I intended to write this month’s article on a completely different subject, but as I looked through my notes, I stumbled across a letter I had saved. It was written to my youngest daughter, Hannah, from her volleyball coach her senior year. The article I started to write was going to be about the tangible things a person should do to increase their chances of success, and I still may write about that at a later date. Reading the letter from Hannah’s coach, however, reminded me of the most important part of being successful: playing with heart, or in our case, riding with heart. I had also just finished watching The American! What a show! As I watched story after unique story about the people competing, their horses, and just the production itself, I became even more inspired to write about these intangible components that can make or break us as competitors, trainers, or producers.
Hannah’s coach has a law degree from Stanford University and played on Stanford’s national championship volleyball team, but teaches English and coaches at a small, private Christian school.

In his letter, he wrote:

“I love the way that you play the game – your toughness, acceptance of a challenge, your heart that is always full and laid bare for all to see. And I guess that’s why I’m writing you this letter of encouragement – when I played, my heart was always on the line, too.
“This is both and blessing and a curse. The blessing is that a fire to succeed burns deep within you that very few will be able to understand, and it brings out your best. It inspires others to give their best for you too. The curse is that with your heart exposed, you always feel like you are on the line – your value, your reputation, your self-respect – and you feel like you have to prove your worth every time you step on the floor. This can be scary. But, the truth is, playing with your heart wide open is the only way to play, and quite frankly, the BEST way to live your life. The lows may be lower, but the highs are unbelievable, and only truly experienced by those who dare to risk it all.
“One of the reasons that I coach is to pass on a legacy given to me by my high school football coach, Leon Broussard. He taught me, a shy boy with talent but often held back by fear of failure, what it means to play from my heart. He would tell me before every game, ‘Don’t let your fears stand in the way of your dreams.’ He gave me the courage to put it all on the line and live with the results. Jesus too, understood the importance of the heart. He said, ‘Love the Lord your God with all of your heart…’ (Matt. 22:37). He knew that the heart was the key to the soul. And the key to an abundant life… Be willing to risk a broken heart to realize what it really means to be a champion. You won’t regret it – ever.”

I included this portion of the letter because it addresses two very important points of competition: the heart to try and the fear of failure. Having heart when you compete can help you and your horse rise up and achieve great things, while fearing failure can take you down even when you have prepared perfectly for your competition.

Heart is the intangible and unexplainable part of competing that gives a competitor the winning edge. It gives a person the extra energy to work their hardest, the ability to play through pain, and the ability to overcome failures. Heart is also the thing we can’t see in a horse by simply assessing his conformation. It is the force that separates the great horses from the rest, giving them the strength to overcome career-ending injuries or conformation flaws.

Sometimes, heart is the only explanation for a horse’s or a person’s success. My first barrel horse went blind in one eye, had no papers and was pigeon toed. None of these handicaps prevented him from winning first at almost every barrel race and pole bending we entered, including pro rodeos. We are all drawn to stories about horses like Seabiscuit, who became a legend even though it seemed he had no chance. In our world of barrel racing, we have heroes like Hot Shot, who carried several riders of different ages to major titles in spite of sustaining two potentially career-ending injuries in his life. In our sport, there are two hearts to consider, and both should have the courage to step up and give everything they’ve got every time they run.

The fear of failure can be devastating to anyone in any sporting event and actually in our lives as well. It may be the most common problem an athlete may face. It is the thing that causes nervousness prior to entering the arena for a run. But what is it that we are afraid of? It is important to address our fears and try to get rid of them. Failure is heartbreaking and difficult to overcome, but people who succeed view failure as a way to learn how to improve. Often, even after having had success, an athlete must face and overcome this fear.

As barrel racers, we not only have to deal with this fear for ourselves, but we have to worry about its effect on our horses. Being afraid to make a mistake will have a very negative effect on them. It makes it impossible to relax enough to effectively jockey our horses during a competition run. Identifying the fear and putting it into perspective will help you overcome it.

I hope this letter was as encouraging to you as it was to Hannah and me. Remember, “don’t let your fears stand in the way of your dreams.” Hannah’s coach ended the letter with this quote:

“Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” – Robert Kennedy


Dena Kirkpatrick is a professional barrel horse trainer and clinician based out of Texas. For more information on Dena and her clinics and videos, visit www.denakirkpatrick.com. Email comments on this article to [email protected].


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