A Mantra for the Emotional Dressage Rider

DT's Lindsay Paulsen shares inspiration she took from Olympic dressage rider Steffen Peters.
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When you throw your heart and soul into dressage—or anything else, for that matter—I think it’s easy to get emotional about it.

When things go right, I feel downright giddy! Here I am with my very kind and tolerant mare after a particularly good ride! (Photo by Sherri Holdridge Photography) 

When things go right, I feel downright giddy! Here I am with my very kind and tolerant mare after a particularly good ride! (Photo by Sherri Holdridge Photography) 

I feel totally euphoric when I have a lesson that goes well. I get a little spring in my step and all seems right in the world. Life just feels like rainbows and butterflies and the Hallelujah Chorus. And when I have a bad ride, I want to throw myself a pity party and mope around for the rest of the day.

Is it over the top? Definitely. And if you’re an emotional rider, you know how totally exhausting this rollercoaster can be. And, getting emotional is usually counterproductive to training and problem solving. It’s also a burden for my horse to carry me plus all 500 of my accompanying emotions around the ring. 

I’ve learned that controlling emotions is a skill, and it comes more naturally to some people than to others. It’s a continual work in progress for me and it’s something I find myself writing about a lot.

I have a ton of respect for riders—professionals and amateurs—who can set their feelings aside and just get things done. And I have even more respect for riders who go out there on the world stage and keep their wits about them as they perform under incredible amounts of pressure.

Steffen Peters is one of those kinds of people. We could talk all day about what makes him a great rider—his flawless position, his empathy for the horse, his degree of feel, the nuance in his technique, his quiet controlled strength, his theoretical knowledge, his years of experience, et cetera. I’ve had the pleasure of watching him teach on a few different occasions and I’ve learned so much from just observing. But there’s one thing I learned from Steffen that’s really stuck with me more than anything else and it might not be the normal, technical training tip that you would expect.

During the symposium that we co-hosted with Scott Hassler and Hassler Dressage back in October, Steffen worked with a variety of talented horse-and-rider combinations that spanned the levels from Young Horse to Grand Prix. He would ask a rider to try an exercise or perform a movement. If the desired result didn’t happen, he would very calmly and gently say “OK, no problem. Let’s try again.” He said that a lot. And I mean A LOT. Not only did he say it calmly the first time, but he said it calmly all other 100 times as well. The tone of his voice never changed. He never sounded bothered or annoyed. The same thing happened when he, himself rode. He got on to help a horse through flying changes and the horse kept making the same mistake. He just said “OK, no problem. We’ll try again.” Sure, he used different tactics to address the problem but my point is that his emotional response was the same every time. He was unflappable. 

I try to remind myself of this during each of my rides. When things go awry, and I feel my emotions starting to creep in, I take a deep breath and say “OK, no problem” and try again. And, it’s not enough to be calm just the first few times I think it. I need to think “calm” on the 100th time, too.

There are a lot of ways that I would like to ride more like Steffen. But I think this is a good starting place.

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