By Margie Sugarman
Margie Sugarman is a leading board-certified psychotherapist and sports consultant based in New York. Margie’s desire is to enhance performance through the connection between the mind and body, and her current client list includes Olympic, professional and amateur athletes across the country. Her experience employing various therapeutic modalities has helped equestrians win classics, junior medals and grand prix. Do you have a question you want Margie to answer? Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
My daughter and one of her middle school classmates show against each other every weekend from competing barns. My daughter’s barn is more rustic, while her classmate’s barn is more polished. The girls from that barn often walk around saying that their horses and barn are better, yet the girls from my daughter’s barn typically score higher and medal more often. Even knowing this, the bias these girls are showing is not limited to the barn; this girl runs around school acting like she is better than everyone, and it hurts my daughter and her friends. How can I help my daughter and her friends understand that this girl (and her friends) have an unfounded bias?
This is an interesting topic and phenomenon that has been gaining attention in the hunter-jumper world.
Walk around any barn and observe. There are people of all ages brushing and talking to their horses, sharing feelings, secrets and words of love. There are little girls and boys hugging and kissing their ponies, looking at them with adoration in their eyes. Carrots, mints and treats are visible outside almost every stall door or in the tray of any open tack trunk. The passion and love expressed between human and horse permeates the aisles of any barn. The secrets shared, the feelings expressed and the dreams planned out are deeply felt and said with sincerity.
While watching and listening to lessons, words of encouragement are heard supporting the learning process and helping horse and rider grow in knowledge and ability. The love from the barn is carried to the ring. Listening carefully, one can often hear the rider saying phrases such as, “You’re the best!” and “We can do anything!” But, where does love stop and reality step in?
“Barn blindness” refers to a perspective which involves thinking your horse, your barn or the horse-and-rider combinations that exist there truly are the best, purely because they are yours. It’s a condition that can exemplify one’s sense of reality. Riding is a wonderful path to both physical and mental maturity. It can provide a sense of emotional fulfillment and foster self-esteem. But, like in life itself, a great deal is left up to personal interpretation.
A barn is like a small, self-contained community. There are rules and boundaries. The hierarchy starts at the top with the trainer or barn manager, and their beliefs and perspectives become the guidelines for the community at large. As in any community, the leaders lead and if we have faith in them, we follow their teachings. Of course, personalities impact our belief systems and support for the leaders’ teachings. If challenged too frequently, it can become uncomfortable and lead to one finding a “new home.” One’s beliefs can be too far from the “group mind” and this is supposed to be fun, so a move is often the end result.
Let’s think about the rider who puts out the air of being over-confident and thinks they’re the best. They go to a show and can’t understand what’s happened if they don’t do well. They often are heard saying, “It’s so political!” The trainer can support the perspective that the student didn’t get what he or she deserved (and truly believe it), or the trainer can take the student aside and explain the “whys” that impacted the results. How the situation is handled has to do with the trainer’s own perspective and motivations as well as the student’s personality.
This is barn blindness versus reality and impacts people based on life experiences. The overconfident person has developed that way for a variety of reasons that are either factually based, defensively based or perceptually based. Perhaps their beliefs have served them and their esteem in a positive way and have never been challenged strongly enough to cause a change. Remember, this can be a self-protective consequence of life experiences, or due to true lack of knowledge and understanding.
For instance, that girl at the show who believes she had been cheated out of a top ribbon requests seeing the judge’s card. After seeing it (and trying to interpret it) she walks away and tells herself things to help her rationalize and accept what’s been written on the card. “She must have gotten me mixed up with the girl on the other chestnut.” “I got all the changes and I should have done better. The judge was probably cleaning her glasses.” This can go on and on until and unless someone injects some facts and reality into this gal’s perspective and knowledge base.
Have you ever taken a lesson after your trainer has been to a clinic or at the end of the year after all of the indoor shows? There are often new exercises to be attempted and explanations as to why you’re being asked to master the challenge. You can and will hear “good job!” when someone’s riding, even if it wasn’t perfect. This can be appropriate and helps build the confidence of a more timid rider or someone learning new skills. What’s truly important are the lessons learned, the confidence built and the fun had. The community leader has to verbalize and exemplify reality with the proper support for each individual.
Barn blindness, in certain situations, is healthy and enhances the human/horse connection. It can keep our equine partners well cared for and teach wonderful lessons to children and adults alike.
However, in the same way changes in eyesight lead us to use glasses for visual clarity and we turn lights on when it gets too dark to see, emotional support, education and explanations shed light on reality and give us the opportunity to work toward and achieve new goals.
Sometimes someone else has to turn on the lights and hand us our glasses.