… And, work hard.
If there is one token of invaluable knowledge I’ve learned from my dressage journey, it’s that this art is one of marathon pace, not a sprint. I strive to remember my coined analogy each time Leah and I enter the arena for daily training. What sparked the inspiration behind this particular post happened to be a conversation with a close friend over margaritas and queso blanco a couple of weeks ago. We chatted about what we seem to see as growing pattern in riders alike: the urge to breeze through the levels without full comprehension of the biomechanics, the finesse, or how much personal effort goes into creating a well rounded FEI competitor.
Naturally, I found this topic fascinating and decided to take to the blog. I’m about to get all shades of opinionated, but where would my authenticity be if I didn’t speak my mind?
My dressage journey might’ve started with Brightwood in 2004, but I credit the true beginning point of my foundational development to my trainers, Eva Oldenbroek-Tabor and her husband, Joshua Tabor, in 2010. When I started working with Eva, who came to our property and taught me in the field behind our barn, I had no idea what a half-halt was, or what to do with it. I wasn’t aware of what FEI tests entailed; there were no USDF Medals to my name. Training Level had become my niche as I was going on my 5th year of receiving pink (or whatever color they are now) score sheets. I desperately yearned to advance, to ride a flying change or feel the power of a canter pirouette.
After another successful year of Training Level with Henry, Eva passed me the reins to Clovis, the schoolmaster in which I earned my USDF Bronze on, and a horse I described in my “Experiencing Fear” blog post. He was 21, I was 18. What I thought would be relatively ‘easy’ to grasp transpired into a huge dose of humility. I seem to have a pattern with acquiring horses that air on the more difficult side to ride – not so much in the brain but in the body. Long backed, harder to sit, stiff, rigid, strong in the bridle; you name it, Clovis portrayed it. He taught me my first line of tempi changes, gave me a taste of passage, and let me become familiar with upper level dressage. Clovis set the tone for my learning journey under the careful eye of Eva. Together, they helped me achieve my goal of earning my USDF bronze as a junior.
Once I had a taste of the more collected work, I was hooked… and severely naïve. We all know how my time with Sammy transpired, but what I failed to describe in the fear series were my emotions toward instant gratification. I entered this partnership feeling invincible. I wanted nothing more to earn my USDF silver and make the Young Rider Team for NAJYRC. How hard could it be? Sammy was total opposite to Clovis – compact, hot, sensitive, fairly uncomplicated. I would slip into that coveted shad-belly coat in no time.
As a teenager, I didn’t realize how easy it would be to get swept away in the minutia of upper level dressage. All I wanted to focus on during lessons were the tricks, mostly because I had no clear grasp of the necessity for basics. Why on earth wasn’t I at X level in X amount of time? I found myself setting unrealistic expectations just to say I earned a spot on the young rider team or type “FEI dressage rider” in my Instagram bio.
Bless the days of being a headstrong nineteen year old.
Ironically, my partnership with Sammy began to crumble during this moment in time. Experiencing the fear in ways that I did was a curse, but also, a blessing. I needed these things to happen. Horses have an uncanny way of putting us humans back in the place of humbleness, don’t you think? Hindsight, everything came full circle. Sure, Sammy and I didn’t work out, but he did teach me one major lesson: the emphasis on patience, and the appreciation for the horse.
Plain and simple, had I not received this “wake-up call” from Sammy, I truly believe my relationship with Leah would have ultimately failed. I’ve stated before that I link my success with Leah to the time I took away from the competition arena; away from the pressures this sport can cast upon its athletes. I virtually had two options: take the same path I had chosen with Sammy, or do things completely different.
Obviously, I selected the latter.
When Leah entered my life, I submersed myself in our quiet moments. Grooming, grazing, stall cleaning or even sweeping the barn isle were all opportunities to spend time in her presence. I'd blabber about my latest happenings while she'd munch on coastal and snort in response. The more moments we bonded away from saddle time, the more clarity I gained as to where my priorities had once gone astray. Appreciation for Leah grew to respect, which developed into a mutual trust. This premise served as our foundation, not rigorous training or competing off the initial bat. Game changer: when you’re tactful enough to feel your horse’s respect for you as a rider; when they really desire to work for you, not just prance around the arena because they’re being told to do so.
Embarking on my journey with Leah under Eva's instruction, I knew our goals wouldn’t be attainable without serious devotion to details. The amount of work I put in would equal the amount of success I got out, especially in percentage form written in black ink on the front of a dressage test.
Riding at the FEI is a league in its own formality. It’s a heightened since of… well, everything. The days of “winging it” are over, as judges can easily spot who is flying by the seat of their white breeches versus the confident.
Well, fingers crossed none of you literally go flying, but you get the picture.
Let’s face it, you’re not going to be an FEI superstar your first time out at the Prix St. Georges. Every international rider would probably agree with me; we all have to start somewhere! In March of 2017, I finished my 4th level scores for my silver medal with Leah, earning a consecutive 65% and some change both days. My entries were signed, sealed, and delivered (okay, instantly submitted… thank you, Show Secretary for a convenient online entry program) to the show the following month, and my debut for PSG was set in stone. This was the moment I had been working towards for years, but severely doubted its probability of ever coming to fruition. For months leading up to our 4th level competition, we rigorously schooled aspects of the PSG, breaking the test down during each training session. I’ve always trained with the idea that you school one level above the level you’re currently competing; this scenario proved no different. I felt ready, I felt prepared. I had visualized the test millions of times in my head. There was nothing left to do but canter down centerline.
Now, was it my wisest idea to come out at the FEI for the first time in front of a panel of CDI judges? No, absolutely not.
Leah and I scored a whopping 57% during our inaugural PSG. My face tingled and I almost tossed my cookies during the walk pirouette tour. I held my breath throughout the canter work; I gasped for air after our final salute.
The following morning, we entered the warm-up for round two, a new mindset sinking heavily into my persona. I allowed the subliminal pressure of earning my USDF Silver to utterly ramrod my first time at the PSG. How could I forget one simple thing: how much of a dream come true this experience actually was? The PSG was just another test, just another score, and just another chance to ride in front of judges. With this metaphorical breath of fresh air, I felt my anxiety lift from my chest. We went into the show arena that day, producing a 63%, and on Sunday, we earned a 62%. Naturally, I was disappointed with my results on Friday, letting pangs of defeat wash over me for the duration of that particular afternoon. I wanted that medal, and I wanted it with every nerve ending of my body, but at the end of the day, the importance of the medal meant nothing compared to the importance of my bond with Leah. Even though we did earn our silver that weekend, it wasn’t without patience knocking on the door before each halt and salute.
Let’s get candid.
You know, I’ve been doing this whole rated competition thing for a long time. My first recognized show was in 2005 as a 12 year old. A lot of variables have changed over the years. I feel old, it’s fine, BUT think about it! FOURTEEN years of slipping into show breeches, and I’ve only been competing the FEI for the last three.
If there’s one thing I tell people when this topic arises in conversation, it’s this: the slower you go, the faster you get there.
Heck, I’ve even had to remind Barrett of this simple statement multiple times when I see his yearn for success morph into impatience. Blue Duck is not a machine, Leah is not a machine, and your horse is not a machine. These are living, breathing animals with thoughts and opinions of their own. They will have “off” days, they will have great days, and they will have just okay days, much like us. We do not perform at our best every moment, why would we expect this of them? This ties back into patience, and if there’s one thing that really chaps my ass, it’s when I see young juniors, or anyone of any age for that matter, demonstrate their frustration by disrespecting their horse, their trainer, or even worse, their parents.
Straight up, your horse could decide to end your life if she or he decided so. Even if you have the worst test of your entire career, by God, you thank your horse as you’re coming out of the arena then go cry in your tack stall. The second you stoop to yanking on their mouth when you think the judge doesn’t see, for example, (as you’re supposed to be leaving the arena on a loose rein), you have totally lost my respect and no, you do not deserve the animal you’re sitting upon. If your parents are financially backing your training and competing, you are blessed. They deserve nothing but your gratitude.
This is how my horse-loving mom raised me, and how I will raise my children should they decide to become equestrians. For the record, I'm not saying I'm the perfect example, nor am I toting that I've never made mistakes in terms of letting my emotions dictate my actions. We've all lost our temper, whether that's tears streaming down our face halfway through a lesson, choice words, or accidentally using too much force out of human reaction. It happens to everyone.
But, when we begin to view our horse as a tool for earning ribbons, awards, medals and titles, we lose sight of everything this sport embodies. Pushing yourself, and your horse, past your individual capabilities in order to compete at a certain level by a certain time can result in detrimental effects.
Don't ask me how I know. That's a can of worms for another day.
Say hello to the beauty of dressage, people!!! The amount of time and patience required to truly develop, as a team, is what makes this sport so special, so unique. Handfuls of people rush through the levels, and guess what, it’s blatantly obvious when they're unprepared or even worse; when their horse is unprepared for the particular test they've entered. One of my horse-show friends has a rule, one in which I’ll share now:
• If you’re not scoring 65% or above for at least three consecutive tests, you shouldn’t begin to think about moving up to the next level •
Even at my third year riding the FEI, I’m still striving to finesse the in’s and out’s of the complex maneuvers. Have there been times when I truly convinced myself I’d never get a tempi-count nailed? For sure, but the more I continued to chip away at the exercise, the more I began to develop the true feel for required aids.
Expecting overnight results is an exercise in futility, and you’re in the wrong sport. It’s important to remember the necessity of basic training. Our foundation for dressage is scripted in “the basics.” Each advanced movement is just a dramatic enhancement of training/first/second level movements. Leg yields turn into half-passes, turn-on-the-haunches turn into pirouettes. Without a clear grasp of biomechanics, how can one successfully move forward? Again, it’s not something that happens in a week, but more like years of work.
Plus, Leah’s mind would be fried if I schooled strictly tricks day in and day out. She needs my patience; she deserves my patience, and I hear her when she tells me we have a hole in our training that requires patching.
At the end of the day, blue ribbons are great, but they won’t be attached to my test sheet every single ride. I won’t score a 70% during each show, and I won’t win a high point award once a month. Where is the fun in that, and if this were the case, where would my lessons in patience, hard work, and dedication lie? How would I ever appreciate my efforts with Leah when a huge success did come around? Winning is great, but it’s only a small factor in the grand scheme of things. Leah has taught me a considerable amount about patience, really. I never put a deadline on our training or competing, and because of that, our milestones have tasted all the sweeter. She’s been fair to me, just as I’ve been fair to her.
Just like the title of this post portrays, good things really do come to those who wait. Or, in dressage ideals, those who understand their horse, work hard, and know that Rome wasn’t built in a day. I won’t lie, this post seems a little scattered with random thoughts – they were popping into my head like crazy while writing – but hopefully you can decipher the meaning behind my opinions of patience.
Revel in the time it has taken for your partnership to develop with your horse, and whatever you do, fight the hankering to compare and contrast your scenario with others. I mean, they say “patience is a virtue” for a reason.