Mind Wellness: A Balanced Journey for Dressage Riders

Sports psychologist, Jenny Susser explains the importance of finding balance in your dressage journey.
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Clichés are funny. They sound ridiculous, yet we use them all the time. “Life is a journey not a destination is one of my favorites to hate. You see it everywhere on social media now, but I remember it used to be on T-shirts and in card shops or especially on those calendars we had on our desks that had a new affirmation every day. You will have to be older than the Internet to understand that reference, though. In a conversation, we say clichés at the perfect time and then everyone gives a pause with a slight head tilt as they mumble, “Hmm, so true,” and then immediately return to post-cliché behavior without a second thought, which is the unfortunate definition of a cliché. 

As the year winds to an end, we tend to become more reflective. This natural state is a powerful one in which to take advantage and cultivate change. However, many of us return to normal (or post-cliché) behavior by the time mid-January arrives and the call of our busy lives and long to-do lists take back over the majority of the real estate in our minds. Insight-oriented work is the foundation for personal change, and yet many people never make it past this stage. There are a few reasons for this wonderful phenomenon and perhaps having insight into them can help you turn insight into action—for it is only in action that change occurs.

The first reason we fail to turn insight into action is discomfort. Any living being hates discomfort and from a survival standpoint, we avoid this state at all costs. We do it so quickly and naturally, we don’t even notice. Our horses do it, too. Your wiggly, clever horse is simply being an instinct-driven animal, seeking relief from the discomfort of your physical pressure as a rider. 

Emotional discomfort for people is the worst. Many can withstand physical discomfort, but emotional discomfort is tough and takes some tolerance. But when we wiggle our way out of the discomfort, we actually cheat ourselves out of the opportunity to examine, reflect and connect to insights. Developing a capacity for the discomfort is a worthy and valuable part of the journey.

The second roadblock is perspective. Let’s face it, most of us are not so good at gaining perspective. It takes time to develop the consideration of perspective as a reliable skill, and sometimes we forget how important it can be. The word “perspective” comes from the art world and it is how an artist portrays a three-dimensional object on a flat surface, such as a canvas, by suggesting depth. Think about that for a minute—making something flat look notflat by adding color or shading or texture. Perspective is the way you see things, and we have the ability to add our own depth to a subject or person by adding metaphorical color or texture or shading. 

If you start to look for other angles or depth in a conversation, subject or person, you will be able to find it. It is about asking questions instead of being certain you already know the answer. It will never fail to help you make decisions, connect deeper with people or concepts, and help you feel better. So put that on your to-do list for the new year.

The third sticky spot is performing the actual action. Insights need to be tied to a new action in order to create change. Interestingly, the hardest part is remembering to do the new action. It sounds ridiculous but this is true. We wantto do things differently, but need to form new habits to make sure they get done. This is not done just through motivation, determination and willpower alone. You need support and reminders to get to success. One of the best parts of the technology revolution and having our cell phones attached to us at the hip is that they can help remind us of these things. 

Leave nothing to chance by assigning a time to everything. Set reminders on your phone to breathe or to think a positive thought or to create a goal for your ride today or to remember to be grateful for the wonder in your life. 

Measuring physical progress is easy, but measuring mental and emotional gains is not as obvious. I see this stop people from trying, even when they are improving and making great progress. Look for the small, daily wins, practice gratitude, identify happy moments, practice being kind for no reason. More clichés, I know, but like stereotypes, they exist for a reason. And there is actually a growing body of research to show these actions have great impact upon our physical and mental bodies. A small change is better than no change and tends to be more lasting anyway. I’ll never forget the first time someone asked me, “How do you eat an elephant?” The answer is, “One bite at a time.” 

Thank you for joining me on this mental-wellness-column journey. Keep your journey balanced by mixing some kindness and compassion for yourself in there. We can get lost in the work and the focus on our goals, and that can ultimately send us off course. I hope this column was useful and that you will continue to practice and prepare for whatever you are aiming to accomplish. Best of luck. I will be rooting for you.

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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