The Mechanic vs. the Race Car Driver

When it comes to competing in speed events, a lot of us have heard the adage, “You can be a trainer or you can be a jockey.” I recently heard a different take on this, and it really clicked: You can be the mechanic or you can be the race car driver — but you can’t be both.

For many years, maybe decades, my riding focused around the technical aspects of riding. Most of my family is super involved in English events, so it should come as no surprise that at the beginning I followed suit. For years, I worked on collecting my horse into the bridle, leg yielding, and making myself and my horse look as pristine as possible in front of judges. From the English world I transitioned to Western Pleasure and Equitation, and when that got boring (f0r me), I tried my hand at reining. It wasn’t until I decided that I enjoyed speed events but wasn’t cut out for gaming and rodeo that I found my love for mounted shooting.

Photo courtesy of Marcella Gruchalak

As someone who is extremely particular and technical in my riding, I’ve been having a hard time adjusting to performing as an upper level mounted shooter. I’ve been struggling with pushing to go faster because of the perceived loss of efficiency and technicality. For me, when the slightest movement of my horse is unplanned, it feels as if the whole pattern has gone to $h!+. It upsets me to the point where I go home, work on the mechanics of me and my horse, think about it for weeks, and then try again — usually only to feel like I’ve failed again.

I expressed my frustrations with myself and the plateau in performance to a fellow mounted shooter. He’s one of the fastest and most consistent athletes in the sport. He gave me an analogy that really stuck with me as a rider and a competitor. He said, “There are two types of riders: the mechanic and the race car driver. The mechanic doesn’t drive the car, and the driver doesn’t work on it. Which one do you want to be?”

But, what does that mean?

Photo by JMF Photos

Mechanics build and assemble machines. They inspect the machines they build and run diagnostics on them to discover functionality issues. A mechanic then conducts repairs to create optimal reliability. Mechanics have the ability to troubleshoot the machine, perform maintenance, and provide consultation to the vehicle owners.

In the analogy, as it relates to the horse and rider, the mechanic has the responsibility of building the horse to optimal functionality. He makes sure the horse is reliable, troubleshoots reported problems, and resolves them in a timely manner. He performs maintenance work on faulty areas and provides consultation to the race car driver on the correct measures to run the horse. The mechanic keeps logs of work and reports back to the race car driver with any issues.

Along with being an experienced mechanic comes a variety of skills. The mechanic has knowledge of horses, utilizes various tools, follows best practices for each horse, and has a strong commitment to the horse and rider team. He puts the safety of the horse first, knows how to communicate and problem solve, and has good physical strength and stamina.

Most times, when we refer to the mechanic, it’s the equine team’s trainer. There are other horsemen and women that keep our horses performing optimally — such as farriers, veterinarians, equine massage therapists, and farm owners — however, the horse’s trainer deals the most with performance improvement.

Photo by Greg Jackson

Race car drivers are different than mechanics in that their sole purpose is to drive the car at fast speeds around the track or in other designated racing areas. They are the ones who garner the attention for promotional work, obtaining sponsors, and public perception. They learn to adjust to new controls or new vehicles altogether.

In the analogy, the race car driver performs different duties and comes with a different skill set than the mechanic. These are the riders who maneuver the horse at high speeds in the arena. Many times, they’re performing in front of an audience and they, too, tend to work with sponsors.

Race car drivers progress their skill set by starting out in lower level environments and horses and progress successfully to more powerful horses and faster courses. They often attend clinics, lessons, practices, and other training opportunities. This fine-tunes their skills and allows them to network.

The race car driver is the horse’s rider and the competitor.

Photo by Mr. Quigley Photography

Here is where my dilemma lies. Being the mechanic for so long, and finding enjoyment in it, it’s been hard to transition to a new role. Placing my horses exactly where I wanted them has been a staple in my riding. It’s hard for me to let go of all the delicate details of riding to let my horse rip around a course while I adapt and drive.

As this analogy was explained to me, it was apparent that you couldn’t be both — at least not at the same time. The race car driver focuses on performing during the competition. Competition is not the time he worries about the mechanic’s duties. If he has an issue with his horse while driving, he takes it back to the mechanic for a tune up. If there are hiccups or undesirable maneuvers during the performance, the race car driver adapts quickly to get the job done.

This analogy has changed the way I think about what it takes to be an upper level mounted shooter. I’ve worked a great deal on letting go of the technical thoughts and just guiding my machine of a horse — one that is extremely fast at that. At home we do slow work, slow work, and more slow work. We correct SO MANY maneuvers and dissect SO MANY pieces of patterns. This analogy has provided me with the importance of solid training and the ability to trust the machine the mechanic has built. It has also given me clarity that not every performance is going to be stellar; however, if you continue separating the positions of the mechanic and the race car driver, there will be fewer bobbles on competition days over time.