I am a perfectionist.
Sure, my house is filthy. And yes, my truck is full of dirty bandages and 17 pairs of shoes.
But, perfectionists aren’t always obsessed with cleanliness.
Instead, I’m obsessed with doing a good job. I hate criticism and I despise being told I messed up. And this carries into so many aspects of my life, and makes me turn into what so many people call the most competitive person they’ve ever met.
And yet I’ve spoken time and time again about how a true competitor isn’t just obsessed with trophies and blue ribbons. Instead, our battles, victories, and losses can be felt on a much smaller scale.
I get annoyed when I’m told I could have given a better presentation at a research conference. I’m frustrated when my fiancé tells me that my truck is disgusting. And when my riding isn’t going well? Well, it drives me to drink.
A couple of months ago I had a bad fall.
I was riding a young horse in a lesson, and aiming for my last line. The jumps were only 2’6, the footing was good, and the weather didn’t interfere. But it was as if he never saw the jump, and upon landing, he just went down. At first to his knees, and then as momentum slid him an additional 15 feet, he fell to his side – trapping me underneath him.
I laid there in the heat, and stared into the sky, not able to get my breath. I heard screams and the sound of boots hitting the dirt as both my clinician and my friends ran to my side, and I slowly counted to ten, making sure I was fully aware of my surroundings. I rolled my shoulders, wiggled my toes, and took a few deep breaths as they all demanded I not move.
And then the pain began.
Only, as a true (stupid) equestrian, I ignored it. I stood up and immediately walked to my horse. I followed him to the barn and stared at his lacerated legs, while ignoring my own throbbing knee. I watched as my friends grabbed my tack, grabbed my truck and trailer, and ran around doing exactly what good friends did – they assessed, they treated, and they planned.
And I sat there while icing my leg, and just began to panic.
Because as a perfectionist, I didn’t see the glass half full. I didn’t sit there and think “well, I at least walked away from that one.” Instead, I freaked.
I was sure my summer was over. I was sure my knee was surgical. And maybe even worse, I was sure that my mistake, my bad distance, my failed attempt at a jump, left my young horse damaged. Mentally or physically, I assumed that it was entirely my fault. I had ruined a good horse, and I could never take that one bad jump back.
And then the downward spiral began. Only, my riding didn’t.
I continued to tack up and ride off, ignoring my sisters pleas to take a break and my doctors advice that I shouldn’t ride until I could run. So ride on I did, and ride well I did not.
Because the perfectionist in me wanted the year of 2018 to go well, without realizing that without my perfectly sound and fit body, I couldn’t force that to happen. I refused to let the other riders get ahead, I refused to let my year of preparation get left behind. I didn’t want to say that I accomplished nothing in this year, and so instead of taking the time to heal, I kicked on.
A few weeks ago, I came off again. For someone who doesn’t fall off very often, this time felt worse. Because this time it wasn’t because of a bad spot or a quick stop. It was simply a shift in weight and an unprepared rider.
Due to my damaged knee, I didn’t have the same scrappiness I had become so well known for. I couldn’t stick the simplest misstep, and without the grip of my knee, my ass landed firmly on the ground. Was I ok? Physically, yes. But emotionally? No. Because yet again, I was ending that event on a letter instead of a number, and to my perfectionists mind, that was hell. And even worse, it was my fault.
I knew in my mind that I wasn’t riding at 100%, and yet I kicked on. I wanted to be perfect, but was running myself into imperfection by not riding when I was perfectly sound.
And I see this a lot, around me, even amongst my inner circle. I see us as eventers kicking on when we are ill-prepared just because we are so adamant to not be labelled as the quitter. The wimp. The one who falls off. The one who gives up.
We pride ourselves in rehabilitating things – specifically our horses, and the quicker the better. We ask for the laser, the shockwave, the Theraplate, and the sweat. My doctor only stared at my with his mouth agape when I asked about Surpass and PEMF. We are willing to doctor our own horses while ignoring sprains and bruises on our own bodies.
That night, my horse was iced, lasered, sweated, and administered NSAIDs while I myself ignored the doctors orders to stay immobile and rest. The minute I was released from the hospital, I took those crutches and raced to the barn to inspect the bandages that my friends had put on him. I ran my hands along his body, assessing for swelling and heat, all the while ignoring my ever-swelling knee.
Not surprisingly, my horse healed almost instantly, while my knee continued to flare.
Not surprisingly, I didn’t care.
Because although I am a perfectionist, it appears to be at the risk of my own perfect body. And isn’t that the trend for our sport? We applaud those who swing back on, just as long as their horses are well tended to. We argue that the horse doesn’t have a voice while the rider does. But I have yet to meet a rider to admit pain. To admit that they don’t feel balanced, or can’t grip, kick, or go into two point.
Instead, we pop some ibuprofen, pull on the Back on Track sleeve, and take a hot epsom salt bath later – usually stolen from the very tack rooms that we have recently left.
We share stories of pins and screws, breaks and tears, and smack each other on the back as we give a leg up. These same pins that would make us run during a PPE in a horse, or tears that would find us screaming to our veterinarian to come running.
We administer our horses the perfect care, while ignoring our own pain. We think that as long as we can get around that next course, or qualify for that next level, that we are living the perfect life. While in the meantime, we are failing our own bodies. We are setting ourselves up for an imperfect life. For if we are not perfectly healed, we are not riding to our best abilities.
Because we as perfectionist don’t treat ourselves perfectly.
And maybe that is something we need to discuss more than any rehab offered to our equine counterparts. Perfectionism doesn’t just appear on a record or in ribbons. Perfectionism can come by making the perfect decisions for both our own bodies in addition to our horses, and treating them as the only ones we will ever be offered. And maybe, just maybe, as we make those hard decisions for our own bodies, they lead to a better outcome for our equine counterparts. I can only hope so.
This was a hard article to read (and I’m sure write), but is so necessary. I wouldn’t classify myself as a perfectionist, except when it comes to when you talked about not taking care of ourselves, but making sure our horses are receiving the absolute best care. I don’t want to be seen as a wimp, or someone who can’t take a fall, so I immediately jump up, grab my horse, and either get back on or call it a day. And that is so dangerous. We need to take the time to realize that maybe if we were at our best health, as our horses are, perhaps we would start accomplishing those goals and making the progress we want so badly. Thank you for writing this.
I am a perfectionist. And a skier. I blew my ACL and my MCL. I endured the surgery and the rehab and lost 2 ski seasons
25 years ago. I do not regret the surgery nor the time off. I am a better skier today.
This is my perspective not advice. It is better to get the knee fixed and be stable again as a rider then endure more.falls.
Love your blog and your writing
So much of what you write rings true with me. I always want to do the best I can and have my horses be the best they can, and often worry far too much about what other people are thinking or that I’m not good enough.
I always look after my horses before I look after me. I think it’s mostly because they can’t tell me what hurts, or what might be wrong. I can only guess, but I know exactly how bad I am hurt. I know I can push through pain. I don’t want them to suffer at my hands.
I think we as riders need to be kinder to ourselves. It takes a strong person to get back on, but a stronger person to admit that something isn’t right, physically or mentally and to take a step back. I had to step down a grade this year because mentally I couldn’t handle the grade my horse and I have been established at for years. It was hard, but it was the best thing for me. I nearly didn’t do it though because it felt like failing. Reality is that I am more confident and established now than I was, and I feel more prepared to tackle the next grade.
Thank you for writing such great posts. They are thought inspiring, and it’s always good to know that there are people struggling just the same as me.
None of my physical injuries over the years slow me down, it’s the mental and emotional scar tissue that does. What you wrote is so true whether it is physical, mental, emotional, whatever. I take the punch and soldier on, and deep down something is chewing away at me about my riding, the only place where I am a perfectionist in my life. I don’t let my self heal, or treat it, I just act like it’s not there, and kick on. We see it all the time. But I’m trying to develop my self care, in spite of myself, because it is better for my horses. They deserve the best, and that may mean I have to go to the gym more, or eat better, or speak up when something bothers me. Thanks for putting words to what many of us feel, in one way or another.