Hilary Moore Hebert: Do we always need to climb?

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This post was adapted into a Viewpoint for the July 2013 issue of Dressage Today:

Angkor Wat Temple Map

Angkor Wat Temple Map

Last month, my husband and I went on vacation to Cambodia to visit the ruins of Angkor Wat. If you aren't familiar with this wonder of the world, let me begin by pointing out that it is huge--we bought a three-day pass and arrived before the sun. Even though we drove between locations, we barely explored half of it. Step after step, we walked to and up more amazing places then I could have dreamed of, but I have never see so many stairs in my entire life.

It was no wonder then, that upon my return I paused at the print-out of the Pyramid of Training I have hanging behind my computer. The steps easily reminded me of the countless stairs I had climbed on my trip. Immediately, my eyes were drawn to Relaxation. Indeed! I thought when I thought of the fatigue I felt after the millionth step in Cambodia. How nice it was to sit for a second, especially in the extreme heat and humidity.

Though forced, relaxing on stairs, midway up the climbs, were some of the most rewarding moments of our trip.?While I still understand Relaxation in the Pyramid of Training to relate to a horse during training, I can't help but look at the scale without also considering it to mean the opportunity to relax.

Climbing up the steps, of Angkor Wat or the Training Scale, allows you to go higher. However, when we look at both simply as a set of stages to overcome, it is easy to ignore the fact that each step is also an opportunity to pause and reflect and/or relax before continuing on. If you only use stairs for climbing, you really only focus on the next step as you get to the top. If you do this, you will never see where you are until you get to the top or you stop and relax. How can anyone enjoy their journey if they are only focused on the destination?

Having just returned from my vacation, where our lives slow down and responsibilities fade into the background, it is easy to see how our mind becomes clearer and our bodies become looser when we have a chance to relax and enjoy the journey. In turn, we become free of mental tension and our bodies are more loose. As a result, we can also achieve the dressage definition of relaxation on the Training Scale.

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Any pause like this, whether it is for vacation or a quick rest on a stair, allows you the time to see the past, present and future in the clearest possible way. It gives you the time to focus on where you have come from and what you have achieved. This is an important opportunity to stop and assess the end goals. We all should check in and make sure we still want to or can keep climbing. Maybe we can't go on or simply don't want to. Either way, if we don't take a moment to enjoy what we have achieved, we run the risk of losing the pleasure of why we decided to take the trip in the first place.

When Mike and I had to stop climbing, we had the chance to enjoy the view and really realize where we were. We got the best photos and admired the aerial view of the rice patties and neighboring attractions. I need to do more of that in my dressage endeavors at home. We spend so much time focusing on the Training Scale and a sport that is a "life-long work-in-progress" that I think it particularly easy in our sport to forget about where we are and all that we have accomplished. We need it and our horses need the rest and recognition.

How ironic then that the next step of the Pyramid of Training is Connection, which one could also translate as being in the moment with someone. We all want to have connection (acceptance of the bit through acceptance of the aids) with our horse, but we also want a bond with them. I like to think of connection as both, so I remember to ride in the moment and pause for a second to keep myself from always riding the next movement. We need to take time to enjoy what we have created with our horses, otherwise what is the point?

It also allows us the chance to really see if what we already have is enough. Perhaps the struggle to achieve more outweighs the benefits of getting there. Maybe we have gone high enough and where we are is everything we imagined as the destination. Not everyone has to spend their life savings on a Grand Prix horse or ride for 10 hours a day instead of spending time with their families. Taking time away from riding for a week and getting back in the saddle and really feeling what I had made me realize what makes me happiest about our sport. It also made me realize that if this is what truly makes me happy, no matter the sacrifices, I had to do it. I had a clarity in what I wanted in my goals and what I was willing to sacrifice to get there that is only possible with a reassessment like this. If we don't pause to reflect and reassess, it is possible that we haven't truly given ourselves permission to go after what we really want. It is also possible we don't even know what we want any more.

With all of this in mind, it seems easier for me to genuinely understand what is important to me. For me that is to keep achieving, learning, training, competing and growing. I am willing to work seven days a week to get there and understand that it takes huge sacrifices, but I am certain that I want that for myself.

However, while we are all told that getting higher scores and riding at higher levels and earning more ribbons are the only real markers of success, I would like to ask a question. What if riding the Second Level movements on a schoolmaster was all someone wanted? What if they didn't want to improve past that point? What if the feeling of mastery at that level is what made them the happiest and the idea of adding something new didn't excite them? What if they didn't like showing and the money it cost had to be traded for their ability to donate to their favorite charity?

Maybe we don't ALL need to train for the Olympics or move up a level every year. Maybe it is OK to just sit down on that middle step, take some photos and enjoy how far you have travelled to get there. What matters most is that you are happiest doing it. With smiles on our faces, we can sit together one day in the future. You can tell me about what it is like to stop and enjoy the view and I will let you know what it is like to keep climbing. And we will both be happier for it.

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