In life, we’re often faced with what seems to be having to choose between our values and being part of a group, a system. If you chose to stick to your values, you often feel isolated and left out, bitter about the cost of sticking to your beliefs. Choosing to compromise to fit in also comes with its cost, however, usually self abandonment. A few weeks ago, as I was preparing for a horse riding competition, I discovered that there is another way.
My ambivalence towards competitions
I used to do a lot of horse riding competitions as a kid and as a teenager. In my recent adult years, however, I’ve been wary of them, developing a sort of love-hate relationship with the concept. I am naturally very competitive and I love the adrenaline rush. At the same time, I am well aware that my desire (need?) to perform well can sometimes make me make decisions that are not the best for the well being of my horses and even myself. Wanting to compete has sometimes made me push my horses too hard, or make them do something which I wasn’t sure they were ready for.
I often think that my ambivalence toward the horse competition world is similar to how I feel about the corporate world. On the one hand, I really want to be part of the system, part of the crowd. At the same time, there are a lot of things I don’t like about it, what it makes us do and how it makes us feel. I’m often yo-yoing between wanting to stay out to stick to my values and wanting to be in but compromising on what I believe in.
Prepping for a new competition
Over the last few weeks, I have been training for a dressage competition at the Delhi Horse Show. As usual, I had promised myself I would do it “just for fun”. And as usual, as the competition got closer, I became more stressed, put more pressure on myself and became more critical of my performance. My attempt at keeping the right balance between the horses’ and my well being on the one hand, and my need to be seen as a successful competitor, on the other hand, kept tipping closer to the latter as we approached the date.
One rule that I have been successfully sticking to, however, is not to wear spurs or to use a whip. That’s where I draw the line when it comes to my horses’ well being. This has often been a point of contention with coaches who invariably try to get me to use a whip when my horse is being “naughty” but I’ve stuck to my guns.
You’re out without spurs
A few days before the competition, however, my coach found out that I wouldn’t be allowed to compete in the dressage category without wearing spurs (the protruding metal piece you wear on your heels to poke the horse’s ribs). According to the international equestrian federation rules, wearing spurs was compulsory.
The news hit me hard.
I’d like to tell you that I immediately and naturally announced that I wouldn’t compete if I had to wear spurs because it went against my values. But that’s not what happened. In fact, my first thoughts were: “My coach is going to think I’m such a trouble maker if I refuse to participate. How will the team take it? Maybe I should make an exception.”
My husband was standing right there next to me. He is much less pliable (and less of a people pleaser) than I am. When I told him what was going through my mind, he reminded me of my values and what I stood for. He helped me get my alignment back, and I was able to tell my coach I wouldn’t compete with spurs. She tried to convince me, by saying we would position the spurs in a way that they wouldn’t even touch the horse. But with my husband’s help, I managed to stick to my word.
Feeling lonely and left out
I wish I could tell you that this decision left me feeling strong and proud. In truth, I felt lonely and sad. I felt left out, bitter that choosing the well being of my horses meant that we were left out altogether. I felt angry that “the system” (i.e. the equestrian federation) functioned the way it did. It wasn’t fair.
This situation reminded me of the few (and I really mean few) times I stood up for decisions in the work place that went against the corporate culture. I remember how alienated I was made to feel, how lonely and bitter I felt. This time, again, I was defeated and lonely. The cost of sticking to my values felt too high.
Had it been up to me, the story would have ended here.
It helps to know the system
My coach didn’t give up on me. She went through the rules and found a loophole. She found a small line that said that competitors were allowed to wear dummy spurs, spurs that didn’t have any protruding parts and that, therefore, wouldn’t affect the horse. She found this out late evening the night before the competition which started at 6am the next day. Yet, she managed to get me the dummy spurs in time.
Beyond the fact that these two rules seem completely ridiculous (why make something compulsory and then provide a loophole when you could just make it optional?), this has taught me some very valuable lessons.
I realised that simply throwing a tantrum and boycotting something you don’t believe in isn’t always the answer (though sometimes it definitely is). I realised that getting to know what you’re fighting, and getting to know it extremely well, is very valuable. I realised that until the system changes, there can be (sometimes) ways to participate while still following your values.
Others benefit too
I shared what was happening on social media (a public rant can sometimes feel good, I’ll admit). Many other riders learned, at the same time as I did, about the dummy spur rule. Several people wrote to me saying they had been wearing the spurs because they thought they didn’t have a choice, but now would switch to dummy spurs. A few others wrote saying they would now participate in competitions, knowing they could use dummy spurs.
Sharing what I was going through helped me see that I wasn’t the only one to face this issue, and my coach’s stubbornness benefitted a lot of people.
Asking the system for help
Perhaps the most surprising thing I learned in all of this is that, although counter-intuitive, you can actually ask “the system” for help. I was very lucky that my coach didn’t give up and it never occurred to me to ask her for help to find a way around the rule. She has been taking riders to these events for decades, and I assumed that she would just follow whatever rules she was used to. But she called judges, she went to speak to the people who organise these events and she checked all the rules herself. That’s a strategy that I should have followed myself.
Yes, it’s a lot of work and yes, when you’re angry at the system the last thing you want to do is to go and ask it, or someone in it, for help. But what if it can pave an alternate path for you and the others who don’t want to compromise on their values and still take part? I think it’s definitely worth the effort.
Refusing to compromise on my values at the cost of not fitting in is something that doesn’t come easily to me, and I’m often tempted to let go of my beliefs to be with the crowd. But this spurs’ story helped me see that there are other ways of finding these compromises and that it’s always worth investigating and pushing. It’s a life lesson I’m very grateful for.