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Paralyzed by Perfection

When you’re conditioned to be perfect in all you do, it can prevent you from progressing in your riding. Mustang Maddy explains why being a perfectionist with your horse can actually cause failure.

Like many traits, perfectionism has two sides. The first is obvious: the drive to keep going until you get it exactly right. Whether that’s a flying lead change, crossing a bridge on a trail, or effortlessly loading in the trailer, your perfectionism helps push you to get it exactly right before you move on. But the dark underbelly of perfectionism you might not think of is where the problem lies. It can keep you from moving on to the next challenge or taking the next step because your perfectionism manifests itself in fear of failure or even the addiction of gathering all the information before you embark on a challenge.

Madison Shambaugh, known for her work with mustangs, founded the Horse-Human Connection Academy to help riders connect with their horses. She’s a three-time Extreme Mustang Makeover Freestyle Champion and 2017 Mustang Magic Champion and shares her knowledge worldwide.

Mustang Maddy, Madison Shambaugh, known for her work with mustangs, founded the Horse-Human Connection Academy to help riders connect with their horses. She stands with a sorrel mustang horse in a blue shirt in front of a scenic mountain.

Madison Shambaugh, known for her work with mustangs, founded the Horse-Human Connection Academy to help riders connect with their horses.

“Perfectionism is the biggest factor that holds my students back from making progress with their horses,” she says. “People really care about their horses and are very detail-oriented in their desire to improve themselves and help their horses. In this effort, they can become paralyzed by perfectionism. They don’t want to take “messy action,” as I like to call it, and that causes sneaky patterns to appear.”

In her interactions with riders, Shambaugh often hears three concerning comments:

1. “I feel like I need to consume more information before taking action.” Result: You get stuck in a rut reading books and watching DVDs and attending clinics instead of taking action with your horse.

2. “I need to get this one thing perfect before I move on.” Result: You’re convinced you’re being an outstanding student, but in reality, you’re holding yourself and your horseback.

3. “I’m afraid to make a mistake and mess my horse up.” Result: You can’t move forward, try new things, and learn with your horse.

To Shambaugh, these three concerns are the biggest excuses you can use to keep from getting started—and, yes, even failing. 

“A FAIL is a Faithful Attempt In Learning,” she says, and within a fail lies a goldmine of information and potential for learning. Shambaugh put together a list of four key elements that hold you back and explains them here.

Key 1: Imperfect Doesn’t Mean Your Horse Suffers.

“Your horse always tells you when you need to go back,” Shambaugh shares, recalling a statement by author and clicker-training expert Alexandra Kurland. “If you encounter some resistance and don’t do anything about it, it’ll get bigger and louder until you have to do something about it. You can’t make a wrong move. If you miss something, it’ll get louder. Know your horse will tell you.”

Key 2: Reframe ‘Fail’ and ‘Mistake.’

“When you have a failure, your job is to mine the gold from it,” Shambaugh says (see FAIL above). “Sometimes the price of learning is failure. Train your mind to look for these lessons, and then “failing” isn’t failure. Changing your mindset can help you feel less alone in what you might perceive as a failure. It’s not failure that stops you from progression; it’s the way you respond to it.”

Key 3: Take Messy Action.

This can be terrifying for perfectionists, but it’s necessary to move forward and improve.

“As Marshall Rosenberg says, ‘Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly,’” Shambaugh says. “Steer away from the all-or-nothing mindset—it’s an excuse to avoid getting started. There’s value in messy action—it’s part of reframing failures and mistakes, as described in Key 2.”

Key 4: Dive Deep Into Fear of Failure.

This can be the most challenging part of overcoming perfectionist tendencies. We know the root of perfectionism lies in fear of failure, but where does your fear of failure come from?

“At the heart of it all,” Shambaugh begins, “is this feeling of not being good enough or being deficient in some way. It often comes from childhood and leads you to feel like you have to be perfect to get love and feelings of belonging. This runs really deep and being able to go back to those parts that were rejected and found to be unlovable because you underperformed in some way is really difficult. Horses bring this stuff up so we can heal it.

“Go deep into these parts of yourself that are calling out,” Shambaugh advises. “If you have a tough day with your horse, struggle at the show, or hit a barrel, it triggers a big feeling that doesn’t necessarily match the situation—where it’s hysterical, it’s historical. You can resolve that by reframing your feelings and going deeper to find the root of your emotions.”

It’s a Winding Road

As you embark on the path to move away from perfectionism and toward messy action, know that the trail isn’t straight from A to B. Shambaugh advises starting by identifying the feeling—when was the last time you felt that way? Then dive into those memories.

“I find meditations like Insight Timer (available in the app store) help me get out of my head,” she says. “Get quiet. Sit in the trailer for a while or go in the tack room and feel your emotions. It’s hard, because you want to keep running from them by having a drink or eating or taking your feelings out on someone else. Your coping mechanism might even be over-training your horse! Put in the work—with the support of a friend, coach, or therapist—to heal your feelings of inadequacy, and see your relationship with your horse and your progress in training grow.” 

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