The Tenth Place Horse

An essay by Ginny Sullivan.


For the past year, my boyfriend has been jokingly, and not so jokingly, reminding me that “not everyone is you, Ginny” whenever I get frustrated with the people in my life. Often my frustrations stem from the people around me sheltering themselves from critical feedback. I am a person who craves critical feedback because, to me, it’s the only real path to growth. When people shy away or blatantly reject this kind of feedback it baffles me.

Since I’m a teacher, thinking about feedback and its importance is not new to me. I think and read about the importance of timely, specific feedback. I get guilty when I fail to provide that feedback. I worry about my students understanding my feedback. I get frustrated when they don’t read my feedback. I’m knee deep in feedback thoughts, which makes my question about people’s relationship with feedback all the more interesting to me. The more I thought about it, the more I found myself reflecting on the thousands of hours I spent at a barn and the horses who shaped me.

Coaches and horses have a brilliantly subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, way of giving feedback to their riders. When I think about my horses, it’s not a surprise that criticism doesn’t seem to shake me to the core the way it does for so many of the people I come across. There’s nothing like getting screamed at by a coach or getting thrown into a concrete wall in front of a ring-side audience to thicken a person’s skin. Yet, something inside me knows that it’s not just being “tough” that makes a person good at receiving feedback.

When I think of what taught me to crave critical feedback, I think of my relationship with Danny, the thoroughbred my mom bought me when I was 14. In my mind, he was my ticket to the big leagues. Danny was going to fulfill my dream of moving up the levels, competing at Young Riders, and so on and so forth. It has been 12 years ​since Danny became mine and we have met virtually zero of the goals I had set for us. We never went to Young Riders. We never got to dress up for a jog at an event. By all measures, Danny and I failed, but now that I look back, I think that’s what makes him so immeasurably important.

I never got to be the rider I so desperately wanted to be, but instead I learned to get back on even when my shoulder was so bruised it looked infected. I learned to trust more deeply than I thought possible. I learned to cry big tears because allowing myself to feel those dark places in me brought out my brightest strength. I learned to endure, to organize, to laugh, to get dirty, to wake up early, and to put Danny’s needs before my own. And boy, did I learn how to embrace disappointment.

In the end, Danny and I only finished in first at one, single event, but it wasn’t that blue ribbon that changed me as a person. All the days and the failures leading up to that moment were what gave me a sense of self. I learned confidence, joy, trust, love, and companionship. Ultimately, I learned to wake up each morning and be proud of who I am regardless of the color ribbon I received, and that’s why I crave feedback. When a person never learns to love herself, she can’t listen to critical feedback — it’s too painful. However, when a person feels secure in who they are, suddenly feedback is welcomed and even craved.

The difficult horses like Danny are the ones that teach us to love ourselves and that love allows us to grow. Buying your kid the tenth place horse may lead to some tears, but one day she will look back and realize that the difficult horse’s job isn’t to win — it is to teach that child how to be a confident human who seeks out the feedback needed to grow rather than cowering away from it.

Ginny Sullivan is a horse girl turned high school teacher who occasionally writes about what’s on her mind.

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