Freedom to RUN – How to Prevent Perfectionism from Slowing You Down

How to Prevent Perfectionism from Slowing You Down

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It’s that time of year!

A new barrel racing season is under way and “inner perfectionists” everywhere (who may have been laying low throughout the winter months) are rearing their ugly heads!

No, it ain’t pretty. And when it happens, our riding sessions and our runs aren’t likely to be either. Unfortunately, the damaging effects of having unrealistically high expectations of ourselves and our horses go well beyond the arena.

It’s not that being a perfectionist is necessarily a bad thing, but it’s easy to take it too far.

If you can relate to any of the statements below, you might be a perfectionist.

  • You suffer from “paralysis by analysis” and hesitate, question or second-guess yourself.
  • You ride just a little bit different in public then you do at home.
  • You compare yourself and your achievements to other barrel racers.
  • You prefer to ride alone verses in a group.
  • You’re either quick to point out your flaws, OR you rarely, if ever admit to them.
  • You get extremely nervous before a run.
  • Thoughts of what you said, did, or how you performed consume your mind.
  • Your riding at speed lacks fluidity; having good timing is challenging.
  • You make assumptions about what other people think of you, assuming it’s negative.
  • Competition triggers an unexpected and unpleasant roller coaster of emotions.
  • You expect a lot from your horses and tend to over work, train or drill them.
  • You put unrealistically high demands on yourself to perform well.
  • You have a hard time receiving criticism or get emotional when you do.
  • Sometimes you find it hard to find the motivation to really focus on your barrel racing.
  • You’d rather avoid situations where you’re the central focus of other people’s attention.
  • You safety up or hesitate to “leave it all in the arena” in a competitive run.
  • You find preparing yourself and your horse for competition to be stressful.
  • You’ve been working hard for years, but still haven’t achieved your barrel racing goals.

Perfection is an impossible goal.

The desperate drive to be PERFECT is not just crippling, it’s also very common.

It’s no wonder barrel racers succumb to this because for many of us, our livelihoods, at least in part, depend on how we perform. Not only does a portion of our income depend on our results, but so does our reputation, which has the power to dramatically impact our success in the barrel racing business.

Outside of that, it’s simply human nature to want the approval of others.

From the beginning of time our brains have been wired to seek acceptance. In caveman days, anyone who was not part of “the tribe” wasn’t likely to survive. Although a sense of belonging is still very important for overall health and well-being, the primal part of our mind that once worked in our favor isn’t quite as necessary now that we’re no longer risking life and limb just to see the next sunrise.

The overwhelming feeling that we NEED to win OR ELSE can seem very real, no doubt. However, it’s one thing to strive for perfection, and yet another thing entirely to convince ourselves that we HAVE TO achieve it.

Extreme pressure to perform well tends to bring out the worst in humans. Depending in large part on our innate personality characteristics, we’ll tend to handle it in one of two ways – either we’ll over-do or under-do. Either our “inner perfectionist” will bring out the predator in us wanting to over-ride and make things happen with our horses, OR we may start to feel hopeless, lose steam, and skip riding all together.

Whether we tend to morph into overdrive or retreat into the shadows, the truth is that our extreme “need” to be perfect isn’t entirely based on reality, and it certainly isn’t healthy.

Let’s face it – horses don’t respond well to fear and intimidation and they certainly aren’t going to prepare themselves to run barrels. On top of that, the emotional state that overwhelming perfectionism contributes to isn’t exactly conducive to winning.

Underneath the symptoms mentioned above, extreme perfectionism is simply a form of FEAR. It’s not a superficial or obvious “I’m scared of the dark” fear, but a deep subconscious type of fear. It’s essentially based on an unhealthy desire to perform based on reasoning that’s skewed.

It’s not so much that we feel as though we HAVE to perform well, it’s that we’re terrified of NOT performing well. When our perfectionism reaches this level, we’re driven by avoidance vs. desire.

“Confidence comes not from always being right but from not fearing being wrong.” – Peter McIntyre

Commit to competing wholeheartedly.

The fear of failing has the absolute power to HALT barrel racing success. You may or may not literally blank out or freeze up, but you will tend to hold back. You’ll hesitate, sometimes subconsciously or ever so slightly – just enough for you to continue wondering WHY you keep spinning your wheels.

If you enter a barrel race already questioning your ability and lacking self-confidence, then the reality of a poor performance, which matches your existing thoughts and feelings, is terrifying proof that your beliefs may be true! When our mind spins out of control in this way, more often than not we become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Because our fear is in large part created by our experiences and then the stories we’ve repeatedly told ourselves, dissolving it is possible in much the same way.

To free yourself from the trap of perfectionism, it’s important first and foremost to acknowledge it, and then take intentional action.

It’s helpful to understand WHY we have these tendencies, which I’ve shared above. The next step is to take a look under the layers of your specific perfectionistic tendencies, which provide additional guidance for moving forward.

Are you driven by a desire to be respected and look good in the eyes of others?

Are you driven by a need to stay financially afloat? Perhaps both?

Is it possible that you don’t have a firm enough foundation of self-confidence?

Is barrel racing actually a ‘search for significance’ for you?

What’s REALLY underneath your desire to be perfect?

What’s underneath even further?

Be honest.

This varies a bit with each individual. Just like when we find resistance in our horses, when we come across a feeling pointing to something in our own emotional foundation being amiss, we can’t avoid it or put a band-aid over it – we need to identify it, dig in, work through and dissolve it. It doesn’t do us any good to sweep it under the rug.

In cases of fear, simply continuing to stretch oneself – to just keep entering anyway is a good start. But this isn’t the be-all end-all. Sometimes overcoming perfectionism isn’t that easy, sometimes it requires some heavy duty inner work.

After all, what happens in the arena isn’t only about the obvious things you can see. So much of our success depends on our mental game, our emotional fitness – the stuff you can’t always see, but you can certainly FEEL and has a HUGE impact on our results.

The most important step in the process of overcoming perfectionism comes by simply being reminded of the TRUTH. Writer, researcher, and educator Brené Brown sums it up so well that I’ve shared several of her quotes below…

“Sufficiency isn’t two steps up from poverty or one step short of abundance. It isn’t a measure of barely enough or more than enough. Sufficiency isn’t an amount at all. It is an experience, a context we generate, a declaration, a knowing that there is enough, and that we are enough.”

“Perfectionism is self destructive simply because there’s no such thing as perfect. Perfection is an unattainable goal.”

Significance is not found through barrel racing.

“Healthy striving is self-focused: ‘How can I improve,’ Perfectionism is other-focused: ‘What will they think.'”

“If we can’t stand up to the ‘never good enough’ and ‘who do you think you are?’ we can’t move forward.”

“Worthiness doesn’t have prerequisites.”

“Wholehearted living is about engaging with our lives from a place of worthiness. It means cultivating the courage, compassion and connection to wake up in the morning and think, ‘No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough.’ It’s going to bed at night thinking, ‘Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging.”

“When we can let go of what other people think and own our story, we gain access to our worthiness—the feeling that we are enough just as we are and that we are worthy of love and belonging.”


What it comes down to, is that we are ALL enough just because we ARE, not because of what we DO. No level of achievement in the arena is going to make us more worthy as human beings.

Even NFR barrel racers have extremely disappointing runs. Barrel racing is much too humbling (for everyone) to let perfectionism hold us back. Failure is only feedback. When something doesn’t go well, it’s just a temporary indicator that we need to make an adjustment (which may require outer work as well), but it’s not a permanent reflection of our ability, or our horse’s.

A foundation of confidence must be developed and exist independently of our performance, or the inevitable lows we experience will have a way of keeping us low and bringing us even lower, which isn’t sustainable.

If you must concern yourself with the opinions of others, make it that of your Creator – the one who created you to be perfect in His eyes just as you are, and secondly – your horse! When you know you are enough, and strive to do good in their eyes, and use that as your gauge, success will be the inevitable result.

Even in times of perceived failure, there are great victories to be celebrated. It all depends on how you look at it.

I certainly admit to not being perfect. In fact, my writing contains typos! But I’m doing the work God put me on this Earth to do, which is to achieve high level barrel racing success and help others do the same.

I plan to keep reaching for perfection, knowing that the only healthy way to do so is by also acknowledging that “PERFECT” an illusion.

At the end of the day, know what matters most.

If I never feel the fear of imperfection come up, it’s probably a sign that I’m not venturing far enough outside of my comfort zone, but it’s also likely that I need to return to or dive even deeper into special resources that remind me of the TRUTH, which I love doing every morning with inspirational reading.

It’s a fear-filled world we live in. Doing big things and putting ourselves out there requires us to continuously strengthen our inner foundation.

My morning reading is an absolutely crucial, non-negotiable part of my day that helps me stay centered. It’s a way to constantly remind myself of the perspectives and truths that can be so easy to forget.

Barrel racers in general are very driven individuals.

I know I’ll continue to push myself to be the very best, but I am committed to doing so for the right reasons – not out of fear of lack, or because I feel I have to prove myself, or to fill an inner void, but to refine and express gratitude for the gifts, passions and talents I’ve been given.

When the reason WHY we push ourselves is in alignment we’ll have balance, peace and success. This doesn’t mean there won’t be challenges, hard work, and moments of fear, but that we won’t allow fear to hold us back.

“Perfectionism is not the same thing has striving to be your best. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame. It’s a shield. It’s a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from flight.” – Brené Brown

So do you tend to over-do or under-do as a ‘barrel racing perfectionist?’

Are YOU ready to drop the shield of perfectionism and let your barrel horse FLY?

Let’s hear it in the comments below!

If you’d like further support, I highly recommend Brené Brown’s book The Gifts of Imperfectionwhich is available in the library here on the Resources page.

Also watch for The Confident Barrel Racer e-book to be available in print later this year!

Enjoy even more life lessons from the exciting adventures of barrel racing book writing…

23 replies
  1. Pamela Pilkenton
    Pamela Pilkenton says:

    Good morning Heather, I have more of these symptoms than a little bit. I have never thought of my self as a perfectionist though. I always thought it was feeling like I was less than enough. I am happy to know that isn’t the case. I also know there is a fine line between being confident and being over confident when you run down the alley. I have seen and have been guilty of over riding my horse I think in trying to overcome the nerviousness behind the arena. I will now work on this in a positive way.

    Thanks for the insights!!
    Have a great day

    Pamela Pilkenton

    • Heather Smith
      Heather Smith says:

      I think being a perfectionist would actually be a symptom of not feeling ‘good enough,’ which then causes us to either do too much or retreat because we feel we can’t be perfect. The key is to change how we’re thinking by intentionally exposing ourselves to resources that remind us of “the truth!” The stories we tell ourselves in our minds are largely B.S. 😉 Glad you enjoyed this one, Pamela!

  2. sandra
    sandra says:

    I never thought I was a perfectionist, but a lot of what you described it me to a T. I give up because I feel like I’m not good enough, I won’t go ride because what’s the point, I don’t enter because I get so nervous. I’ve always thought of myself as not good enough. I’ve been trying to work on these things, and I am better than I was…but I have a long way to go I know.

    • Heather Smith
      Heather Smith says:

      I can relate Sandra! My husband is one who tends to find a lot of other things to keep himself busy instead of diving into something he’s not sure he’ll be successful with. He’s very confident and talented as a roper but certain areas of horsemanship are new and challenging to him, and avoidance becomes an easier route than failure. But the truth is that it just doesn’t matter if we mess up, we have to keep trying – it’s the only way to learn and grow! We just have to be aware and willing to keep learning and making adjustments as we go whenever something isn’t working.

  3. Jerilyn
    Jerilyn says:

    Thanks so much for posting this! So much of your
    article is ME! I had never really put a name on it, much
    less tell anyone. Now tho I can start praying an working
    on this, an I think I’m really relieved to finally have
    a place to start! I been riding horses an training most
    of my life, an n the last 10-15 years more training
    than competing. Well The Lord started me on a
    new journey 2 years ago with a new horse an
    your articles have been the bomb!!! Thanks again

    • Heather Smith
      Heather Smith says:

      You’re so welcome Jerilyn. I wouldn’t be able to write all about this if I hadn’t experienced the pain of perfectionism an shakey self-confidence myself. Just know that TONS of barrel racers deal with this – you’re not alone! I’m glad to shine light on the subject to help people dissolve blocks in the way of success – this is a BIG one.

  4. Ashley
    Ashley says:

    For me, my perfectionist tendencies were ruling my life. Not only did my obsession with doing everything perfect- with being perfect- affect my barrel racing, it affected how I performed at school. It affected how I acted. After growing up thinking that’s just how I was, I finally had went through enough mental breakdowns that I agreed to see my school counciler. He then directed me to my doctor. I wasn’t just obsessed with perfection or overreacting to nerves: my doctor diagnosed me with anxiety disorder. He told me that what I was experiencing before I competed were panic attacks.
    Several months later and a low dose anxiety medication, I can now control my nerves and overanxious mind. Competing and riding in front of others is still a struggle and there are times where I still want to run off, but now I can overcome my perfectionist desires and understand that it is ok to not do everything perfectly. When the desire to be perfect and the fear of failure takes over your life, sometimes the deep roots of the issue are much bigger than just being “nervous.”

  5. Jessie
    Jessie says:

    Hi Heather,
    Thank you so much for this great article, it has helped me understand myself better! I have almost everyone of these symptoms and I never really thought of it as you have describe. I got a new horse and I love him to death but i often feel inadequate to be riding him. He has the potential to be a great horse but I felt like im not good enough for him mainly because i know what other people are thinking. I want to be a faster more competitive rider but it just always seemed like I was too stupid to get the job done. But now I have your article to help my realize my issue and work through it. Thank you so very much!

    • Heather Smith
      Heather Smith says:

      Remember Jessie – you do not know what other people are thinking! Catch yourself before you ‘go there’ and make that assumption, which is part of putting the brakes on this cycle. The real problem in these cases is how we feel about ourselves. When we get that part right, other people won’t tend think less of us, and if or when they do – it won’t matter!
      I’m glad to have facilitated some light bulb moments – it’s upward and onward from here! 😉

  6. Jamie
    Jamie says:

    I have had these problems my whole riding career. I have worked my horse with a goal of barrel racing for three years but have only actually entered 5 or 6 races. I have a lot of work ahead, but its comforting to know that its not just me and I will be able to overcome it with positive mental training. Thanks for posting!

  7. Fran
    Fran says:

    Wow Heather, this article describes me to a T. I actually work myself up to the point that I don’t want to run. I take something that is enjoyable and exciting and make it miserable. I am so glad to see I am not the only one, and I need to learn to control this urge and just enjoy the ride. Thank you for sharing.

  8. Sam Farley
    Sam Farley says:

    I had the same thing happened to me a few years ago Ashley. I went to the doctor for another reason and we talked about my new nerve problem and the same thing was happening to me. Gave me a mild med which helped, but I have another problem that I have tried so many things to overcome. I am looking DOWN the whole run. Thank God I have a horse that runs great but my question is does anyone else have this problem. This happened before I went to the doctor by the way.

    • Heather Smith
      Heather Smith says:

      Hi Sam, I have noticed that in the beginning stages we tend to want to look down, especially at the barrel, otherwise we just don’t know what it is. As we progress, we tend to get a peripheral “feel” for things. The same idea applies to dribbling a basketball, typing on a keyboard, or knowing what diagonal we are posting the trot – we want to LOOK with our eyes when we haven’t yet developed the “feel.” Keep consciously concentrating on keeping your eyes up, or even remind yourself to keep your “chin up,” and in time it will become habit!

  9. Heather
    Heather says:

    Much needed article as usual! I struggled with the approval of others until recently. I grew up showing horses where things really did have to “appear” perfect. Then I fell in with a VERY critical barrel horse trainer. Anyways…what I have FINALLY realized is no one that is watching really cares. They are there for thier own run. I run in Colorado and many jackpots have PRCA girls (Brittany Pozzi, Sherry Cervi, etc). I have seen them have bad runs…they are there to season horses too…imagine the pressure they feel! I’ve also found that watching others (especially before my run) affects my own mental state. Now I just hang out with my horse until I run. Your articles have helped my mental game hugely!!! You helped me by answering my question with the “hot to trot” article. The patience I had to have with her helped my mental game more than anything. I keep reality in check and don’t strive for perfection, just strive for our best. Most of all, once I stopped expecting perfection my horse started to perform. I don’t like feeling like I can’t meet high expectations so why would my horse like it? When she tries, I’m happy.

    • Heather Smith
      Heather Smith says:

      Way to go Heather! I’m so proud of you, you are SO on the right track… let go of the perfect end results and in the process they come together even better than when you’re trying to “make” things happen!
      I too have seen MANY NFR barrel racers fall off, have run aways, etc. – you name it… if they can recover and keep going, so can we. Our sport is way to humbling to think that one bad showing is going to ruin our reputation or future in the business, and it certainly is not a reflection of our worth.
      Mistakes mean we are out there trying and learning, only a temporary indicator that an adjustment is necessary, nothing to obsess over or dwell on.
      Keep up the GREAT work!

  10. Sandy Hickey
    Sandy Hickey says:

    Thank you for another great article. I needed this this morning after a weekend filled with great and not so great performances by ME. Thanks for sharing your insight and knowledge always at the perfect time for me. God bless you!

  11. Audrey
    Audrey says:

    Another great article, that felt “meant” for me! As someone who didn’t grow up in the horse world and started riding at a later age, I am constantly striving to “keep up” with people who have done this their whole life. Instead of realizing how far I’ve come in training my own horses and even rehab-ing problem horses, I constantly see what I’m not good enough at. I could show up and within minutes have myself talked out of entering. So, as you said, right now I am entering as much as possible and just trying to get comfortable going and learning to enjoy my horses and the process 🙂 Thanks again!

  12. Holly Sieperda
    Holly Sieperda says:

    I think you seriously read my mind. I am the worst about this. I expect perfection from myself because, if I don’t I feel like I’ve disappointed myself grandparents (who actually own my horses). They’ve always just given everything to me and I never felt as if I deserved it because I never have been able to win it back. I’ve been running this mare for a bout a year now. She is so nice and so close, but me and my perfectionist self are holding her back. I’ve been working hard to allow her to do the work and let it be ok when her steps aren’t 110% perfect. I really needed this Heather. Thanks a million.

  13. Sandra
    Sandra says:

    Hi Heather
    A Big 3 day Barrel Race is coming up I’m so excited finally it’s here ! All the excitement is in the air it’s a big race 300 plus. Day one, I had a good run but I watched my video and had to tweak how I was using my hands and not to be to nervous, and need to kick more! Day two, I’m going to have a better run hopefully faster and my hands need to stay down!I think I’m going to get sick with nerves I’m making sure i take deep breaths, focusing on my pocket. Had a good run still wasn’t fast enough. Watched my video what is the matter I’m thinking? My time is awful I’ve done better my horse is to small wish he was taller… what do I need to work on I’m thinking to myself. Day 3, I really calmed down wasn’t so nervous had a good run,almost the same time I had on day 2. My Friends said Great run! but inside I’m saying not really.. I ended up feeling very sad because I didnt win that check. Why is that? Once you win a check it seams I always want one.? Is that just me or other Barrel Racers think the same way? Thank You for your thoughts!


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