We asked some of the top competitors in the industry about their favorite win at the Congress. Photo © Impulse Photography

Lessons Learned from “Sitting with the Winners”

You may recognize this quote from a meme that circulated throughout social media recently: “Sit with the winners, the conversation is different.” Applicable to most situations, why is it that so many horse enthusiasts were sharing it like juicy gossip at the office water cooler? Likely because it struck a certain chord that rang true to them.

You can bet the conversation in the winners’ circles is different. It’s positive. It’s uplifting. And it’s open to newcomers. 

So what is it that the winners in the horse world are saying? Among the congratulations and horse-talk, a few commonalities will almost always make themselves evident. We outline six recurring winner’s circle conversational themes below.

1. “Don’t quit” or “Don’t give up now.”

“Yes, it’s the seventh time this year you went off-pattern,” or, “yes, I did see your young horse get a little too looky in that far corner.” When you’re sitting with the winners, rather than obsessing over what went wrong or stewing over the “wrongs” by judges, trainers, your horse, the tractor, whatever – winners will undoubtedly follow up those remarks with “but don’t you dare throw in the towel.” Winners know mistakes are part of the learning and training process. If all horses and riders alike were perfect machines from their first step in the show pen, no one would ever learn anything. No one would revel in the minor successes – the pattern completed successfully, the green horse that went around the pen like a seasoned champ. A championship, without the hardship and heartache along the way, would have little luster. Sit with the winners, and you’ll be reminded that you’ll never be the winner if you give up now.

2. “Be scrappy.”

The horse industry requires grit, on so many levels, and you can bet that the industry champs have developed an extra amount of courage. It can be in the form of work ethic, a “whatever it takes” attitude or the literal grit they wash off each night after hours spent in arenas and show pens. The “scrappy” approach you can pinpoint in elite athletes is also evident in world-class horse people – it’s a raw desire to win. It’s assertiveness in the show pen to ensure your rail position is what it needs to be to show off your horse’s lope. It’s a forthrightness to have those hard conversations with vets, farriers, and trainers, asking those difficult questions or giving constructive criticism. It’s the stick-to-it-ness that gets you through a long day in the saddle, just to go home to be met with chores, a fence that needs fixing and hay that needs unloading. But you grit your teeth and get it done because that’s what winners do.

3. “The road to success is a long one.”

Those taking home the buckles didn’t get there overnight. For most, they’ve logged years of hard work and miles upon miles in the saddle. They will tell you things like “patience is a virtue” and “success doesn’t happen overnight” not because they are trying to enrage you with clichés, but because they’ve lived those very clichés in their own lives. They’ve achieved success because every roadblock, detour, and figurative (or literal!) traffic violation ticket they’ve received has entrenched in them the desire to work harder, to persevere, and to cherish the long route. At some point in their career, they’ve learned to enjoy the ride – however tumultuous it might be. After all, aren’t we all here seeking a great ride?

4. “You call it failure, but I’ll call it opportunity.”

Winners are goal setters, and when things don’t go quite right, they do not play the blame game. Instead, they re-evaluate and, when needed, seek solutions from other sources. They tap into a network of experts they have purposefully connected with and find advice, solutions, and strategies for those people, who likely have become their most trusted friends. But more importantly, they take the “failure” as an opportunity not only to learn from their colleagues but to take a step back and look at the big picture. They revisit goals they’ve set for the season and create a plan to get back on track. They recognize that the “failure” they just endured is one they can correct now before their expected season peak – be it Congress, a world show, or the county fair. They understand that the mistake they just survived will not repeat itself with proper intervention. And intervening becomes the next to-do on a long list of goals.

5. “You have to take chances.”

Winners will tell you to get out of your own way and to get out of your comfort zone. But what does that mean? It means they can see your hesitation or your “play-it-safe” approach in the show pen. What winners recognize is that if you don’t go all out, if you don’t give 110% and you play it safe, you will not earn the win. Pull up a video of any champion showmanship patterns from this year’s world shows. You will see horse and exhibitor teams that are leaving it all out there in the pen. Their pivots aren’t just fast and fluid; they are fast, fluid and beautiful. Their backs aren’t shuffling feet in a rearward motion – they are big, decisive, straight steps with no pressure on the chain that makes you sit up and say, “Did you see that?” Their patterns are nothing short of a choreographed ballroom dance that entrances viewers. Winners ride and show with their whole heart. Some may worry that attempting that degree of difficulty opens more doors for minor slip-ups, major errors, and worst of all – just plain blowing it. But taking the chance and nailing it, and earning the buckle or the title because of it, will having you wish you learned to be uncomfortable much sooner.

6. “Never stop practicing”

Whether it’s a first big win or just another title in a long list of achievements, winners don’t forget the path they took to becoming a champion. They do not underemphasize the importance of every tiny step that took them one step closer to making a dream a reality. They never stop practicing and perfecting. They will tell you to “go back to the basics” because they understand the importance of building a strong foundation and a horse’s or a rider’s confidence. And they work, work, work until that foundation is rock solid. They walk before they run, if you will, and they recognize horse showing is no sprint… it’s most certainly a marathon. And the winners of that marathon today look forward to having you join their conversation at the finish line very soon.

About the author: When she isn’t wrangling 12 and 13 year-old kids in her middle school English classroom, Megan Ulrich enjoys riding, showing and judging horses. She lives in Holmen, Wisconsin, with her husband, daughter, two dogs and two horses. She earned her journalism degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.