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Mindset, Strategy and Exercises for Dressage Riders

An open letter to those seeking a different way

An open letter to those seeking a different way,

I am beyond grateful for you and encouraged by you.  I see your desire to walk a different path than the one offered by mainstream dressage.

I SO admire your passion and bravery—both for the sport, for the horses and for yourself. Your desire to be the best you can be, to be the rider you KNOW you can be—is what brings me back to my writing chair day after day.

You are the one seeking something different.

You are not content to force the arrival of a destination. You are the one who wants to honor the horse AND the journey.

And yet—you are not content sitting there, watching progress come inching in.

You want to be a great rider and you want to become a great rider NOW. You EXPECT improvement. You EXPECT to be in a better place today than you were last week. You EXPECT to progress through the levels. You are not content to top out as a “6” rider barely making it through a 2-1 test. Yeah, you know who I am talking about. That person is not you and you know it.

Most of all, you long to know that it is POSSIBLE. Possible to become the incredible rider that you dream of being without the millions of dollars or riding 10 horses a day. Possible to reach Grand Prix without a fancy 6-figure horse. Possible to progress through the levels with a happy horse and a genuinely harmonious partnership. You look around and see ineffective riders who don’t use force barely make it into the mid-levels of dressage and those who do make it to the upper reaches use brute force…but is there another way?

Dressage is a choice. You could choose to jump or play polo or trail ride, but you chose dressage. In dressage, you choose the struggle, you choose to make it difficult or complicated. You chose that it requires brute physical strength and tight muscles to progress—or you choose to let it be easy. You can choose the path of least resistance and flow or you can choose struggle and discord.

Dressage is easy. There is nothing that the masters haven’t already commented on or instructed us about. There is nothing new in training. There is nothing we need to create or come up with. It’s all there. The principles, the exercises, the mistakes and corresponding remedies– everything is laid out for us.

Dressage is a process. If you are serious about reaching Grand Prix or the upper levels of training, you must submit to the process. There are no shortcuts in the process if you want to end with quality. Quality begets quality. Habits must slowly, carefully, intentionally be cultivated and put in place. Progress is achieved step by step, day by day in our hearts, minds and the strength of the horse’s loins.

The question remains: do you willingly submit to the process?

The choice is  yours.

I SO honor your personal equestrian journey and your choice to join me here.

We’re in this together.

Much love and happy riding,

Meredith

PS- Did you hear? The Mindful Rider is opening Sunday. Will you join me for 14 days of mindset work that helped me create my success in the saddle? Details coming soon. Begins August 1st!

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Mindset, Strategy and Exercises for Dressage Riders

Are Partners Really Equal?

Horses and riders in dressage are often talked about in dressage as being “partners” or “dance partners” or “co-equals.” Yet, as I stand outside the arena, I observe that all horse and rider partnerships fall into one of 3 categories:

  1. Horse dominates; passenger rider

In this arrangement, the horse has the greatest say. Although, to the untrained eye, this arrangement may appear “correct” and “harmonious” with little resistance, The presence of the horse greater than the rider’s is an indicator that they are mismatched. From the box at C, I observe a lot of timid riders who are fearful and unable to effectively influence their horse.

  1. Rider commands; horse obeys

This second arrangement is no better than the first and is so common in some areas, that it is perceived as normal. Although the horse may appear willing and obedient, they can appear to have “wooden” expression. Under this arrangement, riders commonly use force to get horses to submit and be obedient. In my experience, horses in these arrangements tend to be less confident and spookier, although that is not always the case.

  1. Horse and rider co-create

This is when the magic happens. Unlike the other two scenarios in which one partner exerted more influence over the other, here they are in constant dialogue with each other. Unlike in Scenario 2, in which the rider exerts the greater influence and the horse is expected to adjust himself accordingly, here, they both ask and adjust to each other. The rider may suggest something—and then sit back and wait for the horse’s feedback. This collaboration creates art and self-expression.

If you aren’t there already with your horse, here are some steps you can take to bring you closer to co-creating with your horse:

  1. Let go of the “shoulds,” “need tos,” and “musts”

Anytime you bring a sense of obligation to your ride—whether it is pushing to meet a deadline or a sense that something *must* be obtained right here, right now—you block the horse’s ability to co-create with you. Surrender it all.

  1. Prioritize partnership

Make your horse’s mental (and physical) well-being a priority. When the horse begins to feel safe to express themselves and learn at their own pace, you’ll be amazed at how they’ll start to work with you and offer new depths of expression. Training becomes much easier and more harmonious. Soon, you’ll be riding quality you never knew you had.

  1. Have fun!

When you’re focused on enjoying the ride, you’re naturally more receptive to partnering with your horse. You are also more likely to praise your horse more freely—which in term, helps them to relax, enjoy the work and encourages them to partner with you.

If you recognize that you are in an arrangement described in Scenario 1, talk to your instructor or trainer about your concerns. It is important for you to be well-matched with your horse for your physical (as well as emotional) safety. Many riders compromise their physical safety when they horses who are dominate, because they cannot effectively influence the horse when the horse becomes frightened or decides to be naughty. Your well-being is more important than staying in an arrangement with a dominate horse, no matter how pretty or talented or special he may be!

Should you recognize that you are the rider in Scenario 2 who expects their horses to be obedient and submissive and is not afraid to use force to get there—know that you can choose to have a differently structured relationship with your horse. That choice is always available to you. You simply need to decide that you want to experience harmony and willing cooperation with your horse. He is always waiting for you to give him the opportunity to co-create with you. The choice is yours. 🙂

Whose voice do you follow, really?

You are the one that you have been waiting for.

There is a time in every rider’s life, where it is time to step into what you know. Time to back yourself, to let your intuition and years of learning lead the way. To let those twin guides be the loudest voice in your life– louder than the doubts of your mind, louder than the voice of any instructor or clinician, no matter how good they may be, and louder than any client.

Only you are in the saddle. Only you are in that moment.

No matter how well intended the instruction or how good of an eye, you are the only one who is answerable to the horse.  And you WILL answer to the horse.

It is up to you to forge a partnership, to make them a willing partner. No one else can do it for you; you must go at it alone.

Learning dressage takes a guide. Despite the many written texts the riding masters left us, it is a skill still primarily passed down from person to person.

Yet, there comes a time when you realize that you have a system, an approach of your own. You realize you know what you are looking for at a particular level– a certain feeling, a particular series of responses from the horse– and you realize you know how to create it.

At this point, you need to dig deep and back yourself. Trust your knowledge and intuition. Create what you know how to create. Push forward and discover what you know– and what you do not. Here, it is of upmost importance that you let your intuition and knowledge be the loudest voices. If you continue to “outsource” to an instructor or coach, you will lose faith in yourself and stunt your development.

Later, when you reach the edge of your knowledge and experience again, and you find yourself in new territory, you can let the voice of your coach once again take center stage.

If you haven’t experienced a “confirm” stage yet in your riding journey and you’ve been riding for awhile… trust yourself and let your intuition take center stage.

You know more than you think you know.

50 Shades of Gray (Ethics, not Erotica)

Something hasn’t sat well with me since my last ride (a couple days ago– I’ve been traveling):

That is the use of force.

We were working on an exercise that required me to tap-tap-tap gently with the whip in a rhythm. My horse when through the exercise fine, but it revealed something unsettling about my own skill level. Namely, I wasn’t skilled enough to lighten the use of the whip while still using it rhythmically.

I couldn’t go touch-touch-touch with it or even tap-touch-touch or tap-touch-tap. It was like I was stuck in one gear when I needed to have a variable speed. I need to be able to vary the use of aid support/force even while using it in a cadence and be able to lighten it, not just add to it.

Most riders and trainers, I suspect, would not be bothered by this.

A trainer friend recently ventured to say that probably 95% of the dressage trainers out there cross the line of abuse with horses. 95%!! Dressage can hardly be art if abuse is that prevalent.

While most of the trainers I know genuinely are compassionate people who love horses and dressage, the unfortunate fact is that the door to abuse opens when welfare tradeoffs are made. This isn’t to point fingers at anyone (I was a professional once; I know how hard it can be), but to point out that there is a lot of gray area in training ethics.

As the late Egon von Neindorff said, “Where skill ends, abuse begins.”

It is that subtle. It is as subtle as getting stuck tap-tap-tapping in a rhythm while doing a training exercise. It’s as subtle as pushing a horse for a little bit more than they are able to give to please an owner or try for a competition. It’s time for the horse world to start having open conversations about financial sustainability and the relationship between day-to-day training – even at backyard places—and money.

I don’t have easy answers for this one. Not with myself, not with the greater dressage community. I’m taking the step forward and a hard look at myself in the mirror and to start acknowledging the fine lines of where my skill ends.

I invite others to do the same.

Let’s Talk About Your Fear

There’s a popular quote by George Addair the internet loves–

George Addair quote

While Addair’s sentiments are admirable, he leaves his audience with a sense that fear is a line to step over, a wall to punch through or a glass ceiling to shatter. Fear is something to combat. Once you’ve won, you are in paradise.

Yet, for most of us, fear is a conduit. It is not a line or a wall or a ceiling. It is a tunnel that transports and transforms us into being who we are meant to be. It is a tardis that takes us to a place beyond our imaginations.

Only by stepping into the fear, only by leaning in to the discomfort, we can be taken to the other side. It is not something to fight, but shows us the way through to greater freedom/peace/harmony/trust.

Fear is not something to be combated, stuffed down, or disregarded. It asks to be acknowledged, honored, respected– but at the end of the day, it does not get to be in the driver’s seat of your aspirations and dreams.

Over a decade ago, I had a riding accident that put me in the ICU. As a result, I became a timid rider. To this day, I still consider myself a timid rider. This surprises a lot of people who watch me ride, because it is not readily apparent. However, I have made it a practice every.single.time I get on a horse, regardless of how many times I have ridden that particular horse or how many other horses I rode that day, to acknowledge and honor my fear. Then, I choose to move through it and let joy, creativity and my dreams drive the car.

It works every time.

 

 

 

 

The Stories We Tell

The stories we tell ourselves are powerful.

They have the power to keep us in one spot, hitting the same wall in a perpetual Groundhog’s Day or the power to liberate us to achieve, succeed, conquer.

They can be as innocent as “I don’t know how to do that” or as overt as “If I do that, then great harm will come to me or my horse.”

The stories we tell ourselves are sneaky: they feel true and there may be a component of truth to them, but they are not necessarily true. That’s why they have so much power over us.

Driving out to the barn this morning, I realized I had a mental block around riding without stirrups in the outdoor arena. I take regular lunge lessons in the enclosed indoor arena so I’m fine riding without stirrups there. But there was something about the openness about the outdoor arena that made me afraid. The story I caught telling myself was, “If I ride without stirrups in the outdoor arena, my horse will buck and I will fall off and get injured.”

This is the voice of fear keeping me small.

It’s a story. And it’s irrational.

My horse has never ever, ever bucked. Not riderless on the lunge line. Not under saddle. And as far as anyone at the barn can remember, not even free in the pasture. There is some question if he actually knows how to buck because he keeps his legs on the ground so much. The likelihood of him suddenly figuring out how to buck and displaying uncharacteristic behavior simply because I dropped my stirrups is low. Very low.

Moreover, my horse is the exact same in the outdoor arena as he is the indoor. No spooking, no bolting, no bucking, no gawking, no nada. Since he doesn’t display different behavior from one arena to the next with stirrups, it is highly unlikely and irrational that he would start displaying wildly different behavior between the two arenas instantaneously simply because I dropped my stirrups.

Moving into my fear, I dropped my stirrups during my ride. Guess what? Nothing happened.

My horse didn’t start displaying wildly different behavior in the outdoor arena than in the indoor one.

He didn’t suddenly learn how to buck.

Instead, he shortened his stride a bit so I could more easily follow him with my seat– something he does on the lunge in the indoor arena.

What I gained from this ride was deeper trust in him and in my own seat. I found another level of depth to my seat and ease in my position.

Moreover, when I stopped being afraid and saw my fear for what it was– a story– I had more fun riding.

What stories are you telling yourself that keep you playing small?

Lamp Lights

Plateauing is never fun.

For the first day it may be (“Hey look, I’m the same as I was yesterday. Hooray!!”), but another ride or two and the “Crud. I’m stuck.” feeling sets in.

In reality, we’ve probably plateaued every 3 weeks and we’re in a holding pattern until the hindquarters are strong enough to continue increasing demands again. But it feels different.

Everything is starting to feel murky. I start second-guessing myself on how to handle situations to keep us marching on towards Grand Prix.

Here’s the thing: it is all a feeling.

While I feel like I am closing in on the edge of my experience base, in actuality I have been in this phase before: I’ve ridden schoolmasters at a higher level than where I am now; I’ve trained other horses through this phase, including my most recent horse.

Feeling like I on the edge of my experience base here is a story (an unhelpful one) that I am telling myself to justify my doubt and second-guessing. It keeps me playing small instead of boldly reaching towards the FEI levels.

When I set aside my self-doubt and fears for a moment and ask myself what exercises did I use on the previous horses and what feelings did I look for when they were in this stage, the way forward is clear: transitions, transitions, transitions, circle work and half-passes.

The answer is always inside of me, even when I doubt myself.

At some point in the future, I will be in new territory again. But not here, not now. When I DO enter that new territory, I will have the Masters and a host of mentors to show me the way.

 

These things are lamp lights for me. They show me the path forward, even when I am uncertain.

What lamp lights do you have that exist to show you the way forward?