“I advise clients to try to step out of the emotion of the moment and take a look at their progress and achievements. It’s about improvement; perfection is unobtainable," Rice states. Photo © Danielle Long

Perfecting Perfectionism in the Show Arena with Paige Wacker

Editor’s Note: AQHA World and Congress Champion Paige Wacker of Hutchinson, Minnessota interviewed trainers and exhibitors about the pros and cons of being a perfectionist in the show arena. Read about her continued struggle with the need to be perfect and also top professionals’ and exhibitors’ thoughts about this topic in her interviews below.

Since I have competed on the national circuit starting at nine years old, this sport has enhanced my perfectionist tendencies because of my various experiences in the show pen. Sometimes, being a perfectionist aided me in my success. I practiced harder, thought through every maneuver and focused on what needed to be done to perform well.

However, there were instances where criticising myself and my horse made matters worse; over practicing to the point where the horse executed the pattern itself, performing the pattern incorrectly because of over-analyzing and losing focus when I compared myself to other exhibitors.

Being a perfectionist in the equestrian sport can be both an advantage and disadvantage. I was able to speak with trainers and exhibitors on the subject of perfectionism and how to perfect being a perfectionist.

First, I spoke with multiple AQHA World and Congress Champion trainers Kelly McDowall and Carolyn Rice and then, interviewed other competitors including Anne Wilson, Michelle Forness, Johnna Letchworth, Parris Rice, Whitney Vicars and others. See what they had to say below.

1. What difficulties do you recognize your clients having when they overexert their perfectionist qualities?

Kelly: “It all depends on how that perfectionist tendency shows itself. Some people get very nervous when they start breaking down every detail and would rather keep it as a big picture thing. Others get nervous when they haven’t been over every detail several times. I try to figure out what keeps each client calm and able to function properly and use that approach.”

Carolyn: “Difficulties are when people/students don’t recognize improvement and don’t give themselves credit which lessens the joy of the journey.” (pictured left)

2. What positive results do you see when a client utilizes their perfectionist trait?

Kelly: “Being a perfectionist at the big shows lends itself to better lines in a pattern and less chance of going off pattern.”

Carolyn: “Using your perfectionism can be beneficial – helping to strive for the best you can be if you keep it in check.”

3. If your clients are turning their perfectionism into harsh self-criticism, how do you guide or coach them to not be as critical?

Kelly: “Nothing makes me crazier than someone who wants to do the pattern over and over and then talks about it over and over at the smaller shows. I believe all of the shows that we go to all year long are for one reason, to practice and get ready for the world shows and Congress. Every mistake made in the show pen gets you that much closer to learning how to deal with every situation a horse can throw at you. I, therefore, am not a perfectionist trainer or coach at most shows. I try to allow clients, horses and even myself to learn to predict a potentially bad situation in a pattern and how to ride through it if it occurs again at a big show.” (pictured left)

Carolyn: “I advise clients to try to step out of the emotion of the moment, and take a look at their progress and achievements. It’s about improvement; perfection is unobtainable.”

4. When you notice yourself being too much of a perfectionist, what do you do or tell yourself to not think that way?

Kelly: “I try to bring people with me to watch practices at the world shows and Congress. I feel like two people with good eyes for what needs to be happening are better than one as long as they can bounce ideas off of each other and keep it positive. I tend to get a bit serious at these shows, and I think everyone does better if I keep that under control.”

Carolyn: “I tell myself to stop and try to be realistic. As there is no perfection, only the pursuit of it.”

I also spoke with Amateur and Youth competitors about their perfectionist tendencies; how those tendencies can be good or bad and how they perfect their perfectionism.

1. How has perfectionism both positively and negatively affected you in the arena?

Michelle Forness: “I try to be a go with the flow kinda’ gal, but it’s not as easy as I would like it to be. I have my ways, and I want it to be my way. However, I have learned that is not always what I get. Perfectionism positively affects me because it makes me push harder and not stop until the job is done or things are where I want them to be. It is what makes me get up at 2 am every morning at the Congress to ride by myself to get things just like I want them in my head.”


Lily Anderson
: “I usually try to perfect my patterns and school harder during practice so I can put it all together nice and smooth when I show. As a rule, the worse I practice and try to be perfect, the better I usually show.”





Anne Wilson: ”I try to be a perfectionist when practicing. My trainers can testify that I get an angry expression on my face when my horse is not doing what I want him to do. I need to remember to be a teacher, and not get angry with my horse partner when things aren’t perfect. I hope that my intense practice sessions result in better arena performances. I try to ‘leave my trash behind’ in the arena, and show to the best of my abilities at that moment.”




Tony Anderman: “I think the desire to have the perfect run inspires you to practice harder. It makes you focus on the details that make the difference between a good run and a great run. While perfection may be the goal, the reality is that things don’t always go according to plan. You can’t be so rigid in your quest for perfection that you can not adapt when something unexpected comes up.”

Johnna Letchworth: “Let me first start by saying there is no such thing as being ‘perfect’ in this sport. That is what makes it so challenging and keeps you wanting more. For 27 years I have been chasing perfection. Perfectionism has positively affected me in the arena by striving and practicing hard outside of the arena that I have been fortunate enough to reap the rewards.”






Whitney Vicars: “I think tending to be a perfectionist has positively affected me in the show pen by being that quality that always pushes me to keep going until I get it right. While I’m showing, it helps me to be very detailed and strive to get my patterns done very accurately. However, it can be negative too, sometimes it makes me overthink things or obsess over something small that isn’t as significant as I try to make it.”





Parris Rice: “I think being a perfectionist is what allows me to go in and ride patterns to the best of my ability and keep the drive to want to be better. It’s what makes me want to be better than I was yesterday and work harder. But it’s also what causes me to beat myself up because in my mind, if it’s not ‘perfect,’ it’s wrong. The year I won the showmanship at Congress, many moons ago, I wasn’t 100% on my mark. Thankfully, I kept showing because it all worked out in the end. But let me tell you, you’d think I had fallen and been walked over by my horse from the meltdown I had when I got out of the arena (not necessarily proud of this). Our biggest strengths are often our biggest weaknesses.”

2. Name a time where perfectionism negatively impacted your performance and how you overcame it.

Michelle Forness: “I learned more when it negatively affected me. I use to school the showmanship and set up over and over, and I made my horse a perfectionist. The only problem with that was when I thought the setup was good enough and my horse decided it was not at the World Show and wanted to be perfect so he wouldn’t stop moving.”

Anne Wilson: ”Perfectionism has often resulted in a lower placing for me. I have tried to get a perfect setup in showmanship when I could have left those feet alone. I have tried to get my horse to pivot in showmanship and bring forward his ‘non-pivot’ foot, only to have him walk forward in the pivot. I have tried to get a perfect setup for a lead change and resulted in a rough, ugly lead change.”

Whitney Vicars: “I would say that perfectionism has hindered me most in trail classes. I didn’t do trail until I got into the Amateur division and there were times in the beginning when I’d be showing and if one obstacle didn’t go as I had planned for it to, I’d get frustrated and would be thinking about what I did wrong. The next thing I knew, I was already halfway through the next obstacle and not paying attention to it because I was too busy thinking about my mistake on the last obstacle. I had to learn that you can’t dwell on what went wrong or you will likely make another mistake on the next obstacle. In trail (and most other events too) I always have to be thinking ahead, not behind.”

Parris Rice: “Like I said before if it’s not exactly what I have in my head and exactly what I am trying to produce, it’s wrong. There have been times where if I had continued to show rather than taking the opportunity to practice, I might have still placed in the class. Generally, things don’t look as bad as I think they’re going in my head.”

3. What is the most challenging obstacle for you when your perfectionist qualities kick in?

Michelle Forness: “For me, when I get a little too intense and I have to find a way to get out of my head and deal with the situation. I use to dwell on things when they were not exactly how I planned them. When a transition was late, or a turn was not as good as I practiced, my mind stays on it instead of riding forward to the next piece.”

Lily Anderson: “For me, I always seem to compare myself to others, so I sometimes get down on myself if I think my pattern isn’t good enough or my horse isn’t behaving the best.”

Anne Wilson: ”Perfectionist qualities have frustrated me when starting over with young horses.”

Tony Anderman: “I think it can be difficult when a mistake happens in the show pen to cover it up. It is easy to throw the towel in, but what seems like a huge misstep to you can be insignificant to the judges. You can’t let it show in your face or body language, and you have to keep trying throughout your pattern or ride.”

Johnna Letchworth: “I don’t believe that any of my failures, in the end, have been negative. Don’t get me wrong, in the heat of the moment I might view a mistake as the end of the world, but in reality, it is a lesson learned on the path to perfection. I try not to dwell on the negative performances and I try to learn from them.”

Whitney Vicars: “My perfectionist quality is probably most of an obstacle outside of the show pen. I’m super particular about how I care for my horse, such as how he’s brushed, wrapped, bathed, fed, etc. and I have a particular pattern on how I do those things, so I have a hard time letting others care for my horse. If they don’t do it exactly how I would, I have a hard time not correcting them, and it drives my husband crazy.”

Parris Rice: “Currently, the most difficult obstacle with being a perfectionist is showing young horses. The babies don’t have the education level to rise to my idea of perfect. I’m lucky because my babies try hard, but they haven’t quite gotten there yet. I’ve had to teach myself to embrace the small wins and the little successes.”

4. What advice do you give to other competitors struggling to balance perfectionism and self-criticism?

Michelle Forness: “I have to have everything planned out and be as prepared as I can in my head. But, I have accepted that it will never be perfect. So I ride the horse I have right then and constantly move forward. I can’t change if something did not go perfect, but I can keep my mind going to the next step and think ahead of what is coming instead of what has happened.”

Lily Anderson: “I would tell other competitors to take a deep breath and to trust in you and your horse’s abilities. Even if you don’t have a good run, fake it ‘til you make it.’”

Anne Wilson: “Nothing in life is perfect, so when mistakes happen, learn from them. Always remember how lucky we are to be able to show horses. Be grateful.”

Tony Anderman: “Understanding that perfection is an ideal that is rarely realized can lessen the frustration when it does not happen. Instead of getting upset when things go awry, use it to fuel your improvements for the next ride or pattern. The other thing to remember is that what looks perfect from the outside may not feel perfect to the person showing. An expert showman is just that: a showman. They sell you on the fact that their go went as planned and was executed to the best of their ability.”

Johnna Letchworth: “My advice to other competitors struggling to balance so-called ‘perfectionism’ and ‘self-criticism’ is that we are only human.’ We all participate in this sport because we love the horses and in the end, they are what matter.”

Whitney Vicars: “I do not particularly think perfectionism is a bad thing when handled correctly. I believe we are to strive for our very best in everything. The Lord has blessed me with incredible horses and an amazing opportunity to compete in this sport, so I want to be a good steward of those opportunities. We do have to, however, keep things in perspective. At the end of the day, if we are letting all the little things get to us so badly that we let them rob us of our joy and we lose sight of the blessings, that is not honoring to God nor any fun. It’s all about balance, striving for our very best, but keeping it in perspective of the bigger picture.”

Parris Rice: “Always remember that perfection doesn’t exist here. We are just constantly in the pursuit of it (unless you’re lucky enough to own Javah Mon and then you get to feed it carrots every day, but I digress). Don’t get caught up in trying to obtain the unobtainable, find the joy in trying to be a little better than you were yesterday and take each experience as a learning moment. If you tear yourself down after each ride, you’re never going to be able to find the step up. At that point, you’re pushing yourself down the stairs. I saw a quote the other day that said something along the lines of ‘talk to yourself the way you talk to your friends.’ We don’t put our friends down so why are we doing it to ourselves? Find the joy in the little victories and slowly, those will start to add up to significant achievements.”