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.