A couple of weeks ago I posted an article on the Riding Far, LLC facebook page aboutcreating grittier kids for the future of eventing. The article made a very convincing argument that grit, defined as passion and perseverance in the attainment of one’s goals, is a commodity worth fostering in our young riders. While I am in whole-hearted agreement about the importance of grit as an individual quality, I have been thinking lately about the importance of nurturing an appreciation for relationships skills in our children. If we focus solely on grit in the service of our individual goals, it seems too me that we run the risk of reinforcing a view of those around us, including our horses, as tools to be used in the service of our personal goal attainment rather than as partners in our efforts. Partners who are worthy of our respect and gratitude. And, in the case of our equine partners, partners that deserve our best efforts in care, training and stewardship.
Last week I had the privilege of riding with my son in a Carol Coppinger clinic. Carol is a gifted horsewoman, teacher and an excellent communicator. One of her great talents is the ability to meet each horse and rider at their current level, and help them to find their next step forward. She is perceptive, patient, calm, and respectful as well as passionate and persistent. I am quite certain that Carol has grit. I am not as certain that, in and of itself, it is her grit that is solely responsible for making her a great horsewoman or a great teacher.
Watching Carol teach my son over those two days, I realized a number of things that seem important. The first, and perhaps most important, was that my son really wanted to ride with her. My son had previously ridden with Carol for only two days more than a year ago. Yet, somehow, in those two days she had made a lasting impression. So much so that, as soon as one clinic ends, my son is looking forward eagerly to the next opportunity to ride with her.
I marvel at how their connection was made. It was certainly not that Carol took it easy on him or that my son had an easy horse to ride in the clinic. In contrast, he had many difficult challenges to work through with his horse. So what was it about the way she worked with him that fostered his developing grit and left him feeling resourceful, enthusiastic, appreciative and committed to training and loving this very challenging horse?
I think the answer lies in her relationship skills. While these skills seem difficult to delineate or define, I think it is worth the attempt if only to raise our awareness and start the discussion. The skills that stood out for me included patience, a sense of calm, an attitude of respect, an ability to observe and listen, a quiet confidence, kindness, and compassion. I am sure that there are many more and I encourage all of us to reflect on what brings good things to our relationships, human and equine alike. When we bring skills like these to our relationships good things happen, but how do we learn these skills?
The simple answer to helping people learn relationship skills would be to teach them. We can teach people how to behave in specific interactions much in the way we teach many other skills. I suppose that might be part of the solution. However, the more I think about it, the more I realize that these positive relationship behaviors flow naturally from a person’s attitudes and values rather than from a mechanistic application of skills. The challenge that we face in the equestrian world is how to nurture the development of attitudes and values that naturally give rise to the behaviors or relationship skills which, in turn, lead to positive results.
So, as we search for ways to foster grit in our young riders, let’s also challenge ourselves to identify and foster the attitudes and values that might lead to the development of perceptive, patient, even-tempered, respectful, confident, grateful, kind and compassionate young riders that value the relationships they have with those that mentor and support them, including their horses.