As a kid, I showed horses on the Michigan Quarter Horse Association circuit. The prizes were ribbons, and for me and my horse, blue ones were few and far between. My family couldn’t afford a horse that could compete at the top levels, so while I could win at open shows, I was thrilled to pick up a ribbon of any color at a breed show.
As I grew up, I began to realize just how much each of those ribbons cost, not just in entry fees, but also in training, travel, tack and all of the other things that are needed to show a horse. I also started to hear about shows where horses actually made money for doing well. My earliest recollection of that was at the All American Quarter Horse Congress, where the Western Pleasure Futurity winner actually got a check!
As my focus shifted from pleasure horses to the horse industry as a whole, I learned about barrel racing, rodeo and roping, where horses competed for cold, hard cash instead of pretty ribbons. As you all know, the cutting, reining and reined cow horse industries also benefit from purses that offer monetary rewards to those who do well.
For years, those purses have been a standard way of enticing people into those Western performance horse events. Why show a horse for ribbons when you can make money with a cutter, reiner or cow horse? It was a logical theory that brought a lot of people into the industry, and it’s an argument many people still use to market those disciplines to prospective owners. And that, friends, is a problem.
The type of value a person places on an activity determines their motivation to participate in that activity. Extrinsic motivators or rewards are things such as purse money, scholarship funds and tangible prizes like trophy saddles. Intrinsic motivators come from within – a sense of achievement or an internal feeling of satisfaction.
When it comes to sporting events, Kirk Mango, author of “Becoming a True Champion: Achieving Athletic Excellence From the Inside Out,” posed the question, “What is it that keeps athletes interested and motivated over the long term? How are they able to train day in and day out, month after month, and keep that passion alive?”
The answer, he said, lies in where the value is placed as a person works toward the objectives they want to accomplish.
“The question then becomes, where should an athlete be encouraged to place the most emphasis…in order to reap the most benefits from their efforts?” Mango wrote. “I would have to say that it is essential to teach them how important prioritizing intrinsic ‘rewards’ (motivators) are to this progression of self-satisfaction and, conversely, how detrimental overemphasizing extrinsic rewards can be.
“In my view, a better approach (more inside-out) is to look at extrinsic goals as possible outcomes of the efforts one puts in by placing higher value on the intrinsic components rather than prioritizing extrinsic factors as the purpose or reason behind why one is putting in those efforts – playing.”
Mango’s theory could be aptly applied to the Western performance horse industry, where, for many reasons, it’s difficult for the average owner to make money these days. When the money doesn’t come –or isn’t as much as one believes it should be – disappointment sets in. If you are extrinsically motivated to show horses and are continually disappointed, eventually you’re going to stop showing horses.
But we don’t have to take Mango’s word for it. Science has researched extrinsic versus intrinsic motivators/rewards as they relate to the business world and determined that extrinsic motivators don’t work for any employees except those performing the most menial of tasks. The “carrot-and-stick” approach to management actually results in poorer performance by employees overall. “Drive” author Dan Pink discussed the research in his TED Talk, “The Puzzle of Motivation,” quoting a “mismatch between what science knows and what business does.” Rewards, he said, narrow focus and restrict possibilities.
Showing horses is big business, and if you’ve been to any association conventions or town hall meetings over the past few years, you know one of the biggest topics of converstion is usually purse money, specifically how to increase it. Don’t get me wrong, healthy purses are a good thing, but by placing purse money at the top of our priority list, we could be shooting ourselves in the foot.
Using Pink’s logic from a business point of view, placing an emphasis on money as the sole reward of cutting narrows our focus too much and restricts other possibilities, such as developing novel ways to promote cutting and increase membership. It also perpetuates the myth that the biggest value of cutting (or reining or reined cow horse) is extrinsic.
Using Mango’s theories for athletes, we would be better served to foster the idea that the Western performance industry has intrinsic value that far exceeds the monetary rewards. There’s nothing wrong with striving to win, but if picking up checks is your primary motivation for stepping in the show pen, eventually, your motivation will falter. When that happens, people sell horses and buy boats.
Michael Wu, Ph.D., chief scientist at Lithium Technology, wrote: “…doing something for the rewards is just the opposite – at least in spirit – of doing something simply for the love of doing it (i.e. intrinsic motivation). So when an activity or behavior is motivated by rewards, it is always extrinsically motivated. In other words, when rewards become the reason that drives someone to do some activity or behavior, they won’t be doing it purely for its own sake anymore.”
In my opinion, we need people to want to show for the sake of showing if we want to grow our industries. Promoting extrinsic value isn’t enough for a sport that has intrinsic value in spades! We need to shift our mindset to promote those intrinsic rewards – the fun and enjoyment, the competition itself, the challenge of improving your horsemanship, the pride in a job well done, and, most importantly, the bond between a rider and a horse. Because that’s where the real value lies.