Self-Esteem and Insecurity in the Saddle

Dressage Today Intern Nenah Mikuska reflects on her ability as a rider, and how to embrace the fact that everyone is always learning.

I’m sure there comes a time in every equestrian’s life where they’ve felt insecure and even embarrassed by their riding skill—whether it be someone in their forties who is just now fulfilling their childhood dream of learning to ride, and struggling with the posting trot or a Grand Prix rider who is suddenly faced with a new training challenge. Feeling inadequate or just plain disappointed in your riding is something that every rider faces, and for me, it’s something that has haunted me for years.

I am famously known for being very hard on myself—academically, emotionally, and when it comes to my riding. I am a born perfectionist, and when I struggle at doing something, be it bending lines in a jumping course or a new formula for my statistics class, my first response is usually to get frustrated, angry, and maybe even threaten to give up.

My parents know this well; when I was in the third grade and math started showing itself as my unyielding and unforgiving enemy, there were more than one occasion where I either declared to my teacher how “stupid” I found math to be, or informed my parents that I was never going to use math in my life, ever, and refused to do my homework.

(Let it be stated for the record that while I still hate math, I did trudge my way through statistics for the sake of my degree; no, I don’t encourage giving up on it. Sadly, math is important. Stay in school, kids.)

My mom commented, years later, “You are so used to everything coming easy to you, that when you struggle with something, you tend to give up or throw it away.”

And it’s true! From a young age I was usually one of the top in my classes, reading at a higher level and excelling in writing and English in general, and even being a rather good athlete; I was selected for a competitive soccer team when I was eight, and secretly that’s been a point of pride for me ever since.

My point being is, struggling is not something that I handle well. And frankly, given my history, it’s astonishing that I haven’t thrown in the towel yet when it comes to riding. It sometimes feels like it’s been nothing but struggles. Yet, at the end of the day, I saddle up, keep calm and ride on.

What makes riding different? I don’t think I need to explain it; those of us who ride just know. It’s in us, almost genetic, in our DNA. We ride. That’s just what we do.

Riding my friend Ann’s pony mare, Skye, on an unusually warm day in January. She’s fancy. (Credit: Misty Hill Farm)

But that doesn’t mean I’m not hard on myself when it comes to being in the saddle. Having friends who have ridden consistently since they were in diapers, or watching a flawless Fourth Level test while my lesson horse runs around like a giraffe, is disheartening, to say the least.

Especially recently, I’ve managed to convince myself that I should be better at riding than I am. I should be at the level other twenty-two-year-old girls are. I shouldn’t be struggling with suppleness and bend. I shouldn’t be worried about my elbows.

There’s really no reason for it. My close friend (otherwise known as my unofficial big sister) Nicole, finally fed up with my tearing myself down, exclaimed to me over the phone at one point “Where are you getting these ideas?! Nenah, you haven’t ridden very much, not compared to a lot of other people! And you’re improving, you’re doing fine.”

Translation: Chill out.

That was a few weeks ago and it’s something that, since that conversation, I have kept in mind every time I swing up on a horse’s back. Because she’s right; if you’ve read my Intro Blog, then you know that I really haven’t had much consistency when it comes to my riding. It’s been a lot of uphill struggles, a lot of crying over trying to afford lessons and slaving away to save up for new breeches or a clinic. Whereas there are people who have been blessed to have been able to have lessons and their own horses their entire lives, that just wasn’t my case. It wasn’t my story, and it isn’t my journey. And that’s okay. I am where I am, and I’m doing pretty well regardless.

Engaging in some important reading between editing pages for the newspaper; it’s a hard life! (Credit: Lidia Bayne)

As part of my quest to be a more knowledgeable dressage rider and equestrian in general, I recently started reading “Dressage for Beginners,” a book by R.L.V. ffrench Blake. I highly recommend it to riders who are just starting out or who feel they need a refresher on the basics. While it’s, of course, no substitute for saddle time, it’s a great little how-to and advice guide for learning the art of Dressage. I’m learning a lot just by reading it, and I hope I can translate it into ride time soon!

My ultimate point is this: When I was reading the book the other night before bed, there was a sentence that really stood out to me and drove home a point that I’ve been working to teach myself for weeks, and I wanted to share it, for those who might need to hear it, too.

Chapter 4, “Impulsion,” page 29: “[Collection] cannot be achieved until the proper muscles have been developed.”

While it’s a bit of a “Well, duh,” statement, I actually think it can be utilized as a metaphor for growing and improving as a rider. Riding is tough. There’s frustration, there’s anger, and there are times when you want to quit, especially in developing as a rider yourself. But, these things take time. Muscles aren’t formed after one workout, and a rider isn’t made after one week, or even one year, of riding. It’s a process, and one that must be continued, nurtured. Let there be time to develop. “Developing muscle,” either literally or metaphorically, is something that will come, and no one should be hard on themselves for not having reached that stage yet. It’s okay; it will come. Even for you, and even for me.