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...But Look How Far You've Come

A reflection on the journey from the rider I used to be to the one I dream to become.

The old wooden floorboards creaked softly underneath me as I anxiously shifted in place. We were gathered in a viewing area that overlooked the indoor arena. It was a schooling show day, and the smell of ShowSheen®, sawdust and hamburgers cooking on the grill at the concession stand drifted through the air. My 8-year-old eyes were wide, trying to take in everything around me.

Parents, some of whom were knowledgeable horse people, others completely clueless, sat in foldup chairs with kids nesting in their laps or cross-legged on the dusty floor. I don’t remember the other details of the day, but I do remember what came next: The trainer, dressed in her top hat—this was 1999—and tailcoat entered the ring on a massive, floaty warmblood.

Thinking back, I assume it was a demonstration of the Grand Prix movements to show kids and parents the pinnacle of dressage—what correct lessons and good training would eventually produce. I imagine the soccer dads yawned and looked at their watches, unaware of what was unfolding in front of them as the horse and rider piaffed and passaged at the other end of the arena.

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But I didn’t yawn. I was captivated by the way the horse moved. Each powerful stride he took suspended his entire body in the air, momentarily defying the laws of gravity. He seemed to levitate. I watched the way the trainer sat with incredible strength and stillness; the way the tails of her coat floated along the sides of the horse’s body. I supposed that they were the dressage rider’s equivalent of wings. It would explain the levitation, at least.

As I watched, I felt a flicker of something in my stomach—the place where the butterflies live. My palms got sweaty. I felt the veins in my forearms run hot. I didn’t know words like “cadence” or “impulsion” or even have the vaguest idea of the Training Scale. I didn’t know that there were thousands of years of study and an entire culture dedicated to cultivating this very image. All I knew was that it was beautiful. And I wanted that person out there to be me.

If you’re a longtime horseperson—or a person who is passionate about anything—you’ve probably felt this. Maybe it happens in an instant or gradually over time. Maybe your heart rate picks up or your toes tingle or your imagination buzzes with ideas.

To me, it feels like the desire to have or be something seems to wrap itself around your entire being with startling force. The moment when you find your passion is suffocating and exhilarating and terrifying and comforting. Something new has taken hold of your life.

As I stood there in my Keds® sneakers, clutching my white plastic helmet, I suddenly became aware of how different a rider I was from the trainer. In that moment, I wasn’t even in the arena. I was on the outside, looking in. And when I was in the arena on a horse during my once-a-week lesson, I wasn’t allowed off a longe line. I couldn’t steer, and I didn’t know how to hold the reins. I have a distinct memory of looking at my trainer’s tall boots and then down at my Keds, thinking about how I hadn’t even graduated from sneakers. I haven’t even earned real boots! I have so very, very far to go, I thought to myself.

More than 20 years later, I still feel light-years away from being a Grand Prix rider. I have actually worn a tailcoat—once, when I tried it on at a booth at the 2018 World Equestrian Games. And although the Italian tailoring of the coat was absolutely pristine, it wasn’t time. Back to the rack it went.

On some days, it feels like I inch closer to that dream I’ve been chasing. Sometimes the words of an encouraging clinician will give me a jolt forward while a bad ride might send me miles backward. For years, I took a worthwhile detour into the eventing world, where I traveled sideways with a few leaps forward.

Regardless of however I’ve grown, I very often still feel more like the little girl in Keds peering into the arena, humbled by all of the work that is left to be done. Most days, I cling to the idea that direction matters more than speed. It’s all a journey, not a destination. And the eventual destination is a feeling—not a status symbol or level.

Probably out of boredom and a need for order in the chaotic time of the COVID-19 quarantine, I found myself rifling through old boxes and files. I stumbled upon the certificate for my USDF bronze medal and decided to order a frame for it, thinking back to how that once felt distant and unachievable. I also unearthed an old goal-setting worksheet my childhood eventing trainer required us to fill out. Judging by my goals at the time and my atrocious handwriting, I couldn’t have been older than 13 or so. I studied it carefully and felt a smile creep across my face when I saw that my goals included “Do a Training Level dressage test” or “Jump a 2-foot-6 course” or “Go to an overnight horse show!” How could I have forgotten the days when even those things felt like big dreams?

At age 13, I also routinely lounged on our family’s living room couch, determinedly hiding from my math homework between the pages of Practical Horseman. I remember reading Kip Goldreyer’s column, “The Thinking Horseman” about her training with her paint pony, Tucker. I liked Kip’s column—it seemed relatable, insightful and clever. I always turned to her articles first. Someday, I’d really like to write columns like Kip does, I thought to myself, with that familiar flicker in the pit of my stomach.

I hate to spoil the ending for you, but have you noticed the title of this column? It’s proof that the flicker inside of us is powerful. It isn’t random—there’s truth and purpose behind it. It’s the link between who we used to be and who we want to become; the fuel for the journey.

If that 13-year-old girl flipping to The Thinking Horseman in each new issue of Prac can be writing this now, can’t that girl in the Keds grow up to wear real tall boots and make horses float? And if she can do those things, can’t you do them, too? Whether that’s earning a ticket to the American Eventing Championships at Beginner Novice or training in Europe or jumping a 2-foot course? Or even just remembering to keep your heels down?

I have longed to be that strong, poised woman on the floating horse, and chasing the idea of her has largely served me well—it’s given my life purpose and direction. Your goals have probably done the same for you.

But I’m learning that it’s good for us to pause every now and then to tap on the shoulder of that little girl peering into the arena. I bet she’d turn around and look at you with her eyes wide. She’d smile and tell you she wants to be just like you. And then she’d tell you that she loves your boots.  

About Lindsay Paulsen

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Lindsay Paulsen has been Practical Horseman’s Managing Editor for Dressage and DressageToday.com’s Digital Editor. She’s a USDF bronze medalist and enjoys competing her mare, Ulita O (“Fenna”), at Fourth Level and spending time with her retired event horse, Femme Fatale (“Kat”). She currently trains with Grand Prix dressage rider Jeff Lindberg near Saratoga Springs, New York.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2020 issue.

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