dressage

What it means to be in an average body.

A friend of mine is literally an Olympic athlete. Actually, she has earned several gold medals in the Olympics. If that’s not a testament to athleticism, I don’t know what is. There are things she can do that I’m not sure I would ever be able to do, no matter how long I might train and try. I am not an athlete. I can do these athletic things, but I may never be graceful and things may never feel easy. It doesn’t mean that I’m not doing it right and getting better, or that I shouldn’t do it. It is just how my body, and likely my brain, to some extent, work.

Here is my body, in all its unathletic glory!

Here is my body, in all its unathletic glory!

I want to tell you a little bit about what it’s like to be in my body. Athletic endeavors do not come easily to me. I did not do many sports as a kid, and by the time I was an adult and figured out I better keep on the move if I wanted to stay in my clothes and in the saddle, I learned that adulthood did not magically grant me with increased athleticism. Don’t get me wrong - I can do lots of stuff with my body. Bike, run, swim, lift weights, box, dance, you name it. And most of the time, miraculously, my body generally does what I want it to do, at least in spirit. But here’s the thing - it’s not easy. I do not easily gain muscle and strength and speed. Even though I exercise, outside of riding, at least five times a week, it takes a long time to see the benefit. I see improvements over months and years, not in days and weeks.

Here’s the thing, though. Just because exercise and athletic pursuits are hard for me, it does not mean that::

  1. I can’t do it

  2. I shouldn’t do it

  3. Exercise is too hard for me to do

Many of the horses I work with and see have bodies that are somewhat similar to mine. For them, exercise is also pretty hard, and maybe not something they are naturally inclined to do, or even built to do. That does not mean that learning to use their bodies correctly and go correctly is:

  1. Too hard

  2. Something they can’t do

  3. Something they shouldn’t do

Watch me work out. Even if it is a move I have done before, I will be shaking and sweating and need some rest. Some days are harder than others, but the vast majority of the time, it’s just plain hard in general. But with time, varying exercises, and doing things I enjoy, things do get a bit easier. I can use bigger weights, do more reps, or feel like an activity is just a hair easier.

It is the same way with your horse. She may not be built to do the job, but she can do it, just the same. It may take more time, it may be harder, and you may have to work harder and take more time to achieve it. But she can get there, too. Every horse has their maximum ability somewhere, and you may bump into it. For most, though, this is beyond where we as riders will ever go.

Here’s the other kicker: the horse didn’t sign up for the exercise we ask them to do. They were drafted. I am often asked, if dressage is better for the horse’s muscles, why doesn’t the horse just naturally do it? Let me ask you this: is a push-up good for your body and muscles to do? Is it easy? Is it easier to go down only a few inches, or bring your nose to the floor? Is it easier to keep your body parallel to the ground, or stick your butt in the air? Why not just do push-ups all day long if they are good and natural for you to do?

It is much easier for us to lay on the ground than do the push-up, but the push-up is indeed better for us. It is easier for the horse to plod around, even though it is better for her physique to engage the abdominal muscles and bring the pelvis under. I have never yet sat on a horse who said, yes! Let me collect more! Let me work harder! I am sure they exist (and cost lots of money), but even those natural athletes need guidance and education. And let’s be real, if I had the option to get the same feelings and results from exercise by sitting on the couch...it is tempting.

So is your riding hard? Does it feel strenuous? It’s okay. It doesn’t mean that it’s wrong. Be reasonable and kind, just like you are to your own body, and the improvement will come.

Which leads to the next question - how hard is too hard? How do we know what is normal athletically-induced discomfort and what is too much? Some questions I ask myself to better answer this question are:

  1. Am I asking the horse clearly? Or are my aids unclear and muddled?

  2. Does the horse know how to do what I’m asking? Have they been taught clearly and thoughtfully, or is it something they are unsure of or actually don’t know how to do?

  3. Do they have the cardiovascular fitness for this activity?

  4. Do they have the muscular fitness for this activity?

  5. Are there confounding factors, like hot and humid weather or a hard workout yesterday?

These questions can help you to determine if you are asking a reasonable question of the horse’s mind and body, and to determine if you need to push through some athletically-induced discomfort in that moment. It is also good to keep in mind that the horse typically does not volunteer to work harder than the minimum threshold you determine for them. So to progress, you need to ask for a little bit more, a little bit at a time, and be cognizant of your goals to help you understand how to push. If we can ask for a little bit more collection, expression, straightness, and throughness in a reasonable way each ride, we will see progress - again, typically over months and years versus days and weeks.

Anton is a great example of a horse who has come a long way with progressive conditioning. As he has progressed through the levels to FEI dressage, his gaits have gotten much stronger. With much jumping practice, he has gone from struggling to leave the rails up on a 2’ stadium course to showing through Novice eventing and schooling Training level cross country and stadium jumps (up to 3’3”).

Anton is a great example of a horse who has come a long way with progressive conditioning. As he has progressed through the levels to FEI dressage, his gaits have gotten much stronger. With much jumping practice, he has gone from struggling to leave the rails up on a 2’ stadium course to showing through Novice eventing and schooling Training level cross country and stadium jumps (up to 3’3”).

So what does this look like in practice? Everyone structures their rides differently, but I usually do ten minutes of walk warmup, with another five to ten minutes of trot and canter warmup in a stretchier, looser frame, and then about 25-30 minutes of work. Depending on what I’m asking, I will give walk breaks at least every eight to ten minutes. If I am doing something harder, those breaks might come every three to five minutes, even if it is just for 30-60 seconds. And then of course comes another five to ten minutes of walking, depending on if the horse is hot, the weather, and if the horse will be turned out back into a stall when I am done (in which case I will walk for more time).

This stuff is hard. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong or bad or too much. Use good judgment, ask for a little bit and a time, and keep asking! If I can run a half marathon and bike 50 miles and even do push-ups and pull-ups, your horse can do her little bit of work, too.

Ride the horse you have today

When I first began riding, I had a really good idea about what riding a horse would be like. I would sit beautifully like a queen while the horse magically did every little thing I could every want practically effortlessly. I would move up one level per year in dressage, no setbacks allowed, and it would be so much fun. I would be a Grand Prix dressage rider in no time. HA!

Enter the real world, where progress looks much more like this:

expectation_vs_reality.png

After doing this whole horse thing for a few years, I understand this a little bit better now. Setbacks or difficult rides are no longer cause for emergency, but instead things that just happen sometimes. Progress in real life will almost never look like progress in my head. And here is something else important that I have learned: we have to let go of what we think riding should be and embrace what it is. That dream of effortless floating and dancing without practice or problems? That, my friend, is not reality.

It’s easy to spend a lot of time wishing that riding were different from what it actually is. I know there are some kinds of riding that are easier than others, but by and large, you have to put in effort, especially with dressage, and especially if you want to improve. Athletic progress requires time and energy. And depending on the athletic ability of the horse, the horse’s knowledge and training, your knowledge and training, the horse’s temperament, your own fitness level, as well as all the other factors that can affect any given ride, the amount of effort may be more than you’d like. This is okay, expected, and normal.

I hear it a lot: this should be easier. And believe me, sometimes I wish it were. That would have saved me many falls off many horses and lots of dignity that has since been wiped into the dirt. But the reality is, riding, and riding well, will take effort for the vast majority of us. And every obstacle that may stand in your way (horse suitability for the job, temperament, and so forth) can add a bit of effort to the journey. There is nothing wrong with this. If we all had international-quality horses who were exceptionally trained whilst we were ridiculously trained and fit riders, maybe it would all be easier. In the meantime, a bit of effort is just fine.

Most importantly - and I struggle with this very regularly - we have to ride the horse that we have during any given moment, instead of riding the horse we think we should have.

Out of all the horses I have ridden, I think Allie has taught me the most, and she is constantly teaching me this important lesson. She is coming 15, and I’ve been riding her fairly regularly since she was about 5. We have been working on the flying changes for at least half of that time, if not more. Physically, she understands them and can do them beautifully. But if any of the pieces are not in place, especially if she is not mentally with me, they fall apart. In one of my recent lessons, I found myself lamenting to my instructor, “But we’ve been working on these for so long! She should just get them! I should just be able to do the tempis!” And I was kindly reminded that I needed to ride the horse under me in that moment, and if she was not where she needed to be, I could not ask for the change. I had to ride the horse I had in that moment, not the horse I think I should have. Mentally for me, this can be very challenging, especially because Allie is so educated and talented; she can piaffe, passage, pirouette, and do all her lateral work. And I have to continue to meet her where she is, and build from there. That’s where progress happens. I remember reading about Isabelle Werth riding a 4th level horse who just was not having any sort of roundness or connection in a training ride. Isabelle’s reaction? Getting off after achieving some small success and declaring, “That just wasn’t our day!” So if Isabelle Werth has these challenges and can accept them, can’t we all?

Yet if you are continually frustrated by the reality versus the expectation, something needs to change. That might be the discipline, the level of work, or the training approach. The change might be as simple as changing your expectation of how you think riding should be, or just getting more mileage as a rider. Or it might be more difficult, like changing the horse you’re riding. Find a way to enjoy riding the horse you have instead of wishing for something else. More than anything, enjoy the process, because that is what dressage is: process.

Riding is fun and beautiful and joyous and effortful, and all of that is just fine.

The unemotional rider

One of the best parts about a horse is the relationship we develop with them. We spend years developing a shared language, building trust, finding joy together. They are a source of acceptance, kindness, and redemption. They greet us with a soft nicker and nuzzle for cookies in our pockets. Most certainly, our relationship is one of the most important reasons why we do this at all.

And then your horse goes and does something silly, like get behind your leg or forget how to bend right or spend the entire ride saying OH MY GOD DID YOU SEE THAT WEIRD THING IN THE CORNER IT WILL KILL US FOR SURE HAAAALP!!! Let’s face it, what horse doesn’t have less-than-stellar rides, or bad moments, or rides that are so terrible you question whether they’ve ever had training at all or whether you’ve actually learned anything in all those lessons? Mechanical horses - that’s who. But those suckers are expensive and probably don’t nicker to you, so here we are with the real deal. And the real deal can be a real pain in the ass sometimes.

And in these moments, it’s our love for them that does us in; it usually does us a disservice rather than being helpful. Our love and our relationship with the horse bring up feelings and actions, like:

  • Why does she hate me? She must be not bending/running off/twisted like a pretzel because she’s trying to get my goat.

  • Oh, poor baby! You’re right, even though you’re 12 years old, staying in front of the leg is too hard. Let’s just chill out.

  • *crying* I must be doing everything all wrong!

When your horse (or you) has a bad moment, bad ride, or moment of misbehavior and you have a deep love connection (in a not-creepy way), it’s very easy to take things personally. That usually results in you getting mad, sad, or overly sympathetic, none of which are helpful for the horse. (I am as guilty of this as anyone. Someone pointed out to me the other day that my go-to response when a horse stops at a jump is to pat them. So yeah, I feel the pain.)

But how do you do it? How do you keep and maintain the beautiful relationship you have with your horse - and train her effectively?

Like so many things in life, this requires you to hold two fundamentally opposed concepts in your mind at the same time, and not go bonkers in the process. You have to love your horse, and interact with her in an almost wholly unemotional way in many situations. You can bring patience, a sense of humor, and empathy with you in the saddle, but not much else.

In this way, when something goes wrong, it’s not a reflection of your relationship. It’s not personal and it’s not cause for alarm. It’s just a thing that happens. It doesn’t mean that you’re bad or that she’s bad.

Maybe she’s sore. Maybe she’s tired. Maybe she’s just having a case of the “blahs.” Maybe the weather changed, maybe her hormones changed, maybe the breeze blew the wrong way. Maybe you woke her up from a nap. Maybe she needs a nap. Maybe YOU need a nap.

Regardless, stuff happens. Now, I am in no way saying that you should ignore patterns of negative behavior (which could be indicative of health issues or other training problems). Nor am I saying that you’re doing everything perfectly and can discount your own problems. Instead, I’m saying that you will be a more productive trainer and have a better working relationship with your horse if you can let negative situations or interactions roll off rather than interpreting them through the lens of your relationship.

I’m not saying this is easy. I ride some horses and feel like we’re an old married couple, for better or worse. But with each horse I start, I feel like I do a little better job at maintaining those boundaries.

Keeping those clear boundaries lets me - helps me - be a better rider. I can be clear about my expectations without being unduly sympathetic to the horse. When the horse gets behind my leg, I can apply a consequence without feeling guilty that I’m being too tough or attributing emotion that doesn’t exist to the situation. When the horse misbehaves, it’s not a reflection on our relationship; it’s just something that happens because we’re all animals and this riding thing is hard. It’s kind of like parenting a toddler (from what I’ve seen, at least) - sometimes everything falls apart for no apparent reason and no real meaning. There is no judgment or deeper meaning. It’s just how life works.

I frame it in my mind as a way of being kind to the horse. By staying unemotional and training with clarity, I can help the horse get to the right answer as quickly as possible. I can reward sooner and more often. I can show the horse my love by being a fair, clear, and consistent trainer. And of course, lots of grooming and snuggles and carrots along the way.

The mediocre rides

I’m sure all of us have had great rides. The ones that leave you beaming for days, just thinking about the quality of a movement, the power of a jump, or the throughness of the connection. Those rides where you feel competent and accomplished and your horse feels just awesome. Few things in life feel as good as those wonderful rides, I think. They keep us coming back and keep us going through the early mornings, the frozen hands, the sweat-drenched breeches, the dirt, the dust, and the disappointment.

And I know we’ve all had the terrible rides. You know, those times when nothing goes right. There is no in front of the leg or on the aids or bend. You’re somehow both wobbly and stiff at the same time, and the bits that are supposed to bounce stay tight while everything else flops like jello in an earthquake. In those rides, it can feel like your horse has forgotten everything you’ve ever thought they’ve known - and maybe you’ve forgotten it all, too. Surviving those rides and finding a teeny shred of positivity is often all you can do. Trail ride, anyone?

Those are the extremes. They’re easy enough to recognize and categorize. Although the bad rides are awful (and can make you question any competency you ever thought you had - or perhaps just your sanity), to me, the most challenging rides are often the mediocre ones. Those rides where everything is okay, but not great. That medium you thought you were rocking? Meh. The expression you’ve developed in the canter? So-so. The connection that you thought was solid as a rock, those hind legs that stepped right up to your hands? A little too wiggly and messy. The mediocre rides, for me, are the hardest to get through.

When the ride is just miserable, you can categorize it, learn from it, shelve it, and move on. But the rides that are just okay are more confusing yet. Is something not quite right? Is your horse a little sore? Something wrong with the equipment? Footing? Your seat? Were those brilliant movements you’ve been getting all a farce? Do you even know what you’re doing at all? Is this all there is? You see, these rides make you question everything you thought you knew. The aids that had been working just fine now are questionable. The movements you’d been getting beautifully are now just average, and you can’t necessarily pinpoint what (if anything) is different. Should you ask for more? Should you back off and ask for less? What do you do? When things are terrible, at least you have some idea of what to do - usually because it’s so darn obvious (e.g. the horse is running around flashing you her blaze at six million miles per hour). When things are just average, everything is so much murkier.

I don’t know what I’m doing. (Isn’t this what you wanted to hear? Comforting, no?) I am trying and I am learning, but I am the last person to say that I know all the things there are to know, or even a good chunk of the things there are to know. But - I try to collect things that are useful and build on those. Here are some of the more useful things that flicker through my brain during those ho-hum rides:

  • Just like us, horses have days. You know, those days where you’re tired for no real reason, or just don’t have lots of energy, or are just a touch sore. Sometimes there’s a clear reason, sometimes not. It’s just part of being an animal, from what I can tell.

  • Um, work is hard. There is a reason we all don’t work for free - because it don’t make no sense! There has to be some incentive to work. If we could all go to work and earn money, or stay home watching Netflix and earn money...well, you understand the end of this analogy. Did your horse wake up today and think, “Today is the day, I can feel it! I am going to nail every single change and float in my lateral work! Mom will be thrilled!” No. Never. That is just not a thing. Your horse wants a snack and a nap in the sun and maybe some scratches with a good mud bath in there somewhere, and probably a pasture so he can work on his bucking. Work is not on the agenda. We are the reason he works. Do not be surprised that this is hard and that he tells you it’s hard sometimes. We can be fair and kind and all of those good things, but at the end of the day, it is easier (and evolutionarily speaking, smarter) not to work. We as riders have to create the incentive to work through clear communication and reward.

  • Sometimes, work is just boring! So go outside. Gallop (or walk!) through a field. Hop over some jumps. Set up some cavaletti. It is work for your horse, so make it a bit fun if you can!

More than anything, please remember that more often than not, the mediocre (and awful) rides are okay. That is part of the process. Learning is hard and slow. I spent about 27 years of my life in some kind of school, and I am still not sure what I know. There will be good days and bad days, and it all evens out in the wash. Take it with a grain of salt, get good help, and keep plugging along. Riding (at least dressage and eventing) is a test of persistence. Having a poor or mediocre ride does not mean that everything has gone off the rails. It’s just a thing that happens. When most of your rides are poor or mediocre, there are other paths to travel (vet, chiropractor/acupuncture/massage, saddle fit, footing, different instruction, different horse, and so on). But the mediocre rides that come in between the awesome ones? Par for the course. It’s okay. You are okay. This is not a crisis. I repeat, this is not a crisis.