Shortly before my 35th birthday, I realized my riding had plateaued. I considered myself a good, average, balanced-seat rider, meaning I could ride a variety of horses safely and effectively, maintaining an independent seat. Something about the number 35 made me realize I had been riding at approximately this level for just over 20 years. As a therapeutic riding instructor and equine professional, I knew it was time to push myself. How could I continue asking my students to strive for new accomplishments when it had literally been decades since I pushed my own limits?
I set the goal of developing a deeper understanding of lateral work and collection, and sought out a dressage instructor whose training philosophy resonated with me. I found Katie Poag—an FEI competitor and trainer whose website describes dressage as “fun, enlightening, challenging and fulfilling,” which sounded promising.
At my first lesson, Katie asked me to sit the trot. “I’m bouncing everywhere,” I complained. Katie coached me through this insecurity, encouraging me to take a few minutes to acclimate to the horse’s gait and trust my body to adjust. “You,” Katie told me calmly, “are not nearly as bad as you think you are.”
Katie’s comment resonated with me. Truthfully, I didn’t actually think I was a bad rider: I thought I was good, if limited by a lack of athleticism. But now I began to consider that maybe being good wasn’t enough. Maybe if I gave myself the chance, I could become excellent—athletic, confident and proficient.
A few months later, Katie offered me the opportunity to take lessons on Freewind, one of her upper-level Hanoverians. I felt totally intimidated. I tried to shake this off, telling myself I was being silly: Riding Freewind was a unique opportunity to progress. Who wouldn’t want to ride this fantastic horse?
The first day I rode him, I worried I might “push the wrong button” and cause him to piaffe accidentally, pirouette uncontrollably or take off in tempi changes. Sitting on this highly-trained horse, I faced the fear that my lack of skill and talent would be painfully exposed. Throughout the lesson I sat up there like a passenger. Finally, Katie said, “He’s not made of glass. Just ride him like any old horse!”
With her words, I realized what my biggest problem was: Deep down, I didn’t believe I deserved to ride Freewind. There was some part of me—even after many years of striving to become an educated rider—that thought I could never be ready or able to ride an exceptional horse. I had stayed average because I had always accepted that as good enough for me. Freewind was waiting, ready to collaborate with me on being brilliant, but it was up to me to make it happen.
Over the next few weeks, I discovered so much about dressage and about myself. I found that riding Freewind effectively was not beyond my reach. It was challenging: I had to exert myself physically to ride his gaits and mentally to find a place of quiet, determined concentration. Katie challenged me to adjust my seat and alignment in ways that were subtle but also physically demanding, requiring core strength I didn’t know I had. Mentally, the biggest challenge was learning to accept Freewind’s power. In the past, when I’d felt a power surge come from a horse, it often meant the horse was about to do something undesirable—spook, buck or bolt. To ride Freewind effectively, Katie explained that I would have to change this thought pattern and learn to expect, accept and even encourage his channeled, heightened power. “Take a risk,” she said often—a concept that I had not previously associated with the controlled precision of dressage.
I began to recognize how pervasive the belief of “good and average” had been in my expectations for many aspects of my riding and my life. In the past, I often hesitated to pursue what mattered most to me, settling instead for skill sets and experiences I considered just good enough. Katie and Freewind empowered me to expand my expectations, to challenge self-imposed personal limitations. By allowing me to ride Freewind and encouraging me to expect a lot from him and from myself, Katie taught me it’s worthwhile (if not spectacular) to overcome self-doubt. I was inspired to invest in my dressage riding and believe in myself more completely—both of which have led me to enjoy a more joyful life.