Thoroughbred Makeover Diaries Presented By Excel Equine: Horowitz Learns That In Eventing, Winning Isn’t Everything

“For when the one Great Scorer comes to write against your name,

He marks—not that you won or lost—but how you played the Game.”

—Grantland Rice, sportswriter, in “Alumnus Football”


“Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”

—Vince Lombardi, NFL coach

Grantland Rice is a major reason why sports are such a big deal in the United States. His syndicated column, “The Sportlight,” described by Britannica as “the most influential of its day,” anointed some of sport’s greatest legends. It helped college and professional sports tug at America’s heartstrings during the Roaring 1920s, and a nation of sports fans has never second-guessed its devotion since.

Rice created the “Four Horsemen” of Notre Dame and the “Galloping Ghost” of Red Grange—monikers still steeped in lore 100 years later and so influential that I once embarrassingly asked my high school English literature teacher how was it possible for there to be “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” in the New Testament when I thought Grantland Rice coined the term.

Not only did Grantland Rice write and broadcast sports, but he also gave advice about how it should be played. It’s “not that you won or lost—but how you played the Game,” he wrote in his oft-quoted 1908 poem “Alumnus Football.”

Yet, as much as I admired Rice—again, I instinctively believed he was also the author of the Book of Revelation—I thought his advice about “how you played the Game” was a bunch of crap.

That’s because Vince Lombardi, the coach of the NFL’s Green Bay Packers who was so influential that the trophy awarded to the winners of the Super Bowl is named in his honor, came along about five decades later and said, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”

That’s what the goal of sports has come to be about. There are similar phrases that roll off the tongue.

“Second place is the first loser.”

“No one remembers who finished second.”

“Nice guys finish last.”

And so on.

I started competing in the equestrian sport of eventing in 2018 at the age of 33 with my sights set on winning ribbons. Never mind that I had only been riding for three years on my journey from announcer to rider. Never mind that my first horse, the 2013 chestnut mare Sorority Girl (JC: Grand Moony) that I used to announce at Arapahoe Park, had never competed in a recognized event either, although she had performed well in freestyle and show jumpers at the 2017 Retired Racehorse Project Thoroughbred Makeover with my trainer and wife, Ashley Horowitz.

Our first recognized event was the 2018 Spring Gulch Horse Trials in Colorado at the Beginner Novice level of 2-feet-7. I also announced the show and would take a break from announcing for our dressage, stadium jumping, and cross country rounds.

I made it through all three phases, which eventers treat as a significant achievement given the number of obstacles that have the potential to eliminate a competitor. I even managed to place 12th of 21 in my division. So, I honestly thought that the ribbons would start to come — no, they would have to come for me to prove my worth in my new sport.

The ribbons did not come. I found a variety of ways to be eliminated from my next few shows. We were eliminated for too many refusals at cross country jumps at our next recognized event, the 2018 Round Top Horse Trials in Colorado. Then, I fell at the ditch on the cross country course at the 2018 Event at Archer in Wyoming.

A disagreement about a ditch at the 2018 Archer event resulted in Horowitz and Sorority Girl parting company

And then came the coup de grâce at the Spring Gulch Horse Trials in May 2019 when Sorority Girl put on the brakes during our dressage test, refused to move despite my kicking her to go forward, and backed out of the dressage arena. Adding insult to injury, she kicked over the “A” block for good measure.

I thought these results made me an outcast, but the eventing community, especially in our area, is incredibly supportive.

“Everyone has been there before,” Ashley said. “This is how you learn.”

Things then started to click for Sorority Girl and me. We had our best dressage test to date at the 2019 Round Top Horse Trials and didn’t add any penalties on cross country or in stadium jumping to finish on our dressage score in sixth place out of 18 at Beginner Novice. That earned us earn our first ribbon. I realized that going through the challenges of being eliminated the year before made this achievement more rewarding than if it had all just happened perfectly as I scripted in my head.

We ribboned again at our next show, a return to Spring Gulch where the announcer filling in while I competed made sure to remind the crowd, “Hey, everybody, fingers crossed Jonathan and Moo stay in the arena.” One of the dressage judges, whom I knew through my role of announcing the show as well, told me that she caught glimpses of my dressage test from the other arena while judging a rider in her arena to see what fireworks there might be in my test.

So, lesson learned, right? I appreciated how my failures made my successes more rewarding and embraced the importance of both Grantland Rice’s “how you played the game” and Vince Lombardi’s “winning.”

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.

Just as things were starting to click for Sorority Girl and me, I started retraining a Thoroughbred straight off the track, the young 2016 bay filly Cubbie Girl North, who has provided me with a roller coaster ride that I’ve been chronicling during a roller coaster 2020 in this “Thoroughbred Makeover Diaries” series.

Looking back on our first year of retraining, I realize it would have been absurd to think that “winning” should be on the table immediately given that Cubbie was completely new to eventing and I was still learning. While I appreciated some of the moments where we would click, I wasn’t appreciating the end result.

Things came to a head at Spring Gulch in August when we finished with an improved score, but I was sour about the mistakes a green-horse-with-green-rider combination are inevitably going to make. Instead of seeing the progress, I saw the failure — even though nearly everyone that has followed our journey has been encouraging.

Ashley sternly and tactfully told me that I was entirely missing the point of eventing and that if I continued to be this way at shows that I could get someone else to coach me at them.

That’s when I made the biggest change and the most progress in my three years of competing. It didn’t come from adjusting how I rode or what equipment I used or anything physical between me and my horses. It came from embracing what the sport is all about and why the people that compete are so attracted to it. It came from putting more of an emphasis on how I played the game over winning the game.

I started changing my focus to how much fun it was to travel to shows, especially if I was also announcing, and on how rewarding it was to spend time doing what I love with the horses and people that mean so much to me, especially on the adrenaline-inducing cross country courses.

This all took the pressure off winning, but, frankly, winning is incredibly elusive in eventing. The sport requires nearly flawless dressage, cross country, and stadium jumping rounds where one missed movement or one dropped rail can knock a competitor down the standings. At the USEF CCI4*-L Eventing National Championship — the highest level offered in the United States this year — held at Tryon, N.C., this month, a rail that fell on the very final fence knocked leader Elisabeth Halliday-Sharp and Deniro Z from first to fifth.

With a new outlook on the sport, I did manage some good results. Sorority Girl and I finished on our dressage score in seventh of 16 at Beginner Novice at The Event at Archer in August. Then, we moved up to the Novice level of 2-feet-11 and again finish on our dressage in sixth of 18 at The Event at Archer in September.

Horowitz and Cubbie go through the water at the Event at Archer

However, the “result” I’m most proud of came during the first time I’ve traveled a long distance for a show to the Windermere Run Horse Trials in Missouri a month ago. That was also the first time that I’ve competed two horses at a recognized event—perhaps because it was the first time in more than a year that I wasn’t also announcing.

Needless to say, we didn’t get the “results” as Lombardi would have liked.

About two minutes before Cubbie and I were scheduled to enter the dressage arena for our Beginner Novice test, Ashley asked me to try to take up more contact on the reins during our warmup. Three days prior, Cubbie told me exactly how she felt about contact on the reins when she ran me into the walls of the arena on our farm. So now at our final show together for the season, she planted her feet and decided not to move.

“Don’t do anything,” Ashley said. “Just go in and get through the test.”

We pulled off the second-worst dressage score in the entire competition across all levels. The dressage scribe, a friend that had traveled with us from Colorado and was volunteering at the show, told me that the judge, whom I also knew from announcing at previous shows she’s worked at, turned to her during my test and said, “I thought Jonathan was a better rider than this.”

It’s true. I did no actual riding because I really had no other option if I was going to finish the test. We even scored a 1.0 out of 10 for one of our movements that I knew Cubbie and I were doing wrong but knew she would not allow me to correct. However, after this glorious performance, we had clear cross country and stadium jumping rounds because Cubbie likes to jump and I could effectively manage her crappy attitude for those disciplines.

Sorority Girl and I competed at Novice at Windermere and had a good dressage test for where we’re at, as well as a clear stadium jumping round. However, we had two refusals during the last three jumps on cross country.

“I need five minutes, and then I’ll be good,” I told Ashley when I came off course, determined to appreciate what went positively and not dwell on what went negatively.

“That’s fair,” Ashley responded.

What I ultimately took away was how this was a learning opportunity. I had slowed our tempo at the end of the course because I was worried about getting speed faults. Sorority Girl took my cue and backed off, so she, understandably, wasn’t as bold as she had been for the first three-quarters of the course. For those keeping score, we ended up last of 13 in our division.

We fixed this the next month at the Texas Rose Horse Park Fall Horse Trials and went clear on cross country with a more consistent pace that helped my mare gain more confidence as we progressed through the course. I had my best finish ever at any event, placing fifth of 11 at Novice and, unexpectedly but happily, taking home a large pink ribbon.

Travel to events can be hundreds of miles, and there’s a significant cost when you add up transportation, lodging for people and horses, entry fees, and more. The time actually spent competing across all three disciplines of an event is a total of about 10 minutes. However, there’s so much more—the experience, the camaraderie, the bond we get to have with these special animals through the moments that click and the moments that frustrate—that make eventers so addicted to the game.

After three years and 12 recognized events, I’m glad that I’ve finally learned how to play the game.

The post Thoroughbred Makeover Diaries Presented By Excel Equine: Horowitz Learns That In Eventing, Winning Isn’t Everything appeared first on Horse Racing News | Paulick Report.

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