More than a Horse Story

I love a great “feel good” movie. Many of our wonderful feel good movies revolve around sports – Hoosiers, Rudy, The Rookie … we all have our favorites.

Mine is about a horse (still athletic, just four not two legs).

It was 1938 – a year of monumental hardship and challenges, not unlike 2009. People were in need of inspiration, hope, and light. Ironically that year, the number one newsmaker was not the President of the United States (Franklin D. Roosevelt) or the evil dictator rising in Europe (Adolf Hitler), it was a crooked legged, scrawny, racehorse, owned by an enterprising bicycle repairman turned automobile magnet, trained by a misunderstood almost mute horse whisperer, ridden by an emotionally wounded, anorexic, Shakespeare quoting jockey.

Many of us know the story of Seabiscuit through the fabulous book by Laura Hillenbrand- Seabiscuit: An American Legend and the wonderful movie starring Tobey Macguire, Jeff Bridges, and Chris Cooper – Seabiscuit (American Experience).

I recently watched this movie (again), and I was struck by the astounding similarities of those times to our current realities. I was also moved by the inherent messages, and lessons, in this true story – all of which are applicable to our lives today. A few inspiring takeaways which are relevant to us 70 years later:

Unlikely champions can emerge in hard times

Seabiscuit was undersized, barely 15 hands. His legs were crooked. His gate was lop-sided. He had been abused as a young horse and faced hardship at the hand of cruel men. He had been pulled away from his mom at 6 months of age, labeled as lazy, and beat to a pulp – emotionally and physically by greedy trainers.

Red Pollard, the fledgling, half-blind jockey, had basically been sold and abandoned by his family during the great depression. He lived in a horse stall his entire youth, while enduring unspeakable working conditions as an amateur prize-fighter and second-class jockey.

Tom Smith, the big hearted horse whisperer, had become disenchanted with the loss of the wild Mustang herds and man’s cruel treatment of horses. He lived hand to mouth, keeping true to his love of horses without compromising his values.

These three were the underdogs. They were virtually unknown, unappreciated, and unproven.

Then comes along Charles Howard. Howard was the successful entrepreneur nursing a broken heart due to the loss of his only son. He was searching for ‘something.’ To his own admission, he didn’t know what that was. He bought Seabiscuit for a whopping $2000, and the rest, as they say, is history.

We know how the story ends – all four of these characters emerge as heroes – and unlikely champions.  Yet, it was through the hard times each faced that their authentic purpose was revealed. They pulled together for a common goal. They worked hard to achieve it (while experiencing negativity from multiple outside sources). They celebrated, and leveraged, their differences to fulfill their final objective.

The same can be true for each of us. We don’t know how strong we are until our muscles are tested. We don’t know the strength of our convictions until, they too, are stretched. We may not appreciate our idiosyncrosies until they bring new perspectives to light. There is no doubt in my mind that from the hard times we are facing today, unlikely heroes will emerge.

A safe place breeds growth and success

Each character in this story was wounded. Deeply scarred from injuries of their past – another loss, another rejection, another whip.

Many of us have been there at one time or another. Each of us have experienced loss. We have been there when we were afraid we were going to fail. We have been there when we were afraid to take a risk. When we were afraid to stick our necks out and reveal what we don’t know – or in some cases – what we do know.

Charles Howard created a safe environment for his team. He encouraged his emaciated jockey to eat. He encouraged his wise trainer to ‘follow his instincts.’ He welcomed, and embraced, the different perspectives and backgrounds of Red and Tom. By creating a safe place, it was amazing to watch how their fears diminished and their potential and their loyal teamwork thrived. Here was a man who, with kindness, respect, and trust, encouraged his people to succeed.

In our businesses and in our lives, we can replicate the same safe place that Charles Howard created for his team. We can offer unconditional support. We can provide an environment where risks are encouraged and successes or failures from these risks are rewarded. We can value differences of opinion, of approach, of experience, and of personality.

“Safety” creates a freedom within us and between us and through this freedom our most powerful ideas and talents are liberated.

Luck versus Preparation meeting Opportunity

A friend of mine, who recently found herself in a career transition, shared with me one of her favorite quotations: “Luck follows a prepared mind.” I love this. I am a believer that luck is, in fact, preparation meeting opportunity. It was not ‘luck’ that Seabiscuit was a winning thoroughbred. He had worked and trained hard for his various races. He had a devoted team equally committed to doing great things. They took adversity and often hard luck and turned these into winning opportunities.

As Charles Howard said about Seabiscuit: ‘When the little guy doesn’t know or believe he is the little guy, he can do great things.” How true is that! Our limiting beliefs can hold us back – and our big dreams can propel us forward.

So, when we need a boost of encouragement, a reminder that underdogs can finish first, and a renewed belief that an ounce of preparation can in fact create a pound of luck, click here to see the actual amazing race of Seabiscuit winning against War Admiral. I think you will be as energized as the record breaking crowds were in 1939  – and we can all use a bit of rags to riches inspiration these days!