I have been overwhelmed. Overwhelmed by long work (at-home) hours, the stress of all that comes with the pandemic, an excessive amount of home projects that are not going quickly enough, and to be honest, nothing lately feels particularly funny.

This morning it is rainy, so for once I don’t feel guilty about not going to the barn, and my work meetings do not start for another couple of hours. Perhaps it is time to address where I am at with my dressage work. While I had big (to me) plans for Trooper and myself this year, nothing has happened. Would I love to blame the pandemic? Sure! However, if I am truly being honest with myself and folks who might be mildly interested in my journey, it is something more fundamental than that. No pandemic needed.

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Have you ever felt like you were doing all the things you need to try to keep an eye on the long game? Feeling prepped to really start working with your horse from a good foundation? How about taking all that prep and trying to do something that should be fairly straightforward and realize it is all for naught? Well, that is what happened to me.

I have been regularly working Trooper, trying to get us both fit enough to be able to handle a dressage lesson. The goal was to do a Training Level test sometime this year. This has actually been a difficult goal for us due to Trooper’s lack of fitness at the canter (my go-to training diagnosis). Sometimes our drafty friends need more time than other breeds to build up those canter muscles (brain and brawn)... but boy are they powerful once you do get it. Yeehaw!

While folks around me were sadly gearing down for a noncompetitive summer, I was all about doing the virtual shows. I even found my cobwebby tripod and bought a doodad (obviously the appropriate term since I work in technology) to attach my phone to it. Frivolous purchases...may you soon be nonfrivolous!

Next I dug out my dusty, untouched test manual, quickly read through a couple of the Training Level tests and off I went to the barn. That is when it happened. It wasn’t just failure—it was the moment when I faced the fact that all of my efforts were for nothing.

 As I attempted to ride the test, there was no forward, no fitness (I mean me, seriously out of breath halfway through the test. What the heck have I been doing all this time?!), no steering, forget canter! Oh and my schooling boots decided to crap the bed because, why not? The reality of years spent in this sport, my fight to bring Critter back, and all the hopes and dreams of this year—dashed in a single moment. 

I couldn’t even do a “simple” Training Level test!

So what did I do? I moped. There may have been an adult beverage involved, Oreos, ice cream, potato chips … well you get the gist. Apathy starts to set in, and soon sleeping in becomes a priority over those early morning rides before the heat. The trailer remains unpowerwashed, still storing whatever went in there for safe keeping over the winter. During this period of wallowing in despair, I may have even called upon a fellow ammy to commiserate the failures and endlessness of our dressage “careers.”

I considered other hobbies: needlepoint, raising goldfish, paint by numbers, candle making, ant farm operator? Sigh. I would probably suck at those, too.

The interesting part about apathy—a lack of interest, enthusiasm, or concern—is that it is a form of burnout. You do not want to give up what is causing it, but you start to relate to the plight of mythological Sisyphus, pushing that rock up the hill only to watch it roll down again. 

I haven’t even had the energy or appetite to take a lesson on my favorite schoolmistress. I’ve been feeling tired and would rather go to bed instead of going to the barn. Obviously I needed to find the catalyst to fire up my engines again.

While some ammys fight the good fight and take regular lessons, the past several years I have had to deal with a new job, the complexities of boarding barn moves and the fallout of Trooper’s Laminitis/founder. I was focused on giving Trooper every chance to thrive instead of just survive. Those decisions have paid off substantially, but there was a cost. Other than my consistently inconsistent time on the schoolmistress, I haven’t taken regular lessons for years. That was partially because of budget but also because I wanted to continue my journey with Trooper, not another horse. It is funny how sometimes you cannot let go of the original dream even when an amazing opportunity is put in front of you. That said, I allowed the worry that he would not be able to handle regular education sessions due to how much he lost in fitness and strength keep me from taking things up a notch for a while.

It was obviously time for an intervention. 

Clearly I am no expert but I suspect I am doing this wrong

Clearly I am no expert but I suspect I am doing this wrong

*Disclaimer: It doesn't take a lot of horse sense to know what I did for this photo could have ended badly. I had multiple spotters and a ridiculously tolerant horse. Do not do what I do. Enjoy the reading—don't take stupid risks.

*Disclaimer: It doesn't take a lot of horse sense to know what I did for this photo could have ended badly. I had multiple spotters and a ridiculously tolerant horse. Do not do what I do. Enjoy the reading—don't take stupid risks.

I had been enjoying watching a trainer work with a barn mate for a while and I finally asked this person for a lesson next visit. I have amazing trainers I work with, so it is not about shopping for someone new. I am quite aware I am the problem. It helped that this barn mate was dealing with some similar issues I had and to have a pair of fresh honest eyes to evaluate Trooper’s ability to do work is always invaluable to me. Come to find out she has some expertise in the struggles of the draft types!

In my lesson, I realized that the problem came down to basics and perspective. I know, shocking right? I was not asking enough of Trooper in order to build the RIGHT fitness. I thought I was getting him forward—he was even running around the ring at times. I was working way too hard—to the point of exhaustion just trying to get him to move, which resulted in him not working hard enough. 

Hmmm. I might have heard this before … somewhere. My long-suffering trainers are SO “I told you so-ing” right now.

I recently came across an article on DressageToday.com from Steffen Peters about refining your aids. He starts off the article with a quote that well represents what this recent lesson was for me. “The experienced rider has high expectations.” It was substantially apparent I needed to recalibrate my expectations of Trooper ... again. As for the execution? Well, that is a different problem isn’t it?

Now the real work begins. It is not easy to achieve this new level of expectation but apparently since I am not skilled, I have to huff and puff through it. That isn’t necessarily a motivator to go to the barn and get on my new equine fitness machine/Critter. However my degree of apathy reduced, not gone, as I still struggle with getting enough motivation to put on my tall boots. But there is a dim candle in a breeze at the end of a tunnel. He will get stronger ... if I can keep the faith and do the work.

Since that first lesson we have made progress with semi-almost-regular lessons—damn budget! I even opted for a couple of what I call “Diva Lessons" where the trainer hops on to help undo all the bad crap I put into Critter. It helps to see and feel the difference after she rides. She also has been able to put into words the “what” and “how” when I ask about what I feel and what she feels.

I am starting to have hope that the higher expectation is more achievable based on new feelings and moments of success, thus rekindling the fire ... well, maybe more like smoke than fire. However, the execution is really difficult for me and Troop. For example, Troop and I have managed to convince ourselves that collapsing in a heap after a walk transition is normal. We are both working against this type of mental and physical muscle memory. All. The. Time. Every. Stride. It is exhausting but paying off.

So we are making progress and fitness is improving AND NOW OF COURSE IT IS FALL! 

Yay. 

It is the same old story: Things start to go well and suddenly I am staring down the barrel of the coming winter without an indoor. Not only do I have to deal with the approaching weather complications and footing, but fit critters in cold "wind-up-the-tail weather” requires a whole different level of survival riding. The thought of this caused the most recent apathetic backslide for a week. I needed to bemoan the loss of summer days and accept the inevitable.

Apathy, at least for me, is ultimately a part of the process, and it seems the only cure is to keep slogging through the exercises until you have one of those moments that rekindles the addiction. I remain mostly optimistic that we will get back on track. I plan to leverage the Fall goodness right up to the minute it changes to ice weather. 

Hopefully I can keep the apathy at bay by keeping on and maybe somehow I can find the wherewithal to attempt an adventure before the snow flies. Stay tuned.

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