Talent vs Skill...relating yourself to others

Hello again!
As we enter March and Spring is in sight I imagine many of you are planning some coaching/training or shows now that we have some dates to work towards.  I wonder how many of you are feeling quite daunted by that because it has been so long since you ventured out. If you are nervous I can assure you that you won't be alone. When we are out of practice it can seem as though we have forgotten what to do. If you trust in the basics and don't rush yourself it will all come back to you. Make a start and take one step at a time, that is all you need to do.

The title of this blog is Talent vs Skill...relating yourself to others. I ask that question because I wonder how you think of yourself and if you compare yourself to others. Does that ever hold you back? Perhaps it pushes you forward?
I will share some insights into my own experiences over a 35 year span of showjumping and tell you where I see myself on that scale. It may or may not surprise you.

When I was very young (under 5) I learned to ride at a riding school and went out hacking on a lead rein. My first pony was a 'Shitland' who bucked me off and dragged me across a field when I was 4. I didn't ride for a couple of years I think. My sister had a horse so I eventually asked to ride again and I've never stopped since. I used to be terrified to jump and would only do gymkhana races - so long as it didn't involve vaulting on because I was absolutely hopeless. I was probably about 9 when my pony and I were dragged around a tiny clear round with me screaming the whole way. To be fair on the lovely man who dragged me around - I had asked for the hundredth time that morning if I could be led and once again as we were about to enter the arena I cried and said no, I can't do it - so he finally ignored me and just kept going! I'm so grateful that he did because that day I found a new love of a sport that continues to challenge me and excite me in equal measure. The only slight problem is it's a bit of an obsession and very expensive!  

I believe I was 10 when my sister moved on from her 14.2hh, Black Jack and he was to be sold. I begged my mum to let me have him instead because I just loved him and never clicked as well with any ponies I had. My dad bought him a few years earlier for a few hundred pound as a 6 yr old from the yard owners who did some buying/selling. He was a black Welsh X ride and drive pony. He had no real schooling and struggled to canter in the school. Whenever he felt unbalanced he would trot. He was as strong as an ox with a dead mouth but the most lovely nature, just uneducated. My sister jumped him unaffiliated a little bit. She had a few problems with him running out and looking back now the pony didn't know very much and neither did we. I convinced my mum that I would grow into him so we started our adventures together.

I am now 48 and 5'4" I could still ride a 13.2hh and not look big!! That pony was such a huge part of my life. He bolted with me every single time we tried to even have a trot on grass. I never mastered having a little canter with friends. It always ended up with me screaming and stopping only when he decided to. He did love jumping though and I learned to love it too. 

I had the occasional lesson when someone was having a trainer at the yard but it wasn't very regular. My dad provided the main full time wage in our house and I now realise we were not very wealthy. It's not that we were below the average working family but I had no concept of how expensive horses were. I am the youngest of 5 siblings. We were not a horsey family really, it was just my sister and I who rode. My mum has always been an enthusiast but not a competitor. There was no financial support for a trainer or coach. I wasn't going to let that stop me! I was learning by watching and listening to others at the stables. I also rode other horses and ponies when I was allowed. I affiliated with British Showjumping when I was about 13 and wow! What a difference that was. Some of the ponies were beautiful and the riders were so incredible. My sights and goals rose again.

I would look around at shows and find myself watching other riders to admire their talent. I used to wish I could ride like some of them and felt as though it was a dream but unachievable. They were just too good. I didn't identify myself with being talented. Showjumping was on mainstream TV back then so I watched the top riders whenever I could. I watched every detail to see what I could learn. It was also the age of the video! I had my rounds videoed sometimes so I watched them back (whilst cringing) to see what I could learn.

My poor pony had to put up with my aspirations of turning him into a top JA showjumper. He tried his best always, bless him. I kept moving up to higher levels and if I got it right we would be clear. He never touched a pole. 'If in doubt - run out' was his motto! He was so clever that if he doubted the stride we were on, and it was still possible, he would trot. He once trotted down a related distance at Towerlands in a 1.30m open to a double! I can remember hearing a few gasps, but we were fine. In my last year of juniors I hoped to get his winnings up to JA but we didn't quite make it. We did something else though - we qualified for the Junior Foxhunter Final at Wembley! (HOYS)

I absolutely knew there was not much hope at the final because he had never experienced an atmosphere like that, nor me. It wasn't a fair expectation so I had no goals other than enjoy the moment. It was the only show my dad came to and we were eliminated at I think fence 9. I was thrilled though because he only had a look once at 2 other fences, we just ran out of chances. (used to be 3 refusals) He was so brave to have a go. My best friend at the time was 6 months younger than me so she rode him for one more year to get him to JA status. I retired him at 16 because I couldn't bare to sell him when I moved on to horses and we couldn't afford to have 2 in stables. I had to put him down aged 30. He never had to work again but my first son did get to sit on him on the lunge to walk and trot. Wish I had a video of that.

I had jumped up to 1.40m on Black Jack and my first horse was a 4 year old. I was pretty clueless but learning on the job! I had some great people around me and some pretty awful ones. I found myself choosing between people I wanted to be like and those I didn't. I saw horses mistreated and I didn't like that. My horse was more of a hunter than a jumper. He was bold but clumsy. A well respected trainer had said he wasn't worth training. We didn't have much money so that's the one I had. I figured that his reaction time was the biggest problem. He had power, just no sharpness. I trained him nicely on the flat and we did bounces, bounces and more bounces. The trainer was surprised to see me jump clear in a Newcomers one day so that was pretty cool.

I later went to work for that trainer for about 2.5 years where I learned a lot. I was given compliments rarely on my riding but I knew if I got them, it must have been good. I was learning so much from him and a dressage coach who was resident there. I rode 5-6 horses a day. Occasionally we had some more experienced horses I could jump big fences on which I loved.

One day I rode a horse to show a customer (the seller of my old hunter type) The 2 guys were good friends. My trainer was quite complimentary afterwards about how I rode. Then he said something I'll never forget. He said I want to tell you something he (hunter seller) said to me when you were riding today. I wasn't going to say but I think it will spur you on (or words to that effect) He said, 'If you can make a rider out of that, I'll eat my shirt'

To this day that absolutely amazes me. I spent literally years going over that in my head. I have no idea if the person even actually said it to be fair as I never confronted them to ask. My trainer should never have said that to me anyway, I don't know what he was thinking. When I began coaching I hoped I would never come across as judgmental like that. If you work hard and have the opportunity to learn anyone is capable of improvement.

I put myself in the skill (learned) category, but now I was questioning if I even had any skill at all. I don't have much natural athletic ability, I'm not very balanced - really struggled to roller skate/ice skate/skateboard, rubbish at gymnastics, not musically talented, not at all artistic, I can swim but not to any stylish level and I would say I can sort of dance but I don't have the quickest coordination, it takes me a minute to get new movements. I have no idea how I manage to stay on a horse! My only explanation is I have always practiced a lot. I love doing things over and over to get it right. I learn best by 'doing'. By learning in that way I have to totally expect to fail. Failing is essential to learning. If I'm learning something new I can't wait to do it and get it wrong. The quicker I get it wrong, the quicker I can try again. I have put that comment to the back of my mind now but it has taken a really long time. There is nothing wrong with lacking natural talent. If you want to do something, work at it and you can improve. Over the years since I've continued to learn and I hope improve. It's never ending with riding horses, I guess that's why I love it so much. 

I used to dream it would be wonderful to be talented and I do admire those people who find something effortless, but without struggle there is the danger of becoming complacent. There is a quote from a basket ball coach called Tim Notke saying "Hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard"

Being talented isn't enough on it's own. The ultimate would be talented and hard working of course. That's the elite. I am happy being hard working and building up my skills to a reasonable level. I try not to think of anyone being better than me as a threat. If they are better than me at something, they have probably worked harder if they have had more time and the opportunities, been born with a natural talent, or both. None of those I can do anything about. I think I have done pretty well with what I have been given and I admire many of the people above me.

As a coach I hope to be seen as experienced but not intimidating, knowledgeable but relatable, ambitious but patient and kind.

Your enjoyment of riding or your chosen sport is personal to you. I hope you don't ever feel as though your enjoyment matters if you have more or less talent than anyone else. Work hard if you want to achieve something. You can make up for most differences between levels of talent and even surpass them. Finding a good coach would have helped me a lot but it didn't used to be common place to 'coach'. Many of the trainers I heard of nearby were intimidating and quite bullying. I never liked being shouted at so I wasn't keen. I now realise that I prefer to find out myself and make mistakes. That's called discovery learning and is a very powerful intrinsic motivational tool. It gives a sense of self achievement which is way more valuable than being told what to do all of the time. There are many fantastic coaches around now and I much prefer that approach. Coaching is more about guidance and empowerment for the rider to take responsibility for decisions. Otherwise how would you know what to do when your coach isn't there? You can't take them in the competition arena with you. 
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