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Champion quarter horses and award-winning graphic design – two things that have more in common than you know

By Jessie Ford

Design has not always been my first love. As much as I adore clever color palettes, obsess over the latest and greatest fonts and spend time researching the next big trend in print or web, there has been something even bigger that I’ve been apart of, for as long as I can remember. Most little girls only dream of having a pony. Well, I had that — and a few more. I grew up around the training and showing of quarter horses, which is a lifestyle that is unique, crazy and absolutely fascinating. I grew up with a work ethic instilled in me that most kids my age had no clue about, but it’s the same ethic that I carried over into my college years and design career.

My brothers and I were never forced to show (let alone ride) horses – it was something that was available to us if we wanted and we chose to participate. Because of that, it made it easy and fun to want to stay involved. Now, I do a little more than just “ride horses” for a hobby. It’s always been apart of our livelihoods and business – and it’s really more like a second, full-time job for me. As much fun as it is to run a quarter horse down an alleyway of a coliseum into bright lights and a crowd of spectators, I also have to “pay to play.” The shot at winning thousands of dollars is an incentive that keeps barrel racers and other professional horse riders hauling up and down the highway, chasing their dreams and a shot at fame from one show to the next. Because of this, I spend countless hours in the barn, cleaning stalls, cleaning and re-filling water buckets, feeding, turning horses outside to pasture and bringing them in during the evening, riding, training – the list goes on. I also spend countless sums of money making sure that my horses have the best care and supplements out there because, well, they’re my “cash cows.” They are athletes, no different than humans in many ways – and they need impeccable care from me, if I expect them to perform at the highest levels. They too have to see veterinarians, chiropractors and have the best hoof care to keep them in tip-top race form.

Aside from riding ponies as a little girl, I could also be found doodling, writing and “making books” out of typing, construction, sketch and tracing paper – pages of which I often stapled or bound together with hay baling twine or ribbon. I always said that I was going to be an author and illustrator when I grew up and I guess as a graphic designer, I’m not too far off that creative spectrum.

I write this as I am on the road, traveling to Oklahoma City for the American Quarter Horse Association World Championship Show to compete. Yes, the lifetime spent of riding ponies, graduating to horses, blood, sweat, tears, many wins and many losses has brought me to this pinnacle point of my horse showing career. What I have found over the last few years, in comparing both disciplines of my life, horses and design, is that there are actually a lot of similarities between the two. Weird, huh? Here are just three key takeaways that I have learned about both of my passions…

  1. The sweet doesn’t taste as sweet without the sour. This is something that I have learned to always ring true. Even though there will always be downs with the ups, I know for a fact that when I work hard, hit walls, regroup and then continue to work harder, I will reap the benefits down the road. Maybe not right away, but eventually. With horses, you can be winning and on top of the world one weekend and hitting barrels and losing money the next. As amazing as a competitive horse is, he/she is still an animal and they have off days, too. In design, I am not always at the top of my game, either. I go through creative slumps, much like writer’s blocks and feel uninspired, no matter how hard I try. When I quit overthinking the particular project at hand, whether it’s a publication layout, logo or advertisement and come back to it the next day, the best results end up happening and I love what I have created. I remember that failures and hard times are only temporary and no one ever stays in a drought for too long.
  2. What I put in, is what I get out. Like the famous saying by Thomas Jefferson goes, “the harder I work, the luckier I get.” Sometimes it’s hard to believe this and I don’t always see the light at the end of the tunnel, but I know it’s there. I know that the more I put into my horses, the more they will run and try hard for me. Similarly in design, I know that the more of myself I pour into a design, the more successful it always is. Although some of the best jobs are done “at the last minute” or because something changes, most of the time, my best work is a result of me really digging deep, having fun, being super creative and trying to push myself to do something original that I haven’t done or seen before. That design is often the one that wins over the client (and sometimes awards!)
  3. Always stay humble and ask for help when you need it. Ask any professional or competitive horseperson what they have learned the most from horses and this will be the answer that most of them give. I have never been involved in something that is more humbling. You can literally win a world championship one day, then hit a barrel and lose your money the next. Even the best horses don’t always perform at their best and you definitely cannot win every single time you enter the arena. It’s easy to want to give up and it’s at those moments that it’s good to ask for advice. Sometimes, something might be going wrong that you can’t see, or choose not to see. I also have to remember this when I’m designing. I can go on what feels like a streak of wins — my team members loving my work and the clients singing our praises in turn — for what feels like weeks. Then, just as quickly, I can hit one of those slumps that I addressed earlier and not win for losing. Every designer at times will feel like people are not loving what they’re doing, even if they are. Although I’m the professional and am confident most of the time in what I’m doing, I also have to step back and look at what’s working, what’s not and try again. I see too many designers and developers in the creative industry being very cocky and unapproachable about their work and that is something that I just can’t tolerate. Always be confident – but stay open to others’ ideas. When you collaborate with people who want to see good results too, the door usually opens to better things happening vs. just trying to do it all solo and getting nowhere. 
Category: Graphic Design