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:


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.

This is magical, okay?

Do you remember being a very small child and wishing to ride a horse? I do. I was not part of a horsey family growing up. The closest thing I could get to were my grandpa’s dogs, which I naturally tried to ride. They were greyhounds - fast and slippery, and not a good choice for a first “horse.” I rode the futon, which was a more stable mount. I rode my sister around the house, which was perhaps the most unpredictable of the three. Finally, my parents sent me to riding camp, and I was a goner.

Now, I get to ride all kinds of horses and do fun things I never dreamed I would do. That in itself is magical, but let’s dig deeper than that. We sit on prey animals who breathe calmly and trust deeply. To feel the muscles rippling underneath our legs, to feel the communication running through the reins, to feel the soft puff of their breath, to see their fuzzy faces reaching back for a treat, to go galloping through an open field, to sashay across a diagonal in halfpass, to fly over an oxer, to splash through water, to trot down a dirt road, to feel the silly happiness of a fun spook, to feel the power of collection, to feel the drama of extension, to feel the quiet of a walk home --

This is magic. There is no other way to say it. It is a privilege to sit on their backs, and most of these other things are icing on that magical cake. It is an amazing, privileged, awe-inspiring thing we get to do.

So, in this time of gratitude, let’s give thanks for the magic we experience day in and day out.

The Should Monster

The horse should be there. She should be doing this. This should be easy.

Sound familiar? I know all about shoulds. I have definitely ended more than one ride in tears, frustrated with myself for what I should be doing or the progress that should already be evident. Sometimes, it feels like the shoulds are lurking around every corner. And thank you, social media, for putting those shoulds right out in the open with pictures and videos and posts of everyone’s beautiful and seemingly effortless riding. It can be all too easy to watch someone else and think, I should be able to do that, but I can’t.

Where are the shoulds in your life with horses? And what are they telling you? For me, the shoulds are often about comparing my riding journey with someone else’s. Sometimes, those comparisons are helpful. If I’m feeling jealous of someone else’s progress, maybe I need to change my training program or do something differently.

Sometimes, those shoulds are really instructive, like when Bella was uncharacteristically stopping at simple cross country fences at a show. Near tears, I told my coach, “She should do this! She understands her job! Something is wrong!” And after falling off in front of the technical delegate at the first jump while simultaneously pulling Bella’s bridle off over her ears, we all knew that indeed, something is wrong. Bella told us that she could no longer be asked to jump barefoot on wet ground, and once she had shoes and studs, she felt much more secure in herself and her jumping. The should - the thought of what Bella typically does - told us that something wasn’t right and needed to be changed.

More often, though, those shoulds are demoralizing. We have a thought planted by Facebook or some article about what should be going on with our horse and our riding, and our minds take that as a sign that we are defeated. You should be able to do this already. You have heard that feedback a million times - you should be better already. You should...ride more. Ride better. Spend more money on equipment. Go to more shows. Get a better horse. Know better. Do better. You should, you should, you should!

With horses, there are often lots of shoulds. It’s pretty easy to imagine where you think you should be, or where you’d like to be, and compare that to where you actually are. Yet when it comes to horses, the shoulds go more or less out the window. Horses are not on any kind of schedule. They have not read the books. They are just here with us, typically trying to do a good job. There’s also the fact that indeed, we as riders are animals too, with physical bodies that sometimes don’t behave themselves and emotions that sometimes zigzag around and thoughts that can be a little hard to wrangle in all the time. There are a lot of moving pieces when it comes to horses and humans, and not a lot of room for the shoulds.

Here are some shoulds to keep: You should not abuse your horse. You should be kind, patient, and gentle with yourself and your horse. As for the rest of them? Ask yourself this: are those shoulds serving you? Are they coming from within you and what brings you joy, or someone you want to put your trust in? Are they actually helping you to feel better and do better? If they are, great! But most of them are worthless. If thoughts about the "should life" are not serving you and your goals, be rid of them.

(HA! So easy to say. This may be an impossible task. But like most impossible tasks, it’s still worth doing.)

There will always be more you can do and room to improve. Very few of us reach the peak of any sport, and even if we do, we are likely not without space to do better. That’s part of the fun of horses, I think. There is no end to what you can work on and do. At the same time, it’s very easy to compare yourself to others or some external standard and use those comparisons to beat yourself up. There is a fine line between making positive, forward, meaningful progress and self-abuse. That is not to say that learning and growth happen without pressure; to the contrary, we need pressure to do these things. But positive, appropriate pressure is far different than shaming yourself.

And if you are dictating a timeline or way of moving through life that is unrealistic or just not working for you right now, I ask again - why? Is it helpful for you? Is it fun? Is it helping to make your life more meaningful and rich and full? What would be different if your horse learned his changes at six instead of seven or twelve or twenty? Would your life be fulfilled if you could make it around a 3'6" course? Win a combined driving event? Canter down the trail? Even if it is a goal you want to achieve, is berating yourself or your horse the best way to get there? Does that put you in a state of growth and learning? If you are like most human beings I know, absolutely not! Find the balance between constructive growth and appreciating where you’ve been. Find those people - coaches, trainers, friends - who will be your cheerleaders and support you on your journey. Own your own journey and celebrate that it doesn’t need to look like anyone else’s. Find the joy, whatever that means for you.

So let’s add one more should: This should be fun. After all, we are talking about riding horses and not hitting ourselves with a hammer!