A lesson on excellence – why good is the enemy of great horsemanship

This isn’t an original title. It’s a phrase I heard in the Jim Collins book ‘Good to Great’ and it’s funny how these things get filed in your subconscious, then all of a sudden one day it hits you ‘this is really SO important!’ If you have no desire to be excellent at anything (I didn’t say ‘everything’ just anything) it may be worth remembering that if you’re not working to improve something you’re very likely going backwards little by little. Let’s use a horse scenario; your horse is ‘OK’ to load into a trailer or take out on a ride, sure he takes a few minutes to go in and always rushed out in a panic and on the ride he can be a bit nappy and he’s nearly had you off a couple of times, but generally speaking he’s ‘Not That Bad’. No prizes for guessing how things are going to go if you don’t start working on improvements sooner rather than later. A little like weight gain, putting on a kilo or two each year is Not That Bad. Until suddenly you realise it is.

The good as the enemy of great has inspired me right now due to The Sister’s Show Working Hunter horse Jack being slightly less than reliable with his standing still in the show ring. He’s generally good but if music starts to play somewhere else on the showground or there are flies around or another horse is messing around, he grows a couple of hands (in height!) and starts to fidget about. However … his record this year is really good for a 7 year old in this class, 6 wins, barely out of the first 3 all year, 2nd in the JAS (Jumping and Style) Championship, 3rd of 42 in the Royal International Horse Show Working Hunter Championship. Really that’s good enough isn’t it?

LVS Jackpot winning HOYS qualifier at Kent County 2019

The problem is The Sister, who has had a big influence on my career with horses, doesn’t really go for ‘OK’. Not when it comes to horse care anyway. When it was found he didn’t travel well, not only were their several tweaks to the Oakley horse box, flooring – is he anxious about standing on the steel strip where the partitions fit in, let’s cover that with rubber then. Does he not the like the fact that he can’t see through the headboards, let’s cut out holes so he can see through. Let’s check the lorry suspension to check he’s getting a comfortable ride. Let’s organize a full time travel companion. Phew! Finally she has a horse that travels beautifully.

Now, he’s having a rest from shows for a few months, The Sister took the opportunity to check out all the things to ensure he’s happy and able to do his best next year, even though he has ongoing ‘all the normal checks’. In actual fact this is a big part of her enjoyment of having a horse. As well as his saddle, bit and the physiotherapist he also attended a Monty Roberts demonstration to work with an audience of 600+ people, not an experience you can gain in many places! She happened to mention this on her Facebook page and the reactions of some people ranged from interesting to extraordinary. What I would classify as an unsurprising comment was ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ and included comments such as ‘he’s jumped clear rounds in that saddle so it’s clearly alright’ what I would classify as ‘extraordinary’ was the physiotherapist who came out and said ‘He doesn’t need anything doing unless he starts stopping at fences’ Surely that’s a little too late?!

Someone even suggested he didn’t need to go to a Monty Roberts demonstration as he ‘wasn’t that bad’?! Why do people want to wait until things get bad? What about ‘prevention is better than cure’? I say in my book ‘Perfect Manners – How to Behave So Your Horse Does Too’ that where it goes wrong for some horses is that they are so delightfully easy in the early stages that their owners take their good behavior for granted and don’t make the effort to give them a well-rounded education. You will hear cries of ‘My horse won’t be clipped’ ‘My horse won’t load in a horsebox or trailer’ ‘My horse is terrified of fireworks!” How many owners do you know who prepare their horses in advance for their first clipping, their first horsebox journey and Firework Night – you know they’re going to happen!

Are you and your horse doing ‘Good Enough’? How about working to get a little bit better each month … and end up GREAT?

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