2 Degrees Off Course is Still Off Course

One of my mentors is fond of pointing out that 2 degrees off is still 2 degrees off from the mark. In other words, you may be close to where you want to be, but you’re not hitting the bullseye yet.

The story is familiar: you start off on something, some grand new adventure or phase. Everything starts off great. You take steps regularly towards the bullseye. Everything is on course, aligned. Then you start to encounter some resistance. Maybe someone close to you makes an off-hand comment that stings. Or an unexpected expense occurs or some setback arises.

As things unravel from how you imagined they would go, doubt creeps in. You start to wonder if you should settle, if your target was off to begin with.

Slowly, you start to substitute your bullseye for the easier path, the path with a bit less resistance.

I started off this winter hitting the bullseye: I was mindful of my riding and professional goals and did things daily that brought me closer to them.

But as the winter progressed, fear crept in, doubt took over and soon the voices of “not enough,” “don’t know what I’m doing” and “need someone more qualified” took over. I was far more than 2 degrees off course.

Getting back on course is a decision and a discipline.

It requires a re-assertion of your goals, your priorities and your values. It takes saying a firm “no” to the things in your life that are not quite on point.

If you find yourself 2 (or more) degrees off course, try these steps:

  1. Go back and get super clear about what you want. Ignore what the present situation is or what you think is “feasible” — if you are being 110% honest with yourself, what is it that you desire to create in your riding or life?
  2. Where are you off course in your life? Typically, it won’t just be in one area, but to varying degrees in several areas. Does your riding (or life) reflect your priorities?
  3. Get clear: what are you willing to give up in order to get back on course? Think hard about this one, because the next step is…
  4. Identify what action(s) you need to take to move your riding (or life) back on target.

Good luck!

I’d love to hear from you in the comments section about what you are doing to get back on course.

 

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. 🙂

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.

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?

Mindset, Strategy and Exercises for Dressage Riders

Step into Your Zone of Genius

It doesn’t all depend on you.

Everyone has their zone of genius.

But to step into it, one must first release the need to know everything, the need to do everything, and to be all things.

You will never become the rider you were meant to be if you shut others out in the name of “self-reliance.” This can happen to an Olympic-level rider just as much as a backyard amateur. The best riders become that way because they acknowledge their strengths and can  effectively build a team around them to compliment their gifts.

Recognize what your chief contributions are, hone your strengths, but never stop trying new things. Welcome others to bring their talents to the table and to work from their zone of genius.

If you are an amateur rider, it can be altogether too easy to fall into the trap of dismissing your skills. Sure, you may not be a professional riding multiple horses a day or have a show record to hang your hat on, but you still have something unique and of value that you bring to the table.

The trick is to identify it.

Often, it emerges from mixing things up– whether you ride a different horse or take a lesson with someone new. Observe what is different about you. It maybe something discussed in negative terms, as a weakness. Maybe it is the approach you take; perhaps it is a particular skill set, like developing collection or suppleness. It may be a combination of several things. For instance, I was told by multiple people over years that I wasn’t a “strong enough” rider. As it turns out, my strength lies in giving horses self-confidence.

Whatever it is, once you find it– hold onto it. Nurture it. Grow it. Let it become bigger than you.

What is your “zone of genius” with horses? What strengths do you need to surround yourself with to capitalize on it?

Teach the Horse to Seek the Reward

You cannot praise your horse enough.

The more you reward him–appropriately– the more he’ll learn to seek your praise. It is always a win-win.

One of the biggest mistakes I see riders make is being stingy with their praise. Maybe  they are unobservant to the moment that they should offer praise or just plain ol’ afraid to praise their horse– but the result is the same: horses that receive little praise progress slower.

As a rider, it is YOUR job to provide opportunities for the horse to earn your praise– and to follow through with it.

Uncertain about when to reward him?

Praise him when he tries for you.

Praise him when he takes a takes a risk and successfully does something new for you.

Praise him when he finally connects all of the dots on his own and learns.

Praise him when he shows improvement.

Reward him in the moment– as soon as he gives you what you want. This cannot be stated enough. In order for the horse to pair his behavior with your desire, you HAVE TO praise him as SOON AS he gives you what you want.

Praise can take various forms:

  1. “Good boy”
  2. Wither scratch with a finger
  3. Quick walk break
  4. Pat on the neck/Make a big fuss
  5. Sugar cube/treat

If you reward him for doing the norm or the expected, you lower your standards– and with it– his performance level.

If you praise him for making a mistake, you’ve taught him that mistake is what you want & you will get more of the same mistake.

Once you have praised him for doing something, drop the subject and move on. Otherwise the horse will became confused and resentful– and your praise will be cheapened as a motivational tool.

Reward often because you teach him new things often. Praise him because you teach him to improve often. Reward him because he takes a risk for you.

Praise often because you want a willing partner who tries his heart out for you.

Do you frequently give the horse the opportunity to seek reward?

Riding Sloppy…or Not?

Art emerges when we accept the horse as he is and begin to work from there.

Creativity begins when we take the training work and make it into a little game for the horse.

Someone once told me I was a fun rider to watch. For a few minutes there, I stood there, not understanding where the compliment came from. The horse I was on was a lower level horse, just starting to play with Second Level lateral work– so it couldn’t have been from riding the “exciting” moves or from all of the power and precision that upper level horses have. Then it dawned on me– that particular ride I had ridden like a little kid on their pony at a gymkhana.

As I juggled trying to have a productive ride while navigating the arena traffic and around the jumps in the small arena, there were many unexpected maneuvers. Instead of simply staying on the same circle, I made the most of the situation by adding in serpentines, leg-yields, lengthenings, all the while trying to add in travers and shoulders-in. It almost became a game.

Fun is infectious.

That ride might have appeared sloppy to an onlooker because nothing was percise.  To me, I did my best to make the most of an otherwise aggravating situation. To my horse, the ride was a game, not work.

Mixed in the spontaneity, our turns became smaller, collected gaits more confirmed and balance refined.

By having fun–and a sense of humor– I accomplished more through the chaos than if I had been the only rider in the arena.

What situations can you take advantage of to infuse your ride with fun? How can you make training be like a game to your horse?