A Reminder That Progress in Dressage is Not Linear

Adult Amateur and DT blogger Carolyn Healy reflects on her challenging last year of dressage training and shares an important positive takeaway.
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It’s been rather a strange year and one in which I really seemed to lose my way with my riding. There’s that drawing of a dressage rider’s progress, where the line is like spaghetti in a very non-linear pattern and this feels like a pretty accurate representation. I had set myself goals that seemed realistic at the start of 2019. My target was to try to get my riding to Third Level. My horse, Gemini, bypassed my level of education with our wonderful regular trainer long ago. I had a pretty clear understanding of the areas and movements I needed to work on.

Carolyn Healy and Gemini (Courtesy, Carolyn Healy)

Carolyn Healy and Gemini (Courtesy, Carolyn Healy)

The year started off pretty well and all was going to plan. In early February, Gem managed some sort of quick-hoofed dance routine from the walk (maybe this was a good thing but still a trifle embarrassing) after spying a blanket—yes one of the pony-eating type—close to his least favorite corner and I hit the dirt. I had prepared for the corner in shoulder-fore and kept his attention, however, I relaxed a split-second too soon. There was nothing terribly spectacular in the fall itself.

Several years ago, there was indeed a genuine "raccoon corner incident," in which I suddenly found myself charging down the arena unexpectedly as a raccoon friend had decided to take up residence in a dog bed in the corner and Gem’s threat-detection senses went into alarm mode. That time, I had a lucky save and, whilst a bit discombobulated, was still in the saddle (after some rearranging). I have been relatively lucky, after a large number of scoots, spooks and mini-bolts to have always hung on, even if not very gracefully all through Gem’s baby years, so it was a bit of a surprise, now he is 10 years old, to find myself on the floor. Gem was running around, snorting at his mother, as I was in totally the wrong place, as far as he was concerned. The law of averages also said it had to happen at some point and I am lucky in the fact that I had such a very good run. I know it will happen again. That is just riding life and accepted when you put your foot in the stirrup.

My forty-something body was less than thrilled about this unauthorized dismount activity. Thankfully, I do a lot of exercise training to support my riding and I think if I hadn’t been doing that, the recovery would have been a lot longer. The foam roller became a daily routine and I managed to stretch out and get upright each day. The stick-your-foot-down-the-side-of-the-mattress-to-get-enough-leverage-to-get-out-of-bed trick was also a helpful move. My massage therapist also mentioned I probably should have come as a more urgent case, as I was walking very lopsided. What really surprised me was how much it jangled my nerves and created anxiety. The first few rides it was very tentative, as I kept one hand on the buck strap at walk. There was a very genuine fear and anxiety about the whole thing, even though I really do trust Gem.

The next ride was building up to one hand on the buck strap and walk and trot transitions. Eventually, after a few more successful rides I became comfortable again. Thankfully, our coach knows me better than I know myself and knows when to push, when to back off and provides the skillset and the exercises to get back on track. I am grateful for such patience in both my coach and my horse.

Later in the year, I had a rather demoralizing clinic episode. Note to self: Watch a clinician first-hand so you get to know their teaching style and if it is a fit for you. That was my lesson learned here. This experience left me totally defeated and thinking that I needed to sell my horse as I just wasn’t good enough for him. Rational brain went out of the window in telling myself it was just one lesson and to leave it where it is: in the past. After that, I just didn’t want to ride and then when I did, I just wanted low stress and no pressure and to just enjoy my horse once more. It’s only now it feels right to take the parking brake off and start forging forward with a targeted plan.

We recently dipped my feet and Gem’s hooves in the clinic waters again participating in a clinic with trainer Gina Smith. I was unsettled by the thought of another clinic experience—as my last one had been such an upsetting disaster—even though Gem and I have participated in a number of clinics in the past with Gina as the clinician. I should not have worried! Saturday was an awesome ride. I couldn’t have been happier with how both Gem and I went as a pair. It was the best training session we’d pulled together in a long time. Absolutely blissful. I felt very “present” and that I knew what I was doing. It’s not that I don’t always try and be so—some days you just feel more naturally present, whereas others you feel more of a passenger, or observer to the proceedings. We had several lightbulb ‘Ah-ha!’ moments which I will take forward and try on my own. Sunday again, was a good and very productive ride, with a lot of good learnings but didn’t have quite the same feel. All said, I was just delighted to have had a positive clinic experience.

So, where do I go from here? I asked myself this question, as I sat between Christmas and New Year, enjoying lots of unhurried horsey time which I am truly grateful for. I’ve worked enough holiday days to appreciate that there are those still working and to treasure this time together. The good part is that as a partnership we are ahead of where we started and we are ending on a really positive note, and—the most important part of all—we are together. We’ll work on the 2020 goals in a couple of days.

To read more blog posts from Carolyn Healy, see here.

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