with the support, friendship, love, laughter, and teamwork of every girl in your barn.
So as you go out to the stable this afternoon, or you attend your next lesson and horse show, think about what kind of teammate you want to be. Do you want to be competing against your barn mates? Or do you want to be competing with them? Do you want to be Champion in your division and your barn mate finish wherever? Or do you want your barn to be Champion and Reserve in your division? Consider your ribbons not only a testament of your own abilities, but your contribution to the trophy that belongs to your whole team.