Sitting in church∗ the other night, my mom leaned over and said, “Your first riding instructor told me that you were a good rider. She thought you would go far.”
I stared at my mom.
“What? I watched you ride every now and then,” she whispered.
It was news to me, this Good Rider bit. My childhood riding instructor was old-school. She told me I sucked, and she laughed when I fell off. I’d rush to catch my horse with her voice calling after, telling me to brush off, get back on, try harder. So I did, each and every time.
A recent NPR piece about childhood praise and narcissism states:
When a kid does something amazing, you want to tell her so. You might tell her that she’s very smart. You might tell her that she’s a very special kid. Or you might say that she must have worked really hard.
On the surface, they all sound like the same compliments. But according to Brad Bushman, a communications and psychology professor at Ohio State University, the first two increase the child’s chances of becoming a narcissist. Only the last one raises the child’s self-esteem and keeps her ego in check.
I took my mother’s news, offered some 30 years later, and wondered what my life with horses would have been like if I had grown up hearing and thinking I was a good rider. I know that I am a serviceable rider. I know I like to ride, and something in me knew, at nine years old, that I HAD to ride. But what if I had actually thought I was good? I’m pretty sure my life with horses would have gone very differently, and I’m not displeased that my mother took this long to ‘fess up.
When I showed my mother my first short story, a glorified fanfic of my middle-school, barn life with the names barely changed in order to protect the innocent (this was around the same time my instructor would have been secretly offering her praise) my mother’s first response was not ecstatic. “Did you really write this,” she asked. “Are you sure you didn’t copy it?”
That sideways compliment made my nine year old heart glow, as it still does today when someone reads a piece I’ve written and holds their hands up in a caveat before saying, “I really liked it, but I had a hard time believing you actually wrote it.”
I know I’ve accomplished my task when someone looks at the thing I’ve created and they’re awed that I did it. That means more to me than any standard compliment. Their words tell me I’ve superseded a benchmark. I’ve outdone myself.
I’ve outdone myself.
Think about those words. The Self is changing, growing, evolving, every second. Who you were this morning is slightly changed from the person you are when you go to bed. It may be worse for the wear, or better. It may be scared/scarred or a little more brave. Whoever you tuck in for the night, whether that new incarnation is accomplished or defeated, it is something slightly more than what you started with when the sun rose.
You’ve outdone yourself.
Which is six thousand times more important than remaining stale, like a loaf of bread resting on the counter for a week, gathering dust, until you have to toss it to the birds.
How do we outdo ourselves in the saddle?
For me, today, it was nothing more than hopping on a new horse we purchased for our lesson program. I played with his transitions; I searched for the arc of his bends like a human protractor. We worked together to discover the scale of his trot, smallest to largest. His canter, I found, was abysmal, but we’ll work on that tomorrow. I discovered that he loved to have his face brushed and he likes touch, my hands offering praise after a halt. I gave him my Wednesday best and he outdid himself, all canter aside.
The walls of my childhood bedroom were littered in fourth through sixth place ribbons. If I were a sports team (which I often like to think I am) my colors would be white, pink and green. The blues and champion ribbons were hard won, and I can tell you where I achieved each and every one of them, who I was riding, what the weather was like that day.
I don’t gauge my success in ribbons anymore, neither do my students. My praise is meager, if I tell you that you did well, you know I really mean it. The benchmark days, the ones where the horse and rider really outdo themselves, are measured in sunlight and clouds, the time of year, the temperature: it was hot the day that I came off, I had sand in my breeches; it was cold and windy, but I had the perfect jump.
My success is measured by the riders who leave my farm with the confidence and the knowledge to gauge their own achievements, to take responsibility for their direction, realizing those paths will be littered with mistakes. They’ll do it, they’ll do it for themselves, for their horses, and the people on the sidelines will say beneath their breath, “I can’t believe they did that.”
∗I’m a lapsed Catholic. My mother and I have never attended church together until recently. We discovered a local cowboy church and go there every Monday night. All we need are old gospel songs and horse metaphors to find our religion.