There isn’t a sport in existence that doesn’t celebrate competitiveness. Champions are supposed to want to win. They’re not content when they lose. And never, ever do they give up before the final buzzer sounds.

Photo by Megan Parks
Photo by Megan Parks

By the time you make it through your first few events, you’ll realize it’s no different in barrel racing. Everyone wants to see his or her name at the top of the leader board when the last time is recorded at the end of a race. Whether you’re a beginner or a veteran rider, there is nothing wrong with striving to be the best.

The problem occurs when a person fails to recognize the difference between having a competitive reaction to a situation and being a poor sport. For example, a poor sport might become snarly, rude and confrontational, or she might sob and express resentment toward someone who has bested her time—all in the name of wanting to succeed. While these reactions may temporarily calm a temper or ease disappointment, champion rider and trainer Lance Graves says, in the long run, they will do more harm than good for your barrel racing career.

“Nothing is less attractive, in a child or in an adult, than someone who throws a fit,” he says. “In the futurity world, we call it ‘throwing your sucker in the dirt’ when things don’t go your way. I think it makes someone look so amateur, so unprofessional and just so pathetic.”

Failing to be a good sport is often nothing more than failing to control your emotions. When you’re new to barrel racing, that control can be difficult to master. It may take time to develop the awareness that people are watching and forming an opinion of you based upon your negativity, and, believe it or not, you’re probably doing more harm to yourself than to the person or animal who is the object of your frustration.

It Affects You

For Graves, good sportsmanship is a complicated subject, but he does believe that you can curb unsportsmanlike conduct by polishing your self-awareness.

“I’m not really sure what my exact definition of ‘sportsmanship’ would be,” he says. “But I know my definition of being a productive participant in a competition is focusing on the positive. And I think that parlays into making you a better sportsman, whether you win or lose.”

Concentrating on the positive aspects of a situation is easy for some people, but it is a learned behavior for others. For the latter personality types, Graves recommends going and competing against your personal best, not against the other teams.

“What I do is, every time I go to the gate, I have something in mind that I want to advance,” he says, “whether that something has to do with me as a cowboy and as a jockey, or whether it is for my horse.”

Graves uses the example of a horse that is prone to running by the first barrel. If you make doing well on the first turn your “advancement” prior to the race, even if you lose, you can come away with a small victory by conquering barrel one.

“You can go out, nail that first barrel on that horse, be two seconds off and still come out of the arena pleased,” Graves says. “You can be happy and feel successful because you have improved something or gained strides in your quest for perfection on your horse. Focus on that instead of, ‘Oh, I was off two seconds, and my horse is nothing but a donkey.’”

In Graves’ opinion, these little advancements can be the inspiration you need to hold it together when something else goes wrong in the arena or when you lose.

“Even if you didn’t nail the first barrel, and you still lost,” he says, “you were paying attention enough to learn something, to learn how to improve and do better next time. It’s all about what you take away from it.”

So, do you take away the positive or the negative from your runs? The choice is yours. Poor sports, however, usually don’t see it as a choice. They feel something has been done to them personally that caused them to lose—they didn’t drag the arena well enough, the winner can afford a better horse than I can, that barrel could have stayed up—but it chose to fall just on my run.

Self pity is a dangerous avenue to take when you’re trying to compete. Not only does it keep you from ever accepting your faults, and thereby giving yourself the chance to correct them, it keeps you from enjoying what should be one of the most thrilling experiences of your life—barrel racing.

“I think it shouldn’t enter your mind to go to that place where you’re feeling sorry for yourself,” Graves says. “You have to be a pretty self-involved, self-centered person to get mad and feel like the whole world is against you.

“Clearly, barrel racing is a game, and everybody is going to have bad days. That’s just how it goes.”

It’s true that everyone, even the most decorated champions, have lost their fair share of races. But what probably separates those champions from other riders is that they accept the occasional loss as a bump in the road, and they don’t dwell on it. They quickly move on to the next challenge.

“Trainers and professional riders usually have a little different outlook about losing,” Graves explains. “They realize that you’re going to win some, and you’re going to lose some because they know how rare it is to get that perfect horse, that perfect run. They know what goes into making an animal successful and having everything go right.

“Really, it’s about not taking winning for granted, but just appreciating it when it comes, and then taking less successful rides in stride. You can’t let it just shut down your whole life.”

Lashing out at other people or bursting into hysterics are effective ways of shutting down your competitive experience. They’re also the surest ways to leave a bad impression.

“I’ve been barrel racing since I was a little boy,” Graves says. “I’ve seen a lot of people come through with a bad attitude. Those people never seem to last long. They just end up ruining the experience, for themselves and for everyone else.”

It Affects Others

At its core, good sportsmanship is acknowledging the best in other people. If you lose, that acknowledgment might manifest itself through a handshake and congratulations. If you win, it might mean thanking your fellow competitors for the tough competition.

It may also require “grinning and bearing it” when you don’t particularly like someone or something that has happened during the course of an event. It’s making the decision to take the high road, even if everything in you wants to have a tantrum.

Graves is known for working with young riders, and the kids he teaches usually come and stay with his family for a period of time. While with the Graves, these young people learn how to take care of their animals, how to be better barrel racers—and how to present themselves in public. According to Graves, a champion is humble, thankful and always knows how to verbally express him- or herself, so he makes these qualities a priority for his students

“Being gracious, being appreciative—I get more compliments on my girls’ manners than on anything else,” he says. “But I sincerely believe it goes back to what I said about professional riders. When you take care of your animal and put in the hard work it takes to get to the winners’ circle, you appreciate positive outcomes from a different place than if everything is just handed to you on a silver platter. And my girls have to work in the barn and with their horses.

“Even if they lose, they know they’ll get back after it and work hard again the next day, no matter what.”

When it comes to good sportsmanship and youth riders, Graves believes manners start with parents or mentors who insist the young rider show respect to others, to her horse and to herself.

“It’s difficult to control your emotions when you’re a kid or teenager,” Graves says. “It’s a lot to ask an 11-year-old to let go of hitting the second barrel and not dwell on it, but messing up is a part of life. It’s not about what happened 20 seconds ago, but about what’s going to happen in the future. How are you going to be productive in the future?”

A big part of being productive—whether you’re a youth rider or an adult—is learning how to not only lose, but to win with grace. Often, Graves points out, this ability comes naturally after a little hardship and time in the saddle.

“I’ve won more in the last two years than I had in my entire career,” says Graves, who has been competing since he was a small child. “I can tell you what it’s like to win nothing in a year, and I can tell you what it’s like to win $330,000 in a 12-month period.

“If you don’t understand how easy it is to lose and for things to go wrong, you won’t ever be able to understand, accept and appreciate when things go right.”

Indeed, unsportsmanlike behavior can occur when a person wins just as easily as when a person loses. Arrogance, entitlement and a tendency to gloat do not tend to sit well with anyone—your friends, your fellow riders, trainers, race producers, the media—anyone.

Graves suggests that if you feel a bout of superiority coming on after a win, you shift the focus from yourself to the people who help you—and everybody has somebody that has been there for them on the road to victory.

“For me, every time something goes wrong, I take the blame,” Graves says, “and every time something goes right, I credit the people around me. When there’s a big win, the first thing I do is step off my horse and hug my family and crew.

“The most important part of being a good sportsman when you win is not about saying, ‘Oh, look at me. I’m so cool. I won.’ It’s more like, ‘Look how fortunate I am that I have all these people who love me and support me and believe in me, and this is what we created together.’ It makes it so much more special to win with someone else sharing in it.”

Winning respectfully and keeping your ego in check is just as important as losing respectfully and allowing someone else to have his or her moment in the spotlight. Remember, next time you could end up on the other side of the situation.

“You really have to master losing,” Graves says, “before you can learn to win.”

It Affects Your Horse

Aside from hurting yourself and others with a bad attitude, poor sportsmanship can also have a negative influence on your number one barrel racing ally—your horse.

“If you’re upset and acting out, it can completely affect your horse,” Graves says. “I’ve seen riders, through their bad attitudes, create a hostile one-on-one relationship between themselves and their animal. They transfer their negativity on to their horse, either physically or emotionally, and that leads to a very unsuccessful working relationship.

“Many times, whether he deserves it or not, the horse will take the blame for a bad performance.”

Graves likens a horse’s sensitivity in this situation to an office environment in which there is resentment between co-workers.

“If you walk into a room with your co-worker, Becky Sue,” he says, “and you’re mad at Becky Sue because last week she said your skirt was ugly, and you’re holding that against her, you’re never going to work well with her because you don’t really want her to succeed. You’re always hoping something negative is going to happen to someone who did something negative to you.

“It’s the same with horses. If you’re hostile toward your horse and feel that the animal is useless and has no talent, they’re going to sense that, and the resentment will build. You’ll never work well together.”

In the end, Graves believes the virtue that makes someone a good sportsman is the same virtue that leads to being a good horseman—forgiveness. Forgive yourself for having a bad ride. Forgive that other person for beating you when you wanted to win so badly and forgive your horse if he happened to be the one who made a mistake.

“Bottom line, there’s no room for anger when you’re working with horses,” Graves says. “It’s a useless emotion and will do nothing to help you or your horse become better. No one will ever tell you that they reacted to something in anger, and it made the situation any better. It always goes the other way.

“It’s the same with competition. If you can’t accept the ebb and flow of winning and losing, clearly you need to stay home. Stay in your house and don’t participate in life because life is about winning and losing. If you can’t handle the ups and downs, it’s going to be really hard for you to find happiness in anything.”

 About Lance Graves

Lance Graves and Seis So Sweet

Known worldwide for training and riding top-notch futurity horses, Lance Graves is an AQHA World Champion, American Quarter Horse Congress Champion, BFA World Champion and NBHA National 1D Champion. He is also a member of AQHA’s Professional Horseman’s Association and is on AQHA’s Team Wrangler.

Graves notched his first national mark in barrel racing when he made the finals of the prestigious Old Fort Days Futurity at just 7 years old. Since that time, his reputation has grown by way of introducing to the world such champions as Miss Fortunes Fool, Famous Ed, What Fame and Famous Silk Panties.

A perennial fan favorite wherever he races, Graves concentrates on training futurity horses and working with a wide range of student riders. He is based in Hartshorne, Okla.


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