Shame in the breeder’s mind.

I recently came across the work of Brené Brown.

Nope, she is not a pedigree expert or a famous dressage rider you never heard about. She is a scientist that studies strong and complex emotions, such as shame, the same way other scientists study supernovas or platypus. She wrote a whole book about it, about shame called “I thought it was just me.”

Like any scientist, she first defined what shame was, found what its natural habitat was and where we were more likely to find it. She also studied how it is created and how it adapts to its environment. She went further and also proposed ways in which we can learn to deal with it. (Something not so necessary when studying supernovas or platypuses).

I realized reading her work that I sometimes (cough!) struggle with shame as a breeder.

I also struggled for years with telling my trot diagonals without looking and felt somewhat shameful about it and then I realize, at some point, that I was not alone!

On the vague presumption that I might not be alone in this boat, I thought I would put my thoughts out there.

First, what is Shame (with a capital S)?

We hate that word, just saying it sounds wrong and we cringe. We rarely claim it as something we feel.

Let’s dress it up a bit: Shame is a feeling of being unworthy and inadequate.

If it was a mare line it would have a few notable offspring: Impostor Syndrome is a promising up and comer, Fear of Ridicule is getting score on the small tour, Fraud has done the circuits and placed consistently. Public Embarrassment is a bit old fashion but would probably still do well under a handful of judges and finally Not Good Enough has sadly not made it out of its breeder’s paddock yet.

For those wondering Guilt is not in the same family. Guilt is related to a specific action. Guilt is: “ I did not test my hay this year.” Shame would be “ Who am I a to be bringing a new life into this world.”- Different magnitude of “ugh”.

Shame is feeling that we are unworthy of the responsibilities of being a breeder. It tells us that being imperfect is the same as being inadequate and that it follows that we should really give it up and pick up something else like tennis maybe.

How does Shame creep in the head of a sport horse breeder?

Let’s take a look at a sample of the unwritten codes of  the sport horses breeders:

-You shall only breed perfect specimens.

-You will choose the best stallion for your mare every time and ignore trends, color, or convenience in doing so.

-Your foals will always be an improvement on their parents, they will move beautifully and jump perfectly.

-All your foals’ conformation, movement, and style will be within the acceptable tolerance as dictated by your breed association of choice.

-All your horses will be deemed premium and all your mare elite.

-All your animals will be fed top-quality feed and perfectly balanced supplements

-You will never produce a subpar horse.

-All your horses will be perfectly trainable and please everyone that sets eyes on them particularly the judges.

-All the horses that you breed will be sound into old age with no chips, OCD, kissing spine, weak suspensory, or ringbone.

-You will keep all horses you have produced that you deem undesirable or substandard-in perpetuity.

Those are some of the ideals we secretly believe we must live up to as a ”worthy” (replace the word of your choice here: good, responsible, serious ect…) horse breeder. You might have your own list.

Just writing down those crushing expectations made me start to hyperventilate!  (drink 6 glasses of water a day, socialize, learn a new skill, spent time with family, do meaningful work, sleep 8 hours a night, eat a balanced diet, exercise, meditate….!)

What are we to have such impossible goals to attain?: Dressage riders!??

When we hold ourselves to high internal or external standards (for anything) we seek to improve, but we also run the risk of failing to attain them.

Then what? (this is really what this is about by the way)

Do we embrace our shortcomings and see them for what they are or do we start to feel like in not meeting them we are not really worthy of being a  horse breeder?

(The Shame trap here is set but not yet sprung…)

How do we (internally) judge those that don’t do things quite as we do? What of those that don’t hold the same standards as us? How do we see them? How is that perspective feeding our fear of ourselves being judged? What will others think? From that fear of being deemed inadequate- do we not feel Shame?

(Slam! The trap has now been tripped.)

Photo by Edward Eyer.

Now as an aside: Holding ourselves to high standards is the key to improving but when breeding and selling horses there are a few flies in the ointment.

Actually, it’s like a swarm of flies- the kind that swirl around you on hot muggy days in the summer. Mother nature (that unpredictable flake!), genetics overall (how do you improve that hock angle?), the equine market (oh, dear I would never buy a chestnut mare), the talent of riders and trainers are all factors amongst many that influence our ultimate results.

As horse breeders we know this, we live it, we struggle with it. We are probably our own harshest critics.


As horse sellers how do we cope with it? How do we acknowledge the flaws without losing credibility? How can we not?

We all know the shameless breeders and trainers: those whose horses are always touted as exceptional, stunning, exquisite, and perfect. Are they completely barn blind or have they mastered this ability to hold two realities in their mind we ask ourselves? Or have they truly achieve this level of perfection and if they did then what is wrong with our program?

Are those of us that hate marketing and selling, are we in fact simply uncomfortable with that contradiction between what we know is true and normal and the image we must project?

Are the ideals paraded out there in the live feed of the stallion shows, elite foal sale, and young horse auction what we measure our efforts against and coming up short deem ourselves unworthy and inadequate?

Should we?

I don’t know the answer to those questions.

I think most choose not to discuss this openly (a few might simply not think about it.)

However, what I do know, is that shame grows in the dark. When we don’t discuss shortcomings and flaws we open the door to shame. When we pretend that it doesn’t happen to us we invite it in. Being a breeder is hard enough emotionally perhaps not saddling ourselves with that extra burden would be a good idea. By the way; be it that the ideals we hold ourselves to are dictates by us or by others (society, the breeding world, the community-whatever..) the impact of coming short of them is just as hard.

How do we embrace the imperfections? How do we share them without shame?

Is it possible to openly admit our failures, our missteps, and our cringe-y compromises without tarnishing our professional image and driving away potential clients? In this world of polish presentation is there a place for authenticity and complete transparency? Or are we trapped in this dichotomy?

And if not, how do you cope with the feeling of being inadequate in not reaching those impossible goals when your horses and by extension: YOU, are being judged and compared to others constantly?

How do you reach the solution Brené Brown offers?  To see imperfections for what they are: not as a sign that you are unworthy but as a reality of the world? To embrace that breeding horses is extremely hard, that nature is unpredictable and that horses are like us: flawed but worthy on their own terms.

Photo by Tatiana

Feel free to comment! I am all ears.


P.S. One of Dr. Brown’s recommendations is to share stories because in sharing we are not alone. But sharing with whom?  Social media is full of special interest groups but the criticism is harsh for most and gentle for a few. If you are deemed worthy you are given comfort if not you are criticized to the end of the earth.

It is probably best to find a group of breeders you can be open and honest with. It’s never easy to be vulnerable but it is one of the paths out of feeling Shame because it cannot withstand the sharing and the discussion.

Owner and worrier in chief at Formosus Sporthorses in Alberta she's been breeding horses for over 18 years. Warmblood, warmblood crosses, and a few saddlebreds. She loves handling mare and foals and is passionate about giving foals the best start possible.

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