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?

Let Yourself Be Surprised

Dressage rider and control freak are eerily synonymous.

There’s something about the discipline that I can’t quite put my finger on that hones– no breeds– control freaks. Perhaps it’s the objective to have everything “just so,” at every moment, all of the time.

Yet, in agonizing, even obsessing, over the things that we think should be ordered, we sell ourselves short of the bigger picture: the relationship.

By trying to order things, we lose trust in our horse. In place of what should be a mutual partnership, we are micromanaging control freaks. Instead of a willing partnership, we become like parents nagging their kids or that clingy, nagging girlfriend.

In trust, we become vulnerable.

What happens when we let go of the control freak?

The horse begins to give generously. We push for a “7;” the horse offers an “8+.” We ask for a half-halt, the horse gives half-steps.

When the horse offers more quality than you ask for– take it!! Let go of the control freak and let yourself be surprised by the horse’s generosity.

What would it take for you to relinquish the control freak and ride from trust?


Go After the Horse’s Trust

How much does your horse trust you? No, really– how much?

For instance, can you ride walk/trot/canter/half-passes and piaffe over a tarp? What about next to construction? Could you do that bareback in a halter?

No? Why not?

I recently had the opportunity to help a timid horse find an inch more confidence in himself using trot poles. Taking him through the process of introducing him to the poles and going over them reminded me of my days in Pony Club.

Stay with me here.

We are proud that our training methods are the art of training the horse for war. Yet, over the years, it seems that we became stuck on the art and forgot about the war part. Sure, we may still ride many of the maneuvers, but we forgot about the courage, inner strength, and trust in the rider required by the horse.

Yet, my friends still eventing seem to have kept the war part. We ask for obedience, they ask for trust.

A particular childhood friend has a uniquely challenging horse. She describes his temperament in a wide array of colorful adjectives, but has done a remarkable job with him. One of the last times I was over to her house, I watched her jump him bareback with a piece of twine around his neck over a single upright oil drum in the middle of the area. Not oil drum with poles, or any sort of wing– just the solitary oil drum.

There are not many dressage riders that I know of who have that kind of partnership with their horse. I’m sorry to say, but birds in the bushes, flower pots, new arenas, and the occasional puddle is the extent to which I push my horse to trust in me.

In an earlier post, I discussed actively testing the horse’s responsiveness, suppleness and strength during your ride, but I neglected to discuss proactively pushing psychological boundaries during your ride. But pushing these psychological boundaries is equally as important as the physical ones. Let’s face it– unfamiliar surroundings or things is the main reason we have tension problems during our tests at shows. How much of that tension could be alleviated if our horses trusted us more? How much could be eliminated if they were more tuned into us than the puddle or the boogeyman lurking at C?

It is art for war, after all.

I challenge us all to do one thing this week that will push your horse’s trust in you.