Rider Psychology: The Layers of Training

Dr. Jenny Susser explains "the onion analogy" in relation to riding.
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We have all heard it before: the onion analogy. As popular as the analogy is, its power stands the test of time and for good reason. Later on in the March issue, you’ll read more about it as Lisa Wilcox discusses the topic in her how-to training article. 

While thinking about this month’s column, I wondered how to talk about successfully facing the infinite task of “onion peeling.” It would be nice if growth and change happened overnight, but unfortunately, other than in the movies, it takes time. And usually lots of time. This concept creates a conundrum for most of us and we often find ourselves asking “When will I finally get there?” I don’t know about you, but I keep waiting to reach that point in life where there have been enough mistakes and then things are just easy and successful! But again, this is not reality. So, off we go to the barn, day after day, layer after layer. 

What drives you to continue to peel layer after layer? Horses are not easy, and we all know they are not cheap, so remembering what drives you is an important component. Finding the meaning in your journey strengthens your motivation, so being connected to your reasons for pursuing dressageis actually quite motivating. This connection becomes particularly useful during times of stress, strain, frustration or even heartache. 

Have you ever found yourself running around like crazy and actually heard yourself ask, “Why I am putting myself through all of this?” First of all, that’s a natural reaction to that kind of stress so don’t feel bad. The important thing is to have a powerful answer to your frustration reaction. Imagine you encountered this kind of moment and the negative way it makes you feel. When we get to these places, getting unstuck takes a certain amount of preparation, believe it or not. Now imagine taking a deep breath or two and reconnecting with those core reasons of why you do what you do. 

There are countless reasons for why we have horses in our lives, and most of us have more than one reason for it. Many of you reading this magazine are competitive riders and, whether amateurs or professionals, you love to compete. Riding, training and competing a horse up the levels is a great method for onion peeling. And think of all the layers available: each level of dressage brings new layers to peel for each horse and each rider. Different breeds can require different techniques for accessing new layers and so can geldings versus mares versus stallions. 

For just about all of us, it is the relationship with our horse that truly drives our equestrian endeavors. We are drawn to horses and their majesty and love the animal in a way that keeps us coming back day after day, layer after layer. Having this relationship is motivation and reason enough, whether or not you ever step into a ring. 

There are lots of ways to peel an onion. Ever heard of a thousand roads to Rome? So the point is not to get stuck on which road is the best road. The challenge is really developing the tolerance or ability to stay on course even when the metaphorical onion makes you cry. So to stick with our analogies, it doesn’t take a master chef to peel an onion or a fancy GPS to navigate winding roads with great success. It just takes time. So as you read about Lisa Wilcox’s methods of peeling the onion in training the dressage horse, remember that she, just like you, goes one layer at a time. You will be amazed at the difference this simple adjustment will make in your rides and your connection with your horse. 

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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