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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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.

Honest Feedback– Can You Take It?

The most honest feedback you will ever receive about your riding comes from…you.

So often, we look at what we want to feel when we ride—feelings like joy, the horsepower beneath us, the grace of a half-pass or the magical feeling of self-carriage—that we get lost in what we felt when we rode and cease to pay attention to how we feel after the ride.

Sure, there’s the afterglow.

But once that subsides, deeper feelings bubble up. These feelings are the most important of all because they provide feedback, more honest than any instructor or judge about your riding.

This gut-check tells us when we are quietly trying to force something. When we are not honest with ourselves or being entirely fair to the horses. It tells us when we are running from our fears. It alerts us to when our sport has overruled our art.

There was a time where after I rode, I would feel a quiet sense of relief. As I explored that feeling, I realized that I was beginning to experience performance anxiety before the ride, which would get pushed aside in the hustle to get the horse ready or in my haste to check the “ride today” box and move onto the next thing. The feeling of relief after I rode was more difficult to push aside or “mute” than the feelings before I rode.

Likewise, I always know I am on the right track if I feel like I have shed layers of skin—like a snake. No matter how discombobulated I may feel in the saddle, the malting snake feeling let’s me know I am becoming the rider I am meant to become.

What do you feel after you ride?

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?

A Harmonious Partnership Begins With Willingness

Train the horse’s mind and you will succeed in training his body.

Horses want to win, they want to try for their rider, they want to know that they are successful and they want their effort to be rewarded. Train this, and you’ll bring the horse through the levels quickly.

When you’re training a young horse or bringing a horse up the levels, train them to be willing. Reward them for trying, make a correction, ask them to try again. Make a huge fuss when they get it right. Making a mistake is trivial– not trying is a much bigger, much deeper training problem that is harder to correct later on.

So many times, I see horses that won’t give something unless the rider asks for it with laser-point accuracy. While those type of horses make the rider good, it also means that somewhere along the way, the horse shut down and stopped being willing.

An indicator of a willing horse is that they will try, even when the rider doesn’t have things quite right. At the end of the day, the horse– out of the goodness and generosity of his heart– will make up the difference between what the rider has asked and the situation demanded of him.

While this can sometimes be difficult to picture in dressage, picture this: a horse that is headed to a jump he is not properly set up for. A willing horse will make up the difference and clear the jump; an unwilling horse will put the onus back on the rider and either refuse or run-out.

Experience has taught me those horses are a result of some combination of unfair riders or not understanding the demands put on them.

To tap into your horse’s willingness, incorporate these 3 things into your daily training:

  1. Break it down into the simplest components and build up from there
  2. Reward, reward, reward– and move on the instant the horse gives you what you ask for
  3. Make it a game– and they’ll try their heart out for you

A willing horse makes up for a multitude of rider’s sins. Willingness is the foundation of harmony and obedience.

Do you train your horse not to make mistakes– or do you train your horse to try?

 

What’s Your Story?

Every partnership begins with a story, but the story develops in the great partnerships.

An Emmy-award winning director once told me that the greater the adversary, the better the story. Overcoming conflict is what makes a story great. His advice was to have high stakes and that there has to be risk to draw the audience in.

Horses make for wonderful stories on and off screen because risk and high stakes are always present. Think of Seabiscuit or Harry and Snowman. Seabiscuit and his jockey, Red Pollard, have to overcome substantial hurdles before the horse can win the big race (spoiler alert!). The story of Snowman, a horse bound for slaughter who becomes a champion jumper, tugs at our heart strings because of the immense transformation he experiences and the challenges Harry has in training him.

The movie director’s insight is well founded: spend any length of time around horses and how accident prone they are will become apparent. It is a rare horse owner who hasn’t had to face some potential career-jepordizing health problem with their horse.

Yet, it is through those nail-biting moments that great partnerships are developed. We love the stories of horses recovering after major medical problems, or riders getting on after terrible falls. We hang on our seats when we hear top riders discuss how they overcame their toughest training challenge to become the rider we love so much. These stories remind us of our own vulnerability and that everyone can have their own rags-to-riches type triumph.

Tell your story. Embrace the adversary that you encounter– it only makes your story better.

Gratitude Leads The Way

Sometimes gratitude wins the day.

Riding– and learning to ride well as an adult– takes sacrifice. There are the milestones we miss in the lives of those around us because we need to be at the barn, a show or clinic somewhere. Then there are the second jobs, odd jobs, and long hours we work in order to afford our passion enough that it maintains a foothold in our lives.

Yet, it can be easy to grow bitter when we see opportunities go to those who seem to have it easy. Ambition can blind us and make us bitter at what we do not have and what we have not yet obtained.

Gratitude is different and comes gently to us.

It comes in the unexpected gift of riding a schoolmaster.

It comes from everyone stepping up to play their part to keep the horse healthy, happy and progressing– trainers, grooms, barn managers, farriers, vets, the list goes on– because they believe in you and your horse.

It comes from the horse letting us put them in situations that are unnatural to them because they trust us.

It comes from the horse’s heart seeking to learn.

Gratitude disarms ambition and paves the way for a beautiful, harmonious partnership.

Spend a few minutes at the barn before you get on your horse reflecting on everything you are grateful to your horse, supportive team, and riding community for. Notice how it reframes your mindset for your ride.