Where’s the Fun?

Are you having fun?

My husband asks me this from time to time after I come home from the barn. I try not to do too much “horse talk” around him, but perhaps I should tell him more about how things are going.

I digress.

Back to the question.

It’s hard to put into words the feeling when your stingy horse generously decides to become a piaffing machine or offer quality well beyond what you ask for. I know HE’S having fun—but am I?

Unlike the adrenaline rush that my jumping compatriots have, dressage lends itself better to a deep joy and quiet satisfaction. I wouldn’t live WITHOUT those moments—for sure. They are what keep me coming back to the barn, day after day, spending 3-4 hours sitting in traffic just to experience them, yet again.

I’m a fairly lazy rider and don’t like the feeling of working hard in the saddle, with aching abs and sweat pouring down my face, so unlike my gym-junkie friends, burning muscles is NOT what keeps me coming back.

I come back because it is easy. It is joyful. And there is a certain grace about it that pulls me in.

It is not more fun than a barrel full of monkeys. Sure, there are times when I laugh. But most of the time, it is my soul’s equivalent of sitting back and drinking in the last of the tropical sunset, watching the sea turtles play in the surf, with a glass of freshly squeezed pineapple juice in hand.

There is not much better than that.

Are you tyrannized by time?

There’s a scarcity mindset buried so deep in the consciousness of sport dressage, that many seem hardly bothered by it’s presence anymore.

Just like the White Rabbit in Alice and Wonderland, frantically running around with pocket watch in hand, there is a similar sense of urgency in the consciousness of riders, trainers, and owners everywhere.

The Olympics are coming! WEG! Pan-Am Games! Championships!

Unfortunately, to the determent of dressage—particularly the horses—this sense of not having enough time manifests itself in a variety of ways:

  • Pushing for more than the horse is physically capable of sustaining over a long period of time
  • Relaxing standards of acceptable training, so what once was considered unacceptable is now deemed acceptable, even to the point of fully embodying an ideal
  • Shifts focus from quality of partnership to what can be done
  • Can create a sense of stress, anxiety and “never enough” that permeates other areas of dressage, outside of the arena

For many years, I lived with a deep sense of not having enough time because I was always chasing competitive goals (NAJYRC, Brentina Cup, championships). It robbed me of a lot of the joy I had when I started riding dressage, because I was constantly concerned about whether I wasn’t good enough to realize my competitive goals and/or was falling behind to achieve them. This left me feeling stressed, anxious, doubting myself, and quite frankly, unhappy. I experienced major health problems from the stress and spent thousands of dollars on unnecessary things that I thought would help keep me on target to achieve my goals.

As you might have guessed—I didn’t achieve them.

In turning my health around, learned a few things about throwing off the tyranny of the White Rabbit and his ever-ticking pocket watch. Here’s what I learned.

  • It all comes down to priorities. I’m going to be blunt here—I see more professionals care about achievement than the horse’s welfare. I get it: no ribbons or accomplishments, no getting students to meet ambitious goals = no income. I’m pointing the figure at myself: I am a former professional and know firsthand the difficult balance between client’s horse/goals and income. It takes someone of exceptional character to keep the well-being of the horse above ambition and any financial concerns. Unfortunately, it also filters down to the JR/YRs who grow up to be professionals and serious adult amateurs.
  • The importance of goal/situation alignment. In a lot of the situations contributing to my experience of “never enough time,” I was not well set up to achieve the goals I wanted to achieve. I needed to have many more conversations than I did with my trainer, parents and other stakeholders about changing present situations to be better positioned to achieve my goals.
  • Scarcity of time meant that I was a slave to something. Rather than having my goals serve me by facilitating who I wanted to become, I ended up serving my goals.

If you feel tyrannized by a sense of not having enough time, here are 3 actions you can take:

Check in with yourself on your priorities. Goals and priorities tend to shift as time goes along. What you thought was most important may not be so important any more. That’s OK! Accept these changes and recalibrate.

Find a schoolmaster. Inexperienced rider + inexperienced horse + looming deadline is a recipe for White Rabbit tyranny. To free yourself of the White Rabbit, one of the three ingredients needs to change. If you goal is most important, find a schoolmaster so you can take the time to build your skills, experience and confidence at the level you want to ride or show at in a way that is fair to the horse. If one particular horse is more important than the show, than remove the deadline. If you are both there by then, Great!  you hit the jackpot.

Change your relationship to time. Gay Hendricks shares in his book, The Big Leap, a simple belief you can adopt to help you switch from having finite time to infinite time. That belief? “I am the source of time and I can make as much of it as I need.” To facilitate switching paradigms, Hendricks invites people to ask themselves “Where in my life am I not taking full ownership?”  If you think that time is outside of you and you must fit into it, then you are victimizing yourself (and your poor horse!) rather than owning the time that you DO have.

Bottom line: if you find yourself experiencing the tyranny of “not enough time”—you’ve lost the heart of what dressage is all about.

Permission to be horrible: Granted

Are you letting yourself be bad or are you trying to hold everything together in the name of, well, having it all together and being “good” at something?

The greatest source of stress in my life these days comes from when I believe I have to keep it all together. That I have to be good at something.

The greatest areas of freedom in my life are the areas where I have given myself permission to be bad. When I first started riding again, I gave myself permission to be bad. Horrible, even. I was 3+ years out of the saddle, and only 2 months back into semi-regular exercise (yoga). My health had given way on me, and I figured that as long as I could walk, trot, canter and still stay upright and on the intended figure, I was doing alright.

But in letting myself be bad, really, truly, bad—I found freedom.

The freedom to experiment. The freedom to connect with my horse (thanks, Gani!). The freedom to laugh at myself and most of all, the freedom to have fun again in the saddle.

When I ride, I don’t have to be perfect. I ride to the best of my abilities in the moment and let things sort themselves out. I have my trainer to help me become a better version of the rider I am, and the horse to tell me what works (and does not). My trainer isn’t a screamer, so I never feel pressure to perform or be more than what I am in the moment.

Given everything I’ve just written, you’d think that I’d have this whole “failure-thing” down pat.

I don’t.

There are times where I still try to hold everything together and be “good enough.” This isn’t my first time bringing a horse up the levels, but there are still plenty of times where I’m hard on myself, feeling like I should have things more figured out than I do.  Time and time again, I have to give myself permission to be bad. Horrible. Permission to make mistakes. Permission to learn.

It can be frustrating when you think

Yet, as item after item gets crossed off my list on what I want to feel, of what I want to be able to do in the saddle, as 2 good collected strides become 5, which in turn become 10, I can see the FEI horse emerging, becoming stronger and more real, ride by ride.

Then I remind myself to be bad, have fun and enjoy the ride.

Mindset, Strategy and Exercises for Dressage Riders

Self-Expression is Magic

The moment when a horse finds self-expression in dressage is magic.

It is one thing for the rider to go around the arena, using a combination of exercises and figures to teach the horse the principles of dressage.

It is an entirely different matter when something clicks for the horse, and instead of just going through the motions, he begins to express himself, to add his own artistic flare to the exercise and figures.

One cannot simply ‘teach’ the horse to express himself, much in the same way a beginner dancer cannot be taught flare and expression. It takes a certain level of familiarity with the dance steps and environment– a feeling of safety– before a dancer will begin to experiment with creating their own style. Feeling safe is key to self-expression.

Horses need the same sense of ‘safety’ and familiarity. They need to trust the rider and the strength of their hindquarters before they will start offering a glimmer of pizazz to the movements and figures.

There is no formula to get there– only consistency and repetition in asking the horse for the same thing in training. When the thought of self-expression comes, the rider must be there to quickly fan the flame: not to force or demand it, but to quickly encourage and channel it.

The rider must be careful not to squash the thought of expression when it comes; dressage is as much of an artistic expression for the horse as it is for the rider. Snuffing out early glimmers of expression only makes it more difficult to develop in the future.

Is your horse going around the arena doing the exercises and figures, or is he as much of an artist as you?

Do You Take Your Inner Child Along for the Ride?

Dressage riders have a reputation for being so serious and heavy.

They lightened up the freestyle music to encompass pop and even –gasp!– some vocal music, but even that hasn’t fundamentally lightened up dressage riders.

Watching a couple of kids ride sometimes feels like the antithesis of dressage riders. They often egg each other on, daring each other to try new things, to take bigger and bigger risks until their limits are reached– or they scare the adults too much!

In the midst of their games, their riding begins to take shape:

  • Their seats become more secure and independent from testing their balance on the horse so frequently.
  • The horses become increasingly responsive and animated as they catch on to the games.
  • A partnership of mutual trust forms as risks are successfully taken.

As kids grow older, many turn their attention to eventing and jumping– natural extensions of their earlier games.

However, as a dressage rider, do you also take your inner child along for the ride?

Do you “dare” yourself and your horse to go bigger, to execute a more daring combination of moves…or do you keep it safe and “known?”

Do you lose all inhibition when you ride, or in the back of your mind, are you concerned about what others might think, might say about your riding?

Do you laugh when you ride, deep, heart-felt laughs?

When was the last time you didn’t care if you made a mistake because you were having fun?

Dressage is an expression of a feeling; let that feeling be child-like joy.

Does your inner child have a say in your riding?

Are You Set Up For Success?

Riding dressage is a lot like baking– the outcome is determined by the preparation.

There is little a baker can do to control the outcome of the baked good once it is placed in the oven. Similarly, whatever you ask the horse to do, whether it is a flying change or a simple walk-trot transition, how you set the horse up for the movement determines its quality. There is very little you can do to make a mediocre flying change great once the horse’s legs are in the air. By that time, it’s too late.

It blew my mind when I learned that all of the moves I found tricky to ride well– expressive flying changes, fluid half-passes, clean canter-walk transitions were simply outcomes of how I prepared the horse. At last, all of the judge’s comments on my dressage tests made sense! “Needs expression,” “better preparation needed,” “rider needs better use of corners and half-halts.”

Riding into corners and riding a clear, clean half-halt where the horse redistributes his weight onto his hindquarters for a brief moment are certainly helpful, but preparation doesn’t begin there.

Preparation begins when the horse first learns to carry a rider, and in Training Level. It occurs as the horse moves from Training to First Level, then onto Second. Unless you are on a solid Grand Prix horse, you are always in preparation.

It goes deeper than moving a horse up the levels, but is in the minutia of how exactly you move up the levels. The more you teach the horse to do things correctly from the beginning, the less time (and wear and tear on the horse’s body) you spend correcting him. It separates the good riders from the mediocre ones.


The art is in how you prepare.


Are you riding the movement only– or are you riding the preparation?

Like Cement Drying

Dressage is occasionally called a “long obedience in the same direction,” although the colloquial “like watching cement dry” is a more apt descriptor.

As 2017 concludes, I’m impatient for the things that 2018 will bring. There are lots of good things in store planned– like the WAMS podcast– but like a child in a candy store, I want it all now, RIGHT NOW.

The thing about dressage is that one must learn to walk the fine line of patience and moving the bar forward. Too much moving the bar and you are bound to lose the quality of the basics. Too much staying in one spot, and you’ll never know what all you could do with your horse. Dressage riders are skilled tightrope artists, indeed.

Ambition is the enemy of patience.

Ambition for a dressage rider is a like a type of greed: it tells you to have more, to get it faster than it will come naturally, that achievement is greater than the journey and partnership to get there in the first place.

And yet– the desire to be more, to learn more, to seek continual improvement is like oxygen. It teaches us to keep stepping forward, to keep testing the dryness of the cement because we know that one day, we’ll come out and whatever it is– a canter-walk transition, a smaller circle, a series of flying changes or even steps of piaffe– will happen. The cement will be dry.

Patience is active. It is keeping ourselves from fidgeting, yet not detaching from boredom. Patience is uncomfortable.

What areas in your riding do you need to cultivate patience? Where do you waver between ambition and boredom?