Overcoming Adversity in the Dressage Show Ring

Adversity in the show ring taught this top rider how to be a better athlete, trainer and competitor.

Sometimes, no matter what you do, you can’t seem to get ahead. You think your horse is going really well at home, and then at a show your plans fall apart. It’s a hard nut to swallow and it’s not fun, but it’s part of competing—not just in dressage but in any sport. We must accept defeat because defeat teaches us many things.

Jan Ebeling and Rafalca, a 14-year-old Oldenburg mare, competing two years later in 2011. (Credit: Terri Miller)

An example of this was my ride on Rafalca at the 2009 FEI World Cup Final in Las Vegas. After entering the arena, she became frightened and refused to perform her test. Each time she got close to the judge, she would not go forward. As a pupil of the German riding system, I know that going forward is fundamental, but at that moment it was all I could do to complete the test. It was the ride—in front of thousands—that no one wants to have, and it was one of the biggest disappointments of my career.

I should mention that my journey with Rafalca has been long and emotional with ups and downs and more than a few bumps along the way. This is typical in the career of an international horse, and many of my colleagues have experienced similar frustrations, but I will tell you my story. 

In 2007, Klaus Balkenhol [former U.S. dressage chef d’équipe] had dedicated much of his time to working with some of the top riders in the country, focusing on the developing horses. I’d spent a lot of time working with Klaus, and I was encouraged and proud that he thought it fitting that Rafalca and I do the test ride at the 2007 World Cup in Las Vegas. At the end of our ride, we received a standing ovation. I could not have had a more exciting time, as we were not really expecting to wow the crowd. Rafalca wasn’t bothered by the people, the proximity of the seats, the clicking of the cameras or even the occasional burst of applause. Klaus and I had wanted her to get some valuable experience, and now we knew she had the ability to be a top contender internationally.

After that performance, I obtained a U.S. Equestrian Team (USET) training grant to train with Klaus in Germany and compete in Europe. Our goal was for Rafalca to be a top contender for the 2008 Olympic Games. Unfortunately, the trip started in disaster. On her third day at Klaus’s, Rafalca took a bad step and sustained an injury, and it took 60 days before she could be worked again. That set her training back about a year. Although we were able to compete in 2008 at Grand Prix, Rafalca was ranked 13th and just missed the cut to compete in the dressage national championships, which also served as the Olympic selection trials. Rafalca’s owners—Beth Meyer, Ann Romney and my wife, Amy—were very disappointed. Nevertheless, I stuck to my schedule and set as my next goal qualifying for the 2009 World Cup. I was excited when Gil Merrick, then the USEF director of dressage, called to say that I’d received a wild card to compete in Las Vegas at the Final. I felt that my hard work was paying off and that, finally, Rafalca could show the world the brilliance I experienced every day at home.

At the Final, when we came down the chute into the Thomas & Mack Arena, I thought we were going to have a super ride. She was forward and went in nicely, but when she hit X, all of a sudden, it was over. And that happens—either your horse loses it or you as a rider lose it. People said later they thought it was the smoke in the air or the judge in the white outfit or the noise or the photographers or the lighting—everybody had a reason for her refusal. I never knew what it was and I don’t really care. My horse shied and refused to go—end of story. 

I received a lot of positive press for finishing my ride and smiling. That’s part of who I am. I don’t quit. I got a lot of support afterward from rider friends like Robert Dover, who was there when I came out of the arena. He said, “Do you remember at the Los Angeles Olympics when I could not get my horse out of the piaffe? Stuff like that happens to all of us. Be done with it, and get on with life.” My coach, Wolfram Wittig, told me, “That’s horses. Today there was nothing you could do.”

The 2009 World Cup was a very dramatic event for my wife, Amy, because she’s so supportive of what I do and puts so much effort into it herself. I think she almost took it harder than I did. I was certainly upset, mostly with myself, but I would never blame the horse. The horse is an animal, and she was afraid of something, and it’s my job to train her so that she is not afraid even of something that’s really scary. It was my failure. I went back and thought, What can I do so this doesn’t happen again? Of course, you’re never really covered 100 percent. Your horse can always shy or make a mistake. But after reflecting on the previous few years, I saw a trend: I’d get close to reaching a goal, but I wasn’t able to finish. I had to take a hard look at my program and make some important changes. 

I believe in every rider’s life there comes a moment when you have to be brutally honest about the structure of your program. If there’s a problem, you have to probe deeper instead of just chalking it up to bad luck. You make transformations that make a difference.

Preparing for Success

My experience was on an international stage, where I was representing my country and there was a lot of pressure to do well. But this could happen to someone in a First Level test at a small show. We all take it hard when we have a bad ride. But the trick is not to say, “I don’t know what I’m doing.” There’s always something positive you can learn from the negative. 

First, you have to analyze your rides—and not just the bad ones. I like to see my scores, but you can learn a lot by reading the comments at the end, and it’s even better if you can watch a video of your ride at the same time. On a great ride, there’s always something you can do better, and on a not-so-great ride you can always come up with something that you have done well.

You can also practice things to make your horse trust you more. Say you’re working at home and your horse shies at a jacket that was left on a chair. If you ask someone to put it away, you’ll probably have a great ride. But what if somebody has a jacket at a show and your horse doesn’t like it? You need to deal with those scenarios. 

I realized I’d been avoiding things my horse didn’t like, but I changed all that. Now if it’s windy, I know I’m not going to have a very pleasant ride, but I’ll work through it. Instead of saying, “Today’s going to be a wash. Maybe we’ll go on a trail ride,” you say, “Maybe the arena doesn’t look normal, but we’re going in there anyway.” Perhaps the horse doesn’t like to go in the morning or when it’s dark or during feeding time. There are a lot of things that are unpleasant that I make myself do, and it has really helped.

The Mental Game

Negative thinking is a pattern that you can get into very easily, especially when something dramatic happens. At a show it can spiral out of control if you’re focusing on your last ride that was really miserable. From a sport-psychologist perspective, there’s much you can do to mentally prepare yourself. 

I have a good friend who was a professional baseball player, and he suggested I talk to a sport psychologist who has worked with athletes from just about every sport you can imagine— baseball, figure skating, skiing. He gave me a lot of ideas and tools—things that I knew about but had never really used.

I definitely had a show routine before: I knew exactly how long my warm-up had to be, what time I had to get ready and when to do a quick runthrough of my test. Now about an hour before my ride, I go into a zone and really focus. It’s not just going through the movements, it’s sitting down and mentally riding my test. You can either do it from a bird’s-eye view or from the point of view of the rider. If you can do both, it’s a really good tool, but you have to do it in real time, so that you’re breathing and giving your half halts just the way you would on the horse. I mentally go through my test every day for a week or two before a competition. Two weeks before the 2011 World Cup in Leipzig last spring, I visualized my rides several times a day. Visualizing is a tool used by any good athlete, but it can be difficult to focus. Sometimes I’ll be visualizing my first diagonal at medium trot, and suddenly I’ll start thinking about something else—the movie I just saw or what I’m going to do tomorrow.

What happened at the 2009 World Cup could have affected my confidence if I’d allowed it to, but I made sure that didn’t happen. Right after Vegas we made sure to show Rafalca again, and she did great. Of course, you cannot replicate the atmosphere in Vegas. It wasn’t until we competed in Germany in 2010 that it crossed my mind— what if it happens again? It gave me a tremendous amount of confidence that it didn’t happen, and it also gave me confidence that what I’d added to my training was working.

The Physical Preparation

There are many ingredients that go into a six-minute dressage ride. Finding the right physical program, in addition to the right mental preparation, is important. I ride a lot of horses every day, but I’m always working the same muscle groups. You don’t get a lot of cardio when you’re riding, so I changed my workout routine. I start off with stretches and I do the bike. Adding another workout is hard. After riding 15 horses and teaching lessons, when I come home, the last thing I want to do is get on a bike. Let’s just say my day has become a lot longer! 

You should also analyze your warmup. It’s not just for your horse—you have to have a routine as well. Everyone has his or her own unique ritual. My friend Christine Traurig puts on her show clothes in the morning even if she rides much later. I’m always trying to figure out ways to make my routine easier on the horse so that our results get better. You have to be open to adding and learning and improving. When you say, “I’m done,” you’re toast. You’re never truly perfected, which is the nice thing about competing.

In the end, it’s important that you trust yourself and your judgment. You don’t want to be overconfident, but you have to believe that what you’ve changed or added will work. Rafalca’s done a lot of growing up, but now I have many more tools to get myself ready for a big event than I had several years ago. I’ve learned a lot about my horse, about what I can add to my training and what I can do just for myself. I hope some of this works for you, too.

This article was originally printed in the April 2012 issue of Dressage Today.






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