I think its really important to talk about and reflect on the things we learnt in the last year, what we learnt from the bad experiences and the tests or sessions that didnt go to plan as well as those moments we look back on as being huge successes.
Especially in this sport we are all constantly trying to better ourselves, dressage is a sport where we never know everything, we never know enough, theres always a lesson to learn, a gap in our knowledge, a horse that surprises us and thats the case whether you are just starting out in the sport or have been doing it for 50 years at Grand Prix. Some of these things i learnt myself through my riding, some through coaching other riders and some through actually watching the journeys my clients and riders have made over the year has actually taught me a lot too.
But these are probably the 3 most major and big things that i have learnt and am really wanting to remember and take into 2023 and hopefully it will give you a few things to take away and think about too.
Have an open mind when things dont work
I am now at a stage where i have trained a fair few horses, especially having around 20 sales horses coming in and out on our yard, you get used to sitting on new horses every day, looking and assessing new horses and working out what they are like, what types of riders they are going to suit and what type of job they would be best suited to and with this you start to develop a bit of a theory or a bit of a process of how you categorise these horses and also how you train them. From a coaching perspective, if someone comes in and tells me their horse is really lazy and i see that the horse is really lazy im going to coach them very differently to if i see a really hot horse.
And yet, with that, there will always be horses that dont fit the system; that dont suit the theory or the system that you work with and this is the point where as a rider or as a coach we can look at these horses and go one of three options; you put your head down and keep battling through doing the same thing in the hope that somehow doing the same thing is going to get you a different outcome - clearly thats not going to work. Or you can give up and decide that this horse doesnt suit you or your way of riding or you can use it as an opportunity to learn a totally new way of training that suits this horse, and use it as a way to learn and grow and become a better more well rounded rider that is capable of riding lots of different types of horses.
Now obviously we all know which way is the right way. But the right way is hard, it is hard to accept that you have a gap in your knowledge and you aren't sure how to solve a particular situation, it is hard to ask for help and it is hard to do all this without then beating yourself up and thinking this means you're a bad rider. Its about accepting the fact that as riders we cant know everything, there will always be times where you get stuck with your horse, where you come across problems you dont know how to fix or you feel youll never be able to fix.
And i see it just as much in top riders as amateur riders who ride for fun, we categorise our horses and use that to decide if they are right for us or not. A common one is 'i only like riding hot horses' or 'my lazy horse just doesnt like dressage'. And so we put these horses in these categories and then decide whether or not that works for us; 'i like riding hot horses so if theyre not hot im not going to enjoy riding them'; 'my lazy horse doesnt like dressage so if i do dressage we are both going to hate it and not enjoy it'; its already putting in assumptions and closing our mind off to the fact that actually, this horse that you might not like riding might actually be the biggest opportunity for you to become a better rider or learn something huge from the experience. I guess its having more of an open mind that actually horses can change and riders can change and lets try not to categorise horses too quickly and equally, from a coaches perspective not try and categorise ourselves as riders either.
2. Don't get stuck in the theory
This lesson came a little earlier in the year when i had a lesson where my coach said that i needed to use a little inside rein to help add a tiny bit of extra flexion on the circle.
Now for those of you that know about the inside leg to outside rein connection idea, this goes against the kind of theory of how you ride a circle, you use your inside leg to create the bend and the outside rein to turn the horses shoulders around the circle. And with what i do with this podcast and the training platform, we talk a lot about theory which is really good. Theory isnt a bad thing; it gives you clarity on how things should be done, the aids for movements and why these aids work when others dont. And for years i have been teaching riders to stop using the inside rein to turn their horse and instead use the outside rein and inside leg. So the concept of someone telling me to use my inside rein whilst i was riding a circle was a bit like someone telling me that i should really be driving on the other side of the road.
But ultimately, the results spoke for themselves, when i added a hint of flexion for a few strides my horse became more supple, it loosened off the top part of his neck that had tightened and ultimately, my circle got better because of it. This doesnt mean the theory doesnt work. The inside leg to outside rein connection is still true and right. But the problem is that every horse is different, every rider rides slightly differently, every trainer coaches slightly differently and so the theory needs to underpin everything but i now think of it more as forming the basis for everything i do but i don't stick so solidly to the theory that i dont do anything else apart from what i should do. If we do this we might as well ride mechanical horses every time we ride because horses dont all react the same way, they all have different strengths, weaknesses, mentalities, confidence levels and abilities and so i now am much more focussed on giving space for this and allowing the horse a bit more space to tell me what works for them, but still with that theory being the bassline for what i do, just adapting it to suit the horse much more.
And, for coaches, we can do the same for riders too, whilst there is a theory of what the best position is and what the best way to ride is, our job as coaches isnt to make everyone ride like charlotte or carl, thats not going to work for every rider, instead its to make each rider the best they can be and work with them, their bodies, their mentality and so on; the same as we should with making our horses the best they can be.
So, now the focus is on using the theory and all the things we learn about to be our base for our training, its still important to know how things should be, but allow a bit more space to work with your riding and with your horse and not trying to push them into a box of the perfect dressage horse or perfect rider.
3. Keep things in perspective to why you ride
This one has come about more recently, i think as the weather has got worse and arenas have been flooded or frozen or the weather has just been awful i have had clients phoning me up really distressed because they havent been able to ride their horse for a week, or they havent been able to work on what we worked on in their lesson. And i get the stress, we all want to be the best riders we can be and when we see time going by and not being able to do anything about it is hard but when this happens and youre feeling guilty or anxious that you havent been able to ride, or you had a training session you didnt think went as well as it should have or a competition that didnt go as planned i think its important to remind yourself of a few things:
Could you control it in this first place? Things like the weather, frozen arenas or your boss keeping you back late at work; you have zero control over. You cant change it and you cant control it so dont beat yourself up about it. If you had tried harder it wouldnt have changed the outcome so try to let go of anything you cant control.
Does your horse mind? More often than not our horses couldnt care less if we rode them or didnt, if they are being fed, kept warm and dry they are happy. Equally they probably dont even know the difference between what was a good test and what was a bad test and frankly i dont think theyd care. What they care about is that they are loved and have a positive experience and go home to that stable or field with food and water. Sometimes i think spending time with your horse grooming or taking them for a hack is sometimes far more productive than doing that training session because you think you should even when you dont feel like it.
Why do you ride in the first place? I think this is really important to remember because its so easy to just get dragged along the bandwagon of 'i do this because everyone else does' when in fact it doesnt suit you or why you ride in the first place/ I teach lots of people, and some of those people ride because they want to be the best they can be and get their horse to the highest level they can go; they constantly want to do better and be better and improve each time; these riders might do it as their job and be aiming for national championships or even internationals. This is very different to the rider who rides because its their hobby and their destress time, they ride because they love their horse and their relationship with them and, after a stressful day at work, being with their horse is enjoyable and just love spending time with their horse. You may fall into one of these extremes or you may be somewhere in the middle but how i would teach these riders and how these riders would train, compete , ride and look after their horses is totally different so i think its really important to be clear on why you ride in the first place so you can make sure everything you do aligns with that. If the rider who has international aspirations misses out on a ride the day before their qualifying show, that could potentially have bigger consequences then another rider who isnt able to ride their horse on one day because work was a bit manic and instead spent time living and grooming and just spending time with their horse instead. It is totally dependent on the situation, the rider, the horse and that riders 'why'.
All these three things, and ill remind you of them because i know i spoke a lot just then, so we had can you control it? Does your horse actually mind? and Does it match your why?; you can use each of these questions to help you keep things in perspective, so when you have that ride that doesnt go to plan, or that competition that doesnt go the way you wanted to or you miss that ride you were intending to do. Hopefully these three questions will help you to keep that big picture perspective that perhaps it doesnt matter as much as it initially seems and in fact it could even be a blessing in disguise.
So there you have it, the 3 major lessons and takeaways i took from 2022. They are really quite big ones so i really hope that you took something from it, whether its helped you to think about situations a bit differently or even just to realise that everyone, no matter their level in dressage or their amount of experience, is always learning and growing in this sport.