There is no question that dressage horse riding is a challenge. And you certainly can’t spell Dressage without ego. Oh, yes you can. As a matter of fact, ego has no place in Dressage, literally. Ryan Holiday, a modern writer on Stoicism, observes in his book, Ego Is the Enemy….
“We must be humble in our aspirations, gracious in our success and resilient in our failure.”Ryan Holliday
Sara called me several years ago looking for some help. We found an appropriate horse for her, and she began showing, participating in clinics, etc. Always an eager student, she made it known that her true desire was to show. Like me, she had shown Arabians in the “round ring”, and, like me, she loved to show. She was somewhat new to Dressage, but she had shown before, so, hey, why not? How much different could Dressage be than what she used to do? How hard could it be?
We hadn’t owned her new horse more than two weeks before showing. I remember Sara was so excited and her new horse, the famous Kiki (see, “That Horse”) also loved showing. Luckily. At her first show, I watched as Sara forgot what direction she was going on a circle. She also had the bad luck of showing to one of the crankiest, nastiest judges I have ever experienced. Kind, constructive criticism was not his thing. Many an exhibitor exited at A with a new butthole. Sara didn’t care, she was SHOWING.
Dressage requires discipline
At the time, she was not humble in her aspirations. For one, she did not have a grasp the core of Dressage: the partnership, the journey with your horse. It is learning a new language. I love to show, but I keep in mind that the judge’s opinion is a guide to tell me where my horse and I are in our training on that particular day at that particular venue. I compete only against my own personal best. When higher honors happen, great. When they don’t, great. Sara didn’t get that. She wanted to show and do the test perfectly and win. An arduous student, she couldn’t quite connect the dots that Dressage horse riding is not merely a series of tasks to perform correctly.
Well, the gods of Dressage had a few things planned. Sara wanted to move up the levels. When Kiki got older and became a little too stiff to get the good scores, we found Sara a new horse. Although young, he was cute as a button with good gaits, and he seemed suited to Dressage. He didn’t have a lot of ambition, but sometimes that is exactly what you need for an amateur mount. Unfortunately, what he didn’t have was a lot of patience for the kind of repetitive rehearsal that amateur riders often need.
Your Horse is an Equal Partner
We did well with him, Multiple Regional Champion, USEF Regional Horse of the Year, etc. Then Sara had an unfortunate show. He started to get pissy and realized he didn’t need to work for her, that “No” is an option. In Sara’s defense, she didn’t cause this, her clever little Arab figured it out all on his own. After this show, he tested the waters by gradually refusing to do more and more tasks. Very quickly he made both of us humble in our aspirations.
Sara, to her undeniable credit, rolled with the punches. We tried everything: changes in tack, bits, veterinary tests, chiropractors and massages, until we came to the mutual conclusion that her horse does not like Dressage and the work it entails. Last week in a lesson she mentioned that she thought of her old attitude: just wanting to show, and how her attitude had changed to, “I just want to ride well.” I could have cried. She spoke the most important words a rider could utter.
Stick with it through thick and thin
Why, because despite all of her success, and she and her horses had been very successful, she was humble and gracious enough to realize that all we have is every day that we ride. All we have is each day’s work, each day’s attempt to ride well. That is worth every penny that any of us spend on this sport. All you have is the attempt to ride well every day. To keep your temper, expectations and ambition in check; to push yourself, and your horse appropriately out of your comfort zones. In Dressage, there is no destination. You are always on the journey.
BECAUSE Sara realized this, she can be resilient. I mentioned that Sara had been very successful. Because of the distance she must travel, she doesn’t get to ride as often as she’d like. One of our first clinicians told Sara that she would never reach her goals because she couldn’t ride often enough. Did Sara quit? No. She persisted! She was resilient. When Kiki couldn’t get the scores as she got older, did Sara give up? No. When the new, cute as a button wonder horse turned on her, did she stop? No. We came up with a plan. She kept riding and trying hard. She kept trying hard to ride well.
Top Three Characteristics for Dressage Riding
These three characteristics: humility, graciousness, and resilience are necessary to this sport. Humility because you are constantly opening yourself up to criticism, sometimes from your instructor, sometimes from a judge, sometimes from people who think you need their opinion, and sometimes from cruel voices in your own head telling you that you are not good enough, that you can’t learn, that you can’t ride well. Humility also because you have a partner in Dressage. Your horse. One must be humble and listen to the horse’s input.
Practice these virtues
When Sara’s new horse expressed a distaste for the discipline of Dressage horse riding, we had to move on. We had to listen. Your horse gives you feedback all the time. Sometimes it is difficult to discern what the horse wants or needs, but you must be humble and attempt to find out. During a training session, the horse resists. Is the resistance disobedience? Is it lack comprehension? Are you asking something that is too complex or difficult for the horse to perform? Put your ego aside and evaluate what is going on.
Sometimes we think the horse “should” be able to perform in a certain way, so we get harsh or demanding, when indeed, he just could not perform the task. In this I am thinking of collection, self-carriage, impulsion, but it can also refer to canter walk transitions, half pass, flying changes. We must approach each of these tasks with a certain amount of humility and empathy if we expect to be successful. Anything produced by force cannot be beautiful.
Must Be Gracious in Dressage
Gracious because we need to be indebted and grateful for every part of the machine that contributes to our education. The horse who teaches us the value of a partnership with an animal; the horse who must put up with our shit. The mentors who have guided us along the path, whether they are trainers, judges or fellow amateurs. Support from our families. From the economic freedom to pursue a passion like Dressage horse riding. Also, from the people who clean our horse’s stall, deliver the feed, bale the hay, groom the arena, keep them comfortable on their feet. That 45 minutes we spend riding our horses, trying to form a partnership is supported by a whole group of people behind the scenes. We need to be grateful and gracious.
Like the verse in the New Testament. “Cast your bread upon the water…” What you give, you will receive back. For instance, sometimes you are the star of the show or clinic. Sometimes your horse is performing better than expectations. Sometimes your fellow rider, whether in your own barn or the person stalling next to you at the show, is having a rough time of it. Also, sometimes her horse just isn’t working right, sometimes he just doesn’t connect with the clinician, sometimes she is the whipping boy of a particular judge. In these times, be gracious because, my friend, and I guarantee this, next time it will be you who needs lifting.
Resilience is important in Dressage
Resilient because, as I’ve mentioned, Dressage horse riding is hard. Sometimes life does not cooperate. You are making progress, then you are shot down by the flu. Your horse gets an abscess. Your family requires some extra attention that disrupts your schedule. As a barn owner and trainer, life is always throwing me a curve ball. The stall help doesn’t show up, or quits, sometimes during a clinic or as I am preparing for a show. Sometimes I must stop my training because I need to stand with the vet or farrier. Sometimes, I’m just tired of meeting everyone else’s needs. What do you do? Do you give up? That’s up to you. Do you let your inner voice criticize you so much that you stop wanting to try? Do you take your frustrations out on your horse?
The answer is complex, because, yes, sometimes you do. You fall apart with the pressure that life exerts on you. Then you have a choice. Like coal under pressure becomes a diamond, do you choose to become better? Do you get back up again after you fall off? Start your exercise program again? Do you go ride on your own? Do you keep showing up? Yes, you do, because that is resilience. The choice to continue in the face of obstacles. The obstacle in the way becomes the way.
Humility, graciousness, and resilience. Once again, the characteristics that you must have to become a good rider are also the characteristics that you want to cultivate in your own life.