Kentucky Syndrome: Are You Accidentally Pressuring Your Rider?
Two years ago, I stood at the in-gate of the Rolex Stadium at Kentucky Horse Park, watching one of my young riders navigate a 2’6” hunter class. It was the New Vocations All-Thoroughbred Horse Show and TIP National Championships that allowed riders at this level to compete in one of the world’s most iconic arenas. On this day, my student and her horse were not on the same page. It was difficult to watch a rider who had put in so much blood, sweat, and tears have such an off day, but it happens to all of us. As she came out of the arena, I told her as much. “It’s okay, there’s a lot of pressure, we all make mistakes,” was probably what I said. I don’t remember exactly. But what I do remember verbatim was her teary-eyed response: “my mom’s going to kill me."
Now, before you go passing judgments on a woman you may or may not know, let me tell you a little bit about this child’s mom. She has not only played, but also coached, nearly every sport under the sun. She understands pressure, and commitment, and diligence, and victory and loss. She even bought a horse for herself and took up lessons when her kids fell in love with riding so that she would have a clearer understanding of their sport. She’s a dedicated mother, she’s had to work for everything she’s had in life, and she holds her daughters to some pretty high - but mostly fair - standards. In order to make that week in Kentucky possible, there were a lot of sacrifices. She wanted the girls to know that this was a big deal. And so, she unintentionally put her daughters under a very, very large amount of pressure.
The rider went on to express her worry about how much money her parents had spent to get her there. I quickly reassured her that her mom would in fact not kill her, nor would she even be upset; that everyone was just excited for her to have made it there, that she walked out of that stadium still on her horse’s back instead of on her own two feet, and that she would try again tomorrow. But she just couldn’t shake it. Of course her mom wouldn’t be angry with her, but kids are dramatic and the pressure of her parents compounded with the pressure she put on herself to do well was crippling. When we returned to the barn, I told the mom what she had said.
I’ve never seen someone so figuratively gut-punched. That moment was a very real wake up call. There's a very fine line between instilling in your child an understanding of monetary value, and putting a very unfair pressure on them due to your financial investment in their passion. Both the mom and dad pulled the rider aside and had a heart-to-heart behind the barn overlooking the cross country course. They all came back smiling, laughing, and with a hefty weight clearly lifted off of their shoulders. The next day, that same rider went back into the Rolex Stadium and made the top 15 out of nearly 50 competitors. It was a moment that I’ll always remember.
I tell this story because as a trainer of many young riders, I see this a lot. We’ve come to call it Kentucky Syndrome. For kids, they don’t know that this sport is expensive when they get into it; they just love horses. Of course they’re likely to want to ride more often, then start to show, then want a horse of their own, then show more often, and so on and so on. As with any other sport, kids who are driven, talented, and passionate are bound to continue along the path for as long as possible.
A few days ago, I took some polls on my Instagram story. Here’s what I found:
When asked if they enjoyed their parents watching their lessons and practice rides, 77% of riders said yes.
When asked if they enjoyed their parents watching them show, 93% of riders said yes.
So, clearly riders enjoy the presence of their parents for the most part. Many kids like the “safety blanket” aspect of the parents being around, others just want to feel like their parents are involved and interested in their passion. But what about that percentage of kids who don’t want mom and dad around?
I also asked if having their parents watch them ride makes them anxious or nervous. A surprising 40% said yes. I thought about including a question sticker (aka a short answer box) to find out from the riders themselves what the reasoning behind this was, but I didn’t think I would get many honest responses. However, my next question did a lot of answering for me.
When asked if they feel additional pressure while riding based on the cost of their horse, the cost of showing, and/or the cost of riding in general, over 70% said yes. That’s pretty sobering. My next question was if their parents had ever made a comment about the financial factors that made them feel that way; 60% said yes, they had. This means that many of the riders still felt pressure based on the financial aspect of their sport, even if their parents had never made a comment to make them feel that way. All of this was extremely interesting, but not really unexpected.
All of this is to say, these kids are under a lot of pressure. Some of it they put on themselves, some of it is put on them by the adults they respect most in their lives. Although riding starts out as a hobby and an innocent interest in horses, for many riders it becomes an all-out passion. I love having a program full of kids who are obsessed with the sport. I love watching all of these kids work harder every day to chip away at lofty goals. What I don’t love is watching kids’ nerves become their own worst enemy because of a pressure they feel from parents - whether it’s the parents’ fault or not! I know myself that the parents just want their riders to be successful, to be happy, to bring home armfuls of blue ribbons because surely that’s indicative of both. I know that the disappointment that crosses parents’ faces after a bad class isn’t disappointment in the rider but rather for the rider. Unfortunately, kids only see disappointment.
That mom from the first story has changed her tactics quite a bit since that summer afternoon in Kentucky. Regardless of how the round goes or the ribbons that are won, she now asks her daughters questions that encouraged them to focus positively on the big picture. Did you learn something? What went well? What do you need to improve? And most importantly, did you have fun?
I think that’s arguably the very best measure of success, considering this all started as a hobby and an infatuation with big, dirty, four-legged animals: did they have fun?
This story was told with permission from all parties involved. :)