There’s an old saying: “The harder you work, the luckier you get.”
For me, it’s the truth. The harder I work, the luckier I get, and the more I win. There’s another saying that dovetails perfectly with that: “You make your own luck.”
But a lot of people don’t see it that way. To them, people like my wife, Dana, and I only win because of our last names. Other folks see people win, and say, “They’re only winning because they have money.”
Not true. Those who believe that a last name or a huge bank account can buy wins in our sport are wrong. The biggest reason for consistent wins is consistent hard work.
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More Than Luck
The kind of hard work I’m talking about means riding every day, even on those nasty-weather days when you’d rather stay home and drink coffee. I know a lot of people who opt out of riding using any excuse. “It’s too cold.” “It’s too wet.” “It’s too hot.” “It’s too windy.” They’re often the same ones who complain when others beat them.
It’s easier to blame other people and to make excuses for not winning than it is to take a good, hard look at yourself and your program. Training on your own, as so many readers do, also makes it difficult to be fully objective. Use the following questions as tools to gain further insight
1.“Do I want it bad enough?” I want to win. It’s a fire that burns within. Dana’s the same way. Because we both want it so badly, we’re willing to work hard and sacrifice for it. For instance, the morning after I won the National Reining Horse Association Futurity, a friend called. I was riding. He said, “What are you doing riding? You just won the reining futurity!”
My reply: “And now I’m working on the next win.”
Dana just won a big event on her mare. The finals were at night and finished late, then we stayed even later to take care of the mare, by icing her legs, etc. At dawn the next morning, Dana was out working with her so she’d be ready for her next show. Most of her fellow competitors were still in bed. In fact, by 10:30 a.m., we’d schooled four horses and packed and loaded our rigs for the long trip home.
Would it have felt better to sleep in? Sure. But we had a lot of work to do when we got home, too. And we did it—that’s how we roll.
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2. “Am I invested in my horse?” By “invested,” I mean, do you know him inside and out? That’s a must, because that’s what it takes to win. I see a lot of exhibitors who wait at the in-gate to mount up, because they’ve paid their trainer to prep their horses. The problem is, if anything goes wrong in the show pen, chances are such a rider will fall apart. How can you know how to fix a problem if you don’t know how to ride your horse when things go wrong as well as right?
Dana doesn’t win only because she’s married to a trainer. I don’t just wind her up, stick her on great horses, and turn her loose to win.
I rarely sit on her horses. She does all her own riding (and grooming and saddling and…) every day, regardless of weather. That way, she knows her horse’s moods and how to adjust her riding accordingly. That’s her edge.
To win with regularity, you need to know your horse. To know your horse, you need to ride him and spend time around him. The more you learn about him, the better you’ll be able to ride and present him. That takes sacrifice. But if you want it enough, you’ll carve out time to spend with your horse.
People sometimes make comments when they see the two of us cleaning stalls at shows. One popular one is, “I’m surprised you know how to use one of those,” referring to the manure fork. Well, no job is too small or dirty when it comes to horses. By cleaning their stalls, we learn a lot about our horses. Are they eating and drinking well? Restless or calm? Pooping normally? You can’t learn those things from the comfort of your living-quarters trailer.
3. “Do I sell my horse to the judge?” That means taking the time to groom and clip (and band or braid, if applicable) your horse as though he’s worth a million bucks; to polish your tack (and silver fittings, if you have them) until it gleams; and to outfit yourself in a neat, contemporary, and professional manner, from hat to boot.
You don’t need to spend big bucks on a fancy turnout, but it will cost you in elbow grease. Why the effort? When you walk through the in-gate, the judge is going to subconsciously take note of the overall image you project—just like a horse buyer makes a mental assessment when he or she first lays eyes on a prospect. If you present yourself as though you’re there to win, you’ll net a positive impression that’ll follow you through your performance. It’s yours to lose.
But if you ride in on a dirty horse, with dirty tack, and a rag-tag outfit, you’ll start off with a negative impression. I’ve seen really good riders slouch in looking sloppy. Sure, it’s ultimately your performance that counts. But a sloppy image can detract from a good performance.
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4. “Is it the judge? Or a difference of opinion?” If you believe judges have overlooked you in the show pen, it’s pointless to keep blaming and making excuses. You’re better off to accept that on some days, your opinion may mirror a judge’s, and on others, it may not. Judging is, after all, subjective.
You also can use these guidelines to evaluate what you’re bringing to the show pen that could be working against you.
• Is your horse a winner? If you keep getting beat by a certain horse (or horses), sit back and study that horse. Be honest: Is it better than yours? If so, you may need a better horse to win.
• Show smart, division-wise. Limited, novice-amateur, and other divisions were created to help level the playing field. Use them.
• Pick the right shows. This is another way of saying “find your level.” No matter how well-trained and well-loved, not every horse is capable of going from his current level of showing to the highest ones. If you’re exceeding your current horse’s level but desire to step up yourself, you’ll need a different horse to go there. Otherwise, you can’t blame the competition or the judge.
Ultimately, you have to remember that when you compete in a judged event, you’re paying for a judge’s opinion on a given day. Subjectivity is involved. That’s not for everyone, and that’s OK. There are other ways to compete, with no judging involved.
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A multiple AQHA world champion, Avila has also won three NRCHA Snaffle Bit Futurities, the NRHA Futurity, and two World’s Greatest Horseman titles. He received the AQHA Professional Horseman of the Year honor. His Avila Training Stables, Inc., is in Temecula, California. Learn more at bobavila.net.