Any horseman worth his or her salt has made countless mistakes in the saddle. They could be minor blips that cost a few points or forced them to lose a cow at the branding or costly mistakes—sometimes financially—that push them out of the running for big prizes at a major event.
NRHA Professional Kari Klingenberg speaks freely about mistakes she’s made in the show pen that have helped make her the successful horsewoman she is today, and her perspective can help you do the same.
“Making mistakes is the only way you get better,” says the Scottsdale, Arizona, horsewoman. “You have to be bad before you can get good. Every kind of mistake is a learning situation. You can learn how to change how you prepare to compete or how to alter your mental preparation to set yourself up for success. Along with that, we have to accept that sometimes things just happen. You might be confident that you did everything to correctly prepare yourself and your horse, and something goes wrong.”
Here are Klingenberg’s key tips for managing your reactions to and recovering from mistakes. Use them anytime you’re on horseback to keep your riding progression moving in the right direction.
Key Tip 1: Don't Fixate.
“My personality type is to obsess or over-analyze when something goes wrong,” Klingenberg admits. “It’s something I’m working on not doing, but it was a problem for me at the 2021 NRHA Derby with mare Peace Love N Jewels. In my go-round run, I under-spun a quarter of a turn [spun fewer than the four revolutions called for in the pattern, causing a penalty to her score]. I was so fixated on not under-turning that I took it to a new extreme and overspun a full revolution in the finals [resulting in a zero score for going off pattern]. Obsessing over something that hadn’t been a problem made it a problem.”
Instead, Klingenberg advises getting over a mistake quickly when it happens and focusing on the positive (see the next tip).
Key Tip 2: Feed Yourself Positivity.
“I fully believe a lot of what we feed ourselves is what we become,” Klingenberg shares. “Both the good and the bad. And it’s a fine line between feeding yourself false positive or overly negative feedback.”
Because turnarounds have always been a strength for Klingenberg, it was easy for her to feed herself negativity about her mistake. Her negative self-talk (e.g., “Don’t do that again!”) overcame her usual confident messaging (e.g., “Turn-arounds are my strength; I won’t make that mistake again.”).
After a mistake, go back to your strengths and remind yourself of your competencies—the strengths you can always rely upon. Also, evaluate your weak spots and proactively talk yourself through making them stronger and less of a liability.
Key Tip 3: Keep Showing.
We’ve all made a small mistake when showing that might influence a final placing but doesn’t sabotage your entire ride. That is, if you can recover from it and keep showing.
“At the 2019 National Reining Breeders Classic, I made the level 4 and 3 open finals with mare Spook Whiz Jewels,” Klingenberg recalls. “I was having a heck of a run. We came down into our slow circle, and when it came time to change leads onto another slow circle, I could feel my horse suck back. The crowd was loud and a little intimidating for her. She was worried, and I should’ve been there more for her to keep her moving through the maneuver rather than assume she’d perform as I expected. We broke gait in our lead change, which is a two-point penalty from each judge. Even with that big of a hit to our score, we kept showing; we never quit.”
Mistakes happen, but you can still be in the running, no matter if it’s at a major event with big money on the line or a small show with fun prizes. Additionally, Klingenberg points out that if you quit every time you make a mistake, weakening in high-pressure situations will become your go-to answer.
“I knew my mistake was going to keep me out of winning,” she says. “But I knew I could still take a bite of the prize. I had to keep showing, and I was happy with every maneuver after that lead change. I never thought about it again.”
Key Tip 4: Move On.
“I’d practiced and prepared for the NRBC,” Klingenberg shares. “I knew I needed to set up my lead change better next time. And I learned that I needed to keep her more forward when the crowd was loud and might make her nervous. I moved forward from there.”
Moving on after a mistake wasn’t always easy for Klingenberg, but it’s a cornerstone of her coaching program for youth and non-pro riders, so she continues to work on getting past mistakes and looking positively into the future.
“Being a good sport is everything to me,” she says. “I know how hard it is to put a good run together, and I’m quick to recognize when other people do it. But I haven’t always been a good sport with myself. I’m very hard on myself, and it’s something I’ve had to work on.”
Key Tip 5: Learn From Others.
Klingenberg is a lifelong student of riding. She’s always watching, learning, and applying so she can improve as a rider.
“I get a lot from watching how other people show,” she shares. “How do they ride through a mistake? How do they support their horses? What do they do to recover from a mistake after a run? Sometimes a rider has a bobble and you see it immediately in their body. They’re defeated. They quit riding. I understand that, but that’s not what you see from successful riders. When it’s something small, they move on and put the hammer down to get back those points they lost. They bounce back.”
Key Tip 6: Forgive Yourself.
Klingenberg often goes back to advice she was given after a tough ride when she was training horses in Washington—she says it’s the best advice she’s ever been given.
“I was beating myself up for not performing the way I thought I should,” she recalls. “Jimmy Brown [a fellow professional horse trainer] told me I had to forgive myself. I had to go through all the emotions and learn what I could, and then I had to forgive myself. We hold grudges against ourselves worse than anyone. We have to let it go; otherwise, it stays with us forever.”