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.

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?

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?

Mindset, Strategy and Exercises for Dressage Riders

Keep It Simple, Stupid

What do you think about in the saddle?

Energy? Bending? Flexion? Straightness? Collection? How responsive the horse is? Your seat? Hand position? Leg position? Whether your heels are down enough? Which aids you should be using? The figure you should be riding? Your goals? The next figure? The quality of the movements? Where you should look in the arena? How are you ever going to train your horse up to Grand Prix?

I struggled for years with constant internal chatter when I rode. I thought I had to think about it all–regularly, on repeat– to become the rider I wished to be. I didn’t understand how the great riders did it. I thought I had to keep it all in my head, and keep checking on everything.

The truth was– they didn’t and I don’t.

Horses can’t multi-task. Neither can we, really. [Want proof? Try writing down the alphabet while simultaneously saying your address. See how well that works for you.] Trying to do everything, all at once, is not only a waste of energy, but it is difficult for the horse to follow.

Layering is a better approach.

Start at the bottom and work up. From just-broke 3 year old to schoolmaster. From forward to self-carriage. From Training Level 1 to Grand Prix.

Let your mind be still and clear, then add things in, one at a time, until what was initially a thought becomes second nature to both you AND the horse. Habits must be created.

When a mentor finally clued me in, I couldn’t believe how easy everything became. My riding– and the horse’s progression– skyrocketed. It was unfathomable.

As my coworker likes to say, “Keep It Simple, Stupid.” Indeed.

Is your approach best described as “all at once”  or do you layer one habit on top of another?

 

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?