Recently I had the opportunity to contemplate the question: what does it mean to be a sportsman?
Just for fun, I googled definitions. Here’s what I came up with: A sportsman is a player in a sport; but the term also means someone who plays sport in a way that shows respect and fairness towards the opposing player or team.
How does this translate to equestrian sports? To me it means we respect—and offer congratulations to—those who perform at a higher level than we do — whether that is just today or consistently. Contrary to popular lore, I believe that true sportspeople/equestrians are in it to do their best for themselves and their horses—not just to win it. Sometimes it all comes together, and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the wind is blowing and nerves are high; our horse is tired; or is green; or misses a cue. Or sometimes we make a mistake. Sometimes someone with a better jumping horse than ours just nails it.
The point is: when we are in the show ring, we’re all doing our best to do our best. True sportspeople respect each other and honor great performances—whether they are ours or someone else’s.
I generally experience a wonderful camaraderie with fellow older amateurs in the hunter and equitation rings. Most of us have been riding a long time. We endeavor to do our best every round; we’re serious and out there to get it. We also are humbled by the sport and know how easy it is to misjudge a distance, go too far out in a bending line and end up on the add, shift our weight unintentionally and get a swap. We know the amount of effort and dedication required to get it right, and we respect that in each other. We know we can be on top one day, and at the end of the jog the next. Humility, humor, and gratitude carry the day and bond us together as athletes.
This all seems obvious to me—and should not have to be articulated. Alas such is not the case. Needless to say, negativity, sarcasm, backbiting has no place in any sport, including ours. Go ahead and call me idealistic and naive, but I believe that we all need to conduct ourselves with dignity and sportsmanlike conduct every minute of the day. If we slip up, we need to apologize and make it right.
Why is this important? First of all, good sportsmanship is the foundation for a vibrant, creative environment. We all benefit when horses and riders are going well. Good performances lift us up, requiring each of us to raise our own level. It’s well known that the better the competition, the better one performs.
More importantly, it’s essential for us adults to model what it means to be a sportsperson for the younger set. We have to keep our values front and center, and not allow greed or competitiveness to overtake. It’s our job to keep the perspective on what is most important. Yes, it’s great to win, but it’s more important to be respected as a person, athlete, and competitor.
Sportsmanship extends to parents as well. Too often I hear parents complaining about the judging or something else at the show, rather than keeping the focus on their child’s effort, skill, and enjoyment of the sport. Non-riding parents sometimes forget, or don’t know, how much goes into getting it right, and they don’t understand the judge’s decisions. Again, here is where our values come in. Let’s keep our focus on our own efforts, developing our own ability to ride our horses, and bringing our full selves to every ride. If we do all of that in our rounds, we have set the bar high and we have won.
Let’s build a positive, generative, and vibrant environment for us all to grow. Let’s spur each other to give our best, and congratulate each other on our successes. Let’s laugh at our mistakes, and humbly accept congratulations when we succeed. A vital, supportive, growth-oriented environment will benefit us all.
All the best,
For over 25 years, Darby Furth Bonomi, PhD has facilitated positive transformations in clients of all ages. As a practicing psychologist and consultant, Darby has worked with many people to achieve lasting change and establish the foundations for mental wellness.
Now in her primary role as a performance psychologist and family consultant, Darby merges her life-long experience in the equestrian world—as a rider, parent of riders and owner—with her vast toolbox of psychological and coaching interventions to help riders of all levels and their families reclaim the joy in their sport, leading the way to improved performance and better health. She loves helping clients untangle the complicated situations that tend to arise when horses are added to families.
A dynamic speaker and change maker, clients have sought out Darby to help improve their lives, both in and out of the saddle. She is devoted to making the equestrian world—and the world at large—a kinder, gentler and more respectful place.
Darby currently shows in the amateur owner hunters and equitation with her horses Little Wing and DaVinci, alongside her teenage daughters. She is married and has a college age son who steers clear of the barn. She lives in San Francisco.
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