Defining Excellence in Dressage

Sports psychologist Jenny Susser, PhD, explains a realistic way to pursue excellence.
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What is excellence? It is easy to answer this question in terms of dressage—it’s a score of 10. But since very few of us will ever actually score a 10, what does excellence look like in reality? As a reflective exercise, write down how you define excellence and how you look for it in yourself, your horse and your riding. You will be surprised at the difficulty of this seemingly simple task. Many of us see excellence as a distant, intangible phenomenon reserved for someone else, special events or people like Olympians, something that has nothing to do with us as individuals. I want you to challenge this because I believe that we are all excellent, not just periodically or on a special occasion, but daily.

The dictionary defines excellence as “the quality of being outstanding or extremely good.” The word “superiority” is also thrown around when it comes to many definitions of excellence, but I don’t particularly like that addition. One word that I think is missing from the definition is “relativity.” With all this talk of excellence, is there really only one standard for it? I respond with resounding passion: No! Excellence is not only relative but is highly personal. Sadly, this sentiment is not typically embraced, especially in our dressage culture, where nothing ever seems to be good enough. If you think about it, we see excellence every day but perhaps miss the opportunity to celebrate because we are stuck on a definition of excellence that seems like it will forever exclude us. 

So where do we start to look for excellence? When I was swimming, my coach always told me to “swim in my own lane.” What that means is to keep your focus on you. Competing is tricky because you have to keep one eye on the competition and one on yourself and what you are doing. Swimming in your own lane means you race your own race, not the race of the person next to you. If you are spending a lot of energy comparing yourself, your horse, your progress, your ability or your results to anyone else, that is basically swimming in someone else’s lane. Staying in yours is a way of sticking to your strengths, minimizing your weaknesses and performing to plan. 

There’s a popular saying that I personally think better embodies the pursuit of excellence: “The only person you should try to be better than is the person you were yesterday.” This involves constant striving for improvement, but is measured against the self, not others. We can’t control others no matter how hard we try. But if we begin to move our measure of excellence to ourselves, then something becomes possible. What if being excellent included more than just your test score or the level at which you are competing? What if being excellent included how happy your horse is at the end of a session? What if being excellent included how happy you are at the end of a session? What if a measure of excellence was how excited you are to ride?

Create lots of ways to assess your excellence and make them highly personal and relative to you, your horse and your goals. I’m big on lists and systems, especially around goals and assessing progress. Have a conversation with your trainer and together come up with some relative measures for excellence when it comes to you and your horse. Excellence should be something you brush up against every day, even in the smallest ways. Celebrate your excellence, celebrate your horse’s excellence and watch the excellence expand. 

Jenny Susser has a doctoral degree and is licensed in clinical health psychology, specializing in sport psychology. A four-year all-American swimmer at UCLA, she swam on two national teams and at the 1988 Olympic Trials. She has worked with athletes of all sports and ages—collegiate, professional, international and amateur. She was the sport psychologist for the 2010 WEG South African Para-Dressage Team and the 2012 U.S. Olympic Dressage Team. Dr. Jenny is also a performance coach with Human Performance. 

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