Thursday, December 5, 2019

When it is about the ribbons

When my husband and I first decided that we were going to try to have a baby, I had absolutely no idea how controversial certain parenting techniques and decisions were.  It never occurred to me that I could lose a 10-year friendship because I had read a book about early potty training and happened to enthusiastically mention how interesting the ideas in the book seemed.  (There were actually more factors than just the book, but I will never forget my friend's reaction when I brought it up.)  I didn't know that sleep training vs. not sleep training was an all-out battle.  I couldn't have imagined how mentioning co-sleeping would send some mothers into the stratosphere.  And let's not even go down the road of discipline...

I tend to be a little unconventional in my thought process for most things.  In fact, I'm pretty sure that if there is an unconventional way to think about something, it will almost always appeal to me more than something conventional.  Part of the reason is simply that I want to think of myself as independent and unique.  But another reason is that over the years, I've found out how damaging doing something in a traditional way can be.  Continuing to engage in a behavior simply because that is how it has always been done or because that's the way most people do it is not a reason to do that thing.  Some of humanity's worst sins can be laid at the foot of that kind of thinking.

That doesn't, of course, mean all traditions are wrong or that the way most people do something is harmful.  Sometimes the reason something has always been done a certain way or most people do it that way is because it makes sense, and even I have had to admit that a time or two:)

But I digress.  What I really want to discuss today is the debate about whether all participants (namely kids) should get a ribbon or a trophy or a something simply because they participated in a sport or an event.  I'm probably one of the few parents who didn't feel strongly one way or the other about this particular topic until recently.

One thing that really attracted me to endurance riding in the beginning was the idea of "To Finish Is To Win."  That motto really spoke to me, even more so when I realized all the challenges that have to be overcome in order to officially finish a ride.  In fact, I even got into a bit of a heated discussion with a friend one time about whether endurance rides (or in her case, human foot races - think 10-mile races or marathons) should give out t-shirts to those who just show up, regardless of whether they officially complete the ride (or race).  My friend contended that race organizers absolutely should not give out t-shirts to anyone who doesn't officially finish the race.  Because apparently she was aware of many runners who would go out and collect the shirts and not finish the race, and that was very upsetting to her.  I get it.  That does seem like strange behavior.  Maybe it is unfair that a person who finishes the race gets a shirt and so does someone who doesn't finish the race.

But let's look at a high-level view for a minute.  Who cares?  I mean, in the grand scheme of life, does it really matter that two people who put forth a different level of effort get a t-shirt that might make it seem like they did the same thing to some random third person?

In the past, the Foxcatcher endurance ride has given out t-shirts to everyone who enters the ride and shows up to collect their ride packet.  The cost of the t-shirt is factored into the entry fee, and I guess maybe the organizers felt that if you pay for a t-shirt, you should get a t-shirt, even if something happens and you aren't able to finish the ride.  I've entered the Foxcatcher ride three times, so I have three Foxcatcher t-shirts.  But I only officially completed the ride one time.  The other two times, I rider optioned at the hold (once because the weather was abysmal and Nimo looked really miserable even though he vetted through with all As and another time because I had only planned to do the first loop as part of getting Nimo back into shape again).  I value each of those three t-shirts.  I know the story behind them.  And each of those t-shirts represents an incredible effort on my part.  Maybe the effort to officially finish was marginally more than the other two rides, but in reality, I still put forth a huge effort to condition my horse, feed him properly, take care of his feet and other physical and medical needs, pack all my crap, feed myself, haul my trailer on the Beltway and I-95 (seriously, it is a life-threatening experience to haul on those highways!), and be ready to ride.  The fact that I rode 12 miles less on two rides is actually pretty insignificant compared to everything else that went into getting ready for those rides.  Obviously, human races probably involve a lot less prep simply because there is only one sentient being instead of two, but there I think it is hard to know the story of everyone who shows up to a race.  For all you know, the competitor has cancer and just getting out of bed every day is a struggle.  Give the person a t-shirt!

Anyway, I will never choose an endurance ride simply because I get a t-shirt.  I've done plenty of rides with no t-shirt and they are still meaningful to me.  But I can understand why some kind of token might be appreciated by a participant, even if they don't finish or come in first place.

So now let's talk about kids.  It's probably pretty rare that a six-year old puts in the same level of effort that an adult might put into preparing herself and her horse for a 100-mile endurance ride.  But it could happen, I suppose.  In reality, though, most kids probably don't really have the same level of understanding that adults do about competitive effort.  And I'm pretty sure there have been lots of studies done about the risks of extrinsic rewards (like trophies) over intrinsic rewards (like the satisfaction of a job well done).  In general, extrinsic rewards can come with some potential issues, and some personality types might have more trouble with those issues than others.

I'm a big fan of intrinsic rewards.  I think they are better in most cases.  I do a lot of things simply because I get joy from doing them and if I got paid to do them or got some other thing as a reward for doing them, I don't know how meaningful that would be.  But, as I mentioned above, my ride t-shirts are really meaningful to me because they represent something important.  It isn't the t-shirt that has value in and of itself, but rather what it represents, which is a whole lot of work and sacrifice and some luck too.

And all of this is very interesting to me because my six-year-old (at the time) daughter decided she wanted to enter a horse show.  It was early August, I think.  She had been riding a certain cute little pony for a little more than two months.  And she had been watching Spirit and The Pony-Sitters Club on Netflix.  In the shows, the characters go to horse shows.  And she decided she wanted to do that as well.  As luck would have it, the barn where I board Nimo and where she takes lessons hosts a series of hunter shows, so there was an opportunity.  But she hadn't really been practicing for a horse show.  She had spent most of the previous year simply working on basic stuff like posting trot and turning and stopping.

When I mentioned to her instructor that Gemma was interested in showing, the instructor thought Gemma could be ready for the September show.  So for five weeks, Gemma had one lesson a week that focused on showing.  Meanwhile, I figured out what the required attire was and made several trips to the tack store to get Gemma outfitted properly.  (I have very little experience with hunter-style showing.  I dabbled in it a bit when I was a teenager in 4-H, but things have certainly changed a lot since then!)

Gemma also had the chance to give her a pony a bath and clean her tack the day before the show.  While the instructor insisted it wasn't necessary, I strongly believe that it is important to learn that if you show, you do the work.  No one else is going to take care of your horse.  No one else is going to clean your tack.  No one else is going to practice for you.  And Gemma was, quite honestly, delighted to do those things.  There are few things she loves more than giving a horse a bath.

Giving a pony a bath is fun!
Finally, the day of the show arrived.  Gemma and I headed out to the barn early, so she would have plenty of time to get her pony ready.  We had talked a little about what to expect, and I tried to emphasize that the most important thing was for her to have fun.  She didn't seem to be nervous at all, just so excited to be going to a show.

When we got to the barn, I got Gemma set up brushing her pony and getting him ready while I went to register.  We had decided she would do all three classes in her division, which was called Pre-Short Stirrup (don't ask me why - I have since discovered that many things in the hunter world are nonsensical to me).  There was a walk-only class, a walk/trot class with both posting and sitting trot, and a walk-trot class that added jump seat (or two-point) to the mix.  Her instructor was also there and helped her warm-up.  Two of my good friends plus my husband had also come to cheer Gemma on.

And then it was time to put the final touches on her outfit and wait for her class to be called.
Gemma strikes a pose:)
Me helping Gemma with some final touches.  Photo by Tosh Bledsoe.
And then it was time.  I really wasn't nervous.  She was riding the world's tiniest pony, so even if she fell off, I doubted she could get too hurt.  But I find that I don't worry about her too much when she is riding.  She has good balance, she is coordinated, she is brave, and she has so much fun.  Plus, she's in an arena, so everything is contained, and there are lots of people watching who can jump in and help if necessary.

Off she goes!

Could they be cuter?  Photo by CarlyGPhotography.
She was so happy to get a ribbon!  Photo by CarlyGPhotography.
Gemma did all three of her classes really well.  She posted on the wrong diagonal sometimes, but otherwise, she kept her pony on the rail and handled a couple of difficult situations that she had no prior experience with.  In one case, her pony was walking much faster than another pony (he may be small, but he is quick!) and she got too close to the pony in front.  She quickly figured out to move around the pony.  Then another time, one of the other riders really cut her off (probably not on purpose, but because the kids in the class were all 10 and under and may not have had much experience).  She got out of the way and negotiated a safer path.

There were six kids in each class and Gemma got sixth place each time.  (Please don't ask me how the placings were determined - I have no idea how a person judges six cute kids riding six cute ponies.  All I know is that my daughter did a great job.)  And she couldn't have been happier.  After the show, she asked me, "Mom, how did I get so lucky to get all the green ribbons?"  I mean, I could have cried. What an amazing attitude.

A few days later, we were talking about the show and Gemma asked me if getting a ribbon meant she had won.  I know there are parents out there who would have taken the time to sit down and explain what a green ribbon means and that it isn't first place.  They would have had the hard conversation about winning and losing and how competitions really work.  But I could not do it.  This kid works so hard and she tries and she is so excited about every single thing she does.  She loves horses and she loves riding, and I am not going to be the person who taints that love and excitement with some crap about intrinsic versus extrinsic rewards and how you have to be the best in order to win.  And so I said, "Yes, honie, it means you won."  Because in my eyes, she did.

She did what most adults I know would not and could not do (including myself).  She went to a real horse show after having lessons for less than a year and working on show stuff for a mere five rides.  She rode a pony that she'd only been riding about three months.  She pushed herself to her highest level (I don't think she'd had any experience cantering yet), and she smiled the whole way around the arena class after class.  She wasn't pretending to have fun for the judge.  She was actually having the time of her life.  I'm so thankful that it worked out for her to get a ribbon.  It meant so much to her and she has all three of those ribbons hanging where she can see them in her room.  Those ribbons matter to her, not because they are ribbons, but because when she looks at them, she sees a beautiful green color that she loves, and she remembers that she got to go to a horse show.  Maybe all kids wouldn't see things that way, but wouldn't it be great if we could live in a world where they did?


  1. I really, really loved this post Gail. We should all be more like Gemma! What an awesome daughter you have. <3