“Not to assume it’s impossible because you find it hard. But to recognize if it’s humanly possible, you can do it too.”Marcus Aurelius’ – Meditations
I’ve spent my “down” time (non-horse show season) when the days are shorter, and the Midwest slowly becomes uninhabitable, studying the Stoic philosophers. The three major ancient Stoics are: Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus and Seneca.
Stoicism is a type of philosophy that was developed by people who were do-ers. No one left everything and sat under a tree to meditate. One was a Roman Emperor, probably a more stressful life than even this humble horse trainer has. These men actively participated in the trials and tribulations of everyday life. They had responsibilities, families, employees, jobs, political concerns, etc. Stoicism appeals to me because it is based on facing real world problems in a real way. In this series of articles, I will look at some of the basic stoic philosophies because, yes, you guessed it, they fit in perfectly with Dressage.
Student: “Be honest with me. Will I ever get this?”
Me, answering with a straight face, but laughing on the inside, “Yes. You will. Just remember, you need two lifetimes before you will master Dressage.”
Why do I find this amusing? Am I full of baloney? Am I securing my paycheck by lying so she’ll continue taking expensive lessons? No. I am chuckling to myself because she is incapable of seeing the amount of progress she has made. She has improved her riding so much since her first lesson, but her self-critical attitude blinds her.
I have many students. On any given weekend, I am teaching eight or nine lessons each day. I have taught people who have never sat on a horse before their first lesson, and I have taught people who have ridden their entire lives. I have mentored women who don’t have an ounce of athletic talent, and I’ve instructed women who are naturals. I have developed perspective through experience.
Mastering Dressage is a daunting task. I think a small group of people on the planet have done so, and I am aware of some dead people who mastered it; I personally have not experienced this level of success. It is hard. If you don’t think it’s hard, you are Cleopatra, the Queen of Denial.
It is hard, but it is humanly possible, and you can do it.
A few tips to keep you sane:
- Find a trainer that you can work with. Some trainers are only good with horses and cannot teach. Some talented trainers teach but are motivated primarily by their own success in the show ring. Some instructors are great with people at a certain skill level, but not with beginners. Some trainers are only willing to work with owners with a certain breed of horse. Some pad their barn with clients who can make them look good in public. With an open mind, seek out the trainer for you. You are the client. Don’t settle for one who does not meet you where you are at with the horse you have, who does not lift you up and inspire you to try harder.
One clinician who taught at my barn told each of my clients over the course of the year, that each of them needed a new horse, or she could not help them anymore. One by one, each quit participating in clinics and eventually we could no longer employ this instructor to come teach us. One of the ladies this trainer estranged had a 30-year-old quarter horse. This trainer was not interested in teaching her. Fast forward 10 years. This same owner kept her horse in my barn until he died. She leased a mare from me, bred her, had a foal that she kept in my barn, put in training when he was three, all because I treated her well and met her where she was with the horse she had. About $72,000 later, she is still with me and owns one of the most talented horses I have ever trained. Lucky me. Our clinician was knowledgeable, and she advanced my education. She just had a niche of people and horses that she could help. Not her fault, but a bad fit for our barn.
- Find a horse you can partner with. That does not mean the most expensive, fanciest Warmblood with the biggest gaits that money can buy. That means a horse with a good heart that is willing to put up with your shit while you learn. A horse that is willing to put up with you and try hard is worth its weight in platinum. Find THAT horse. It may be any breed of any age. I don’t mean to imply that you will find a perfect horse that never gives you problems. You won’t. They all have some issue. They are horses. Every single one of them has some “thing” to overcome. None are perfect; pick a horse who is willing to partner and work with you.
I had a client come into my barn with a horse that I absolutely adored. He was a purebred Arabian that had tons of talent. He was amazing. He was the exact wrong horse for Lisa, his owner. When I took Lisa as a client, I did not know that this horse had already dumped her twice and fractured her shoulder. She fell off twice at my barn when the horse bolted. I put an end to that. Bye bye Mr. Talent, you are not a good match for your owner. Lisa searched on her own and found a little white 5-year-old Arabian who had about 30 days under saddle. He’s a strange little horse, and now, my ever increasingly anxious client owned him. I felt the impending disaster in my bones. I did not know if an inexperienced youngster would put up with an amateur rider. But Lisa put him in training, began taking lessons on Kiki the Wonder Horse, and sent her new horse to shows with me for experience. Now, every weekend, my 60-year-old client rides her little Arabian with joy in her heart. Her horse has turned out to be a pleasant little trooper. He’s the cutest horse and travels around for her steady as a rock, a safe and a good partner. Who would have guessed it? She stuck with it, trusted me, gave her horse the time, sharpened her skills on another horse, and now has her perfect dance partner. We’ll still have bumps in the road, but she’ll get there because she can work with this horse.
- Stick with it. Get fit. Hard truth. None of us is in perfect shape. None. Of. Us. If I am going to address the elephant in the room, pun intended, one common weakness of the average adult amateur is lack of fitness. This is not about your weight or if you look good in a swimsuit (I mean, really, I have so seldom been seen out of breeches, my legs are whiter than a fish belly). This is about fitness and the physical ability to stay with a 1,000 pound plus animal. The more athletic or lazy a horse is, the more work for the rider. The more exhausting for the rider. The harder it is to be effective if you are not fit. The challenge for the AA (Adult Amateur) is: you have a job and a family and a social life, etc. Who can devote every day to riding? Lucky for you, almost no one, so you are all in the same boat. So, what can you do? Simple. Exercise. Find what you can do, what you will do, and do it. Then, do it some more. I hate exercise. I hate it, hate it, hate it. But I found that, even though I am a professional in the horse business, I was not fit enough to ride as well as I aspired. Seven years ago, I started walking. As I walked (yuk, exercise), I paired an immediate reward with it to reinforce the behavior, I downloaded and listened to amazing audiobooks and only allowed myself to listen to them while I walked. I walked every day to and from my mailbox (.2 of a mile). Then I did it two times, then three. Eventually I turned and walked down my road. Now, I walk every day that I can, three to four miles. About a year and a half ago, I started running, working up to 3 to four miles. Not a huge accomplishment for some, but for me, a Big F$%#ng Deal. Before then, if you ever saw me running, you’d better take off too, because something mean is chasing me.
Last year I also added a daily Yoga practice. I found that as I got fit, I had the energy to last out the ten plus hours a day I spend in the barn. The aerobics added to my overall fitness and stamina, but the Yoga really helped my riding. An added benefit: I discovered that many of my old wear and tear injuries from riding completely disappeared. You must commit to increase your fitness apart from the time you spend on the horse!
- Do not let perfect be the enemy of the good. Since every day in Dressage is a struggle, you must celebrate your improvements. The student I referred to at the beginning has made tremendous progress, but she is not perfect. None are. But every day she criticizes herself and focuses on her imperfections. Two problems: first, her horse has no idea who she is unhappy with. The horse doesn’t know that my student is frustrated with herself and her own shortcomings, the horse just knows that her owner is unhappy with something. The horse is not very pleased with this and will eventually express some unhappiness. Second, if you never acknowledge that you are improving, you will quit, or the journey will be miserable. None of us are in this sport because we think we’ll eventually be perfect, or even great, we are in this sport for the journey. That is literally all we’ll have. Anything could happen on any day to end your riding forever or end the career of your horse. I don’t mean to be a Debbi Downer, but ALL you have is the journey, the process, what you are doing today. Be grateful and quit judging yourself.
Dressage is challenging, humbling, but, oh, so fulfilling, and since it is humanly possible to do it, you can too. Set yourself up for success.
See the next article…. The Stoics, Pt. 2…