How my retired horse helped me realize that dressage training doesn't always have to be so serious

Do you know anyone who puts a lot of pressure on herself or himself to be a better rider?

Of course, you do! We’re dressage people. It’s basically the essence of our culture. That pressure exists in various forms: the desire to fulfill our own goals, or to please a trainer, earn a medal, qualify for a team, justify all of the money we spend or improve a score. Sometimes we create that pressure for ourselves and sometimes that pressure comes, intentionally or unintentionally, from an outside source. As for me, I’m my own self-created, personal pressure cooker.

Look, I’m not going to the Olympics—ever—unless there is a serious unexpected plot twist in my life, involving divine intervention and a fairy godmother. But even so, I put an insane amount of pressure on myself to continuously improve as a rider. Perhaps you can relate.

If I have a good lesson, it makes my whole week and I feel like I’m walking on clouds. If I have a lesson when it feels like me and my horse just aren’t on the same page and can’t seem to get there, it puts me in a bad mood for the rest of the day. Up until recent years, I’ve had a really hard time with even just getting into the show ring because of my intense fear of failure. I once even got so worked up about a clinic that I gave myself a nosebleed.

Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about myself and about positive ways to cope with whatever pressure I’ve created for myself. My trainers and my current competition horse have helped me so much with that. But, recently, it was my retired horse, Kat, who made me realize something important about pressure.

I’ve had Kat for 11 years. She’s 26 and we’ve been through a lot together. She is an incredible horse who competed through Preliminary-level eventing with her previous owner and then became my babysitter when I was 16 to teach me the ropes of it all. She’s a forward, clever little thing and she’s got great character. While we never accomplished anything significant, I always had some kind of goal that I was working toward with her. Even though we only ever competed through Novice, I rode with this crazy intensity like I was preparing for Rolex. I’m sure it was pretty entertaining for those on the sidelines who watched me get all puffed up to jump my little courses. If Kat was a person, she would have spent much of her time with me rolling her eyes and wishing I would just take everything a little less seriously.

This is Kat. I'm her biggest fan, if you couldn't already tell. (Photo by Hayley Needham)

This is Kat. I'm her biggest fan, if you couldn't already tell. (Photo by Hayley Needham)

Kat has been gradually transitioned into retirement life over the past few years, just as I’ve transitioned strictly to dressage with my other horse. She currently spends most of her time out in a field with her friends, but she still comes out to play every now and then.

It was a strange day when I sat on her and realized that for the first time ever, we had nothing to work toward. There were no more competition goals, no more shows, no more ambitions. I felt lost. How was I supposed to know what to work on that day? What should we do? How long do I ride her for? How do I know when it’s “good enough?” When do I get off and call it a day?

It took a little bit of time for me to learn that the answer was simple: We actually just needed to have some fun. So, that’s what we did.

Not all who wander are lost! 

Not all who wander are lost! 

Now, if we want to jump little jumps, we jump little jumps. If we want to go for a hack through the neighborhood, we go for a hack. If I want to ride bareback and bridle-less, I do. If I make mistakes, there is no negative consequence. If I don’t feel like riding, I just give her handfuls of cookies and brush her. And I am no worse of a rider for it. The only thing that truly matters is that my horse is healthy and comfortable and that we’re making the most of the time we have left together. Of course, her health has mattered all along and has always been the priority, but for a long time, there were other goals connected to that.

Kat and I have discovered some fun places throughout our adventures. This property is a public park on a few hundred acres located right across the street from our barn! (The story goes that it was also a part of the Underground Railroad back in the day.)   

Kat and I have discovered some fun places throughout our adventures. This property is a public park on a few hundred acres located right across the street from our barn! (The story goes that it was also a part of the Underground Railroad back in the day.)   

That absence of pressure is so incredibly liberating. Sometimes, removing pressure and having no agenda is even more valuable than whatever is attained by achieving those goals we set.

I have spent much of my riding life, including what were supposed to be my “care-free” kid years, feeling like I was lightyears away from where I wanted to be. When I was in elementary school, I remember watching my trainer ride in her top hat and tails and longing for the day that would be me. Would I ever get there? How could I pause, for even just a moment, when there was so much work to be done?

What if, instead of operating under the premise that there was always more to be done, more to be perfected and more to be learned, we convinced ourselves that we didn’t have to be more of anything—that however we were on that day was enough?

Now that competition season is over for most of us outside the south, it seems like a particularly good time to let out a deep breath. Even in my work with my horse I compete, I try to tap into that pressure-less feeling I have found on Kat. That’s easier to do when there are no looming competitions, but it’s important to be able to do that in the face of pressure, too.

Taking a moment to pause for fun might not exactly put me any closer to my riding goals. But if we don’t do that, when will we ever give ourselves the chance to focus on how far we’ve come, instead of how far we have to go?

All that said, fairy godmother, please feel free to step in at your earliest convenience.

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