On the surface, dressage is about training a horse, moving up levels, and for many, competing. There is much more to it though, if we are willing to take a closer look. Dressage is a journey, and the levels give us a guide to increasingly difficult movements requiring greater harmony, partnership, and communication with our horses. The competitions give us an easy way to set goals, set a deadline, and motivate us to work towards that goal, and then get some feedback on how we are progressing on our journey.
But the dressage journey is about each ride, each minute we are in the saddle, each minute we are in the stable, and each minute we are at home or work thinking about our horses. Whether we are working towards a show goal or a personal goal, whether we are doing difficult movements on an advanced horse, working on basics with a greenie, or developing our own skills with a school master, our enjoyment of each part of the process is ultimately what will make or break us as riders. When we enjoy each ride, we keep riding, keep learning, keep progressing, and in time, progress is inevitable. But when we dread each ride, either because we are afraid or frustrated or because we just don’t feel like what we are doing is right, if we don’t change something we burn out. We don’t give our horses the best of ourselves, communication breaks down and harmony eludes us. We all go through these tough phases at one time or another, sometimes sparked by an event like a scary fall or nasty spook, sometimes because of a stressful period at work or home, sometimes because we just don’t know any other way, and sometimes for no obvious reason at all. If we keep going, searching for that harmony, that partnership with our horse that makes riding feel so beautiful, we soon get back on track and find ourselves cherishing every moment in the saddle once again.
The key to getting through these tough times is to look inside. When we blame our horses, we put the control to make a change outside of ourselves, and lets face it, no horse is going to wake up one day and say, “Hey, I think today I will be different!”. But horses do change surprisingly quickly when we change the way we act towards them. A little love, kindness, and appreciation goes a long way. So does a little extra effort ensuring their comfort and happiness. We also have the power to change our approach, adjust our technique, or find another way of communicating our wishes. It’s up to us to make the change, to improve the relationship, to communicate better, and to create an environment for harmony and partnership to grow.
When we do look inside, sometimes it is hard to face what we find. This is how horses make us better people. When we are willing to look at what we might be doing to cause the situation, we learn things about ourselves. We might learn to be more patient, to be more appreciative, to be more trusting, to be more consistent, or to be more compassionate. And when we take these new insights and skills back to the rest of the relationships in our lives, it seems there are many parallels with our relationships with other people, and we can improve those relationships as well.
Discovering what it is that we need to change is the hard part. This requires learning to look at the situation from another point of view. Also, we have to look at the situation without judgement to see it for what it is and consider possibilities outside our normal perspective. Once we learn to view the situation this way, we then have to learn to give ourselves, and accept, our own constructive criticism. This can be a very hard thing, with most of us tending to either believe we are always right or else that we are always wrong or never will be good enough. Somewhere in the middle is the ability to humbly admit to ourselves that there is room for improvement and yet also humbly acknowledge our strengths so that we can build on them.
When we learn these challenging lessons, we gain valuable life skills that will allow us to more successfully work through challenges in all other parts of our lives as well. Through this process, the challenges we come up against on our dressage journey turn into opportunities for personal development, slowly helping us become the partner our horse wants us to be, and with each obstacle we overcome, we find ourselves one step closer to perfect harmony with our horse.
This is why there is no “easy way out” when it comes to a partnership with a horse, and why there are no shortcuts. This is also why the most difficult horses have the most to teach us, and why “there are many roads to Rome”. True, we may all progress up the same levels, but we are each on our own journeys, bringing different skills to the table and learning different lessons. Each of our horses has different approaches to teaching us the things we need to learn, as well as their own unique abilities to share with us when we are ready. The mechanics of riding the movements on different horses may be quite similar, but the journey for each of us remains unique.