Delusions of Dressage Grandeur

When I moved to California as a young trainer, my initial concern was not how I would make a living but instead that there was something funny in the drinking water. Whatever substance or chemical it might be, it had the same effect on every novice equestrian: filling them with the belief that, with a little effort, they would end up in the Olympics.

This puzzled me because if there is anything that riding is, it’s HARD. Dressage in particular seems suited for only those who enjoy constant struggle and failure, perfectionism, fleeting moments of accomplishment followed by futility and frustration. I like to think it’s probably easier to become a millionaire than a decent dressage rider. A lot easier. But call it what you will, perhaps The American Dream, for scores of beginning adults take up riding every year with the naive sense that, with some effort and determination, they will reach great achievement. Little do they know that what lies ahead is a mighty ego smack down, the likes of which they’ve probably not yet experienced in life. In time, they will learn firsthand the cruel fact that even with a monastic level of focus and dedication, riding accomplishments like to remain elusive.

Yes, my optimistic reader, even with proper funding, reams of disposable time, access to world class instruction and horses, you will likely still be looking far off into the distance in a few years to see the pinnacle of the sport. That’s just how it goes with riding. If, on the other hand, you wanted to master the Art of the Bruised Ego, you will find that achievement comes much faster. And consistently. If you relish the acquisition of skills slipping away right before you get your fingers around it, then equestrian sports are for you. Should you find something satisfying in being bruised, battered, downtrodden, or deflated, you shouldn’t wait another second to begin a riding career.

In recent years, the number of newbies telling me they’ll participate in future Olympics has illustrated for me just how cynical equestrian sports have made me. Granted, I consider it a healthy cynicism because it’s been well honed from a lifetime of the equestrian success-deflation cycle. As a trainer, I try not to crush any one’s personal American Dream with my cynicism but sometimes I try to safeguard them from that mind-boggled state that comes from riding one moment with perfect execution of skills and harmony followed within the blink of an eye by a moment where you cannot get anything right. Sometimes there are whole weeks like this. These weeks are filled with disgruntled utterances that go like this: “What the *bleep*?! I just did this (fill in the blank: ‘canter depart,’ ‘half-pass,’ ‘shoulder-in’), how come I can’t do it again? I just did it perfectly and now I can’t do it at all…?”

So it goes for those who have signed on for The Art of the Bruised Ego, for those who take up this sport that requires probably more than one lifetime to master, although they would prefer it to take a couple months. Let me confess, admirable equestrians, that I am not immune from delusions of grandeur or my own personal American Dream. I have suffered the same follies of believing that I might accomplish overnight something that takes other mortals decades of toil. Prior to my present day cynicism, I thrived on the kind of starry eyed ambition that feeds my Olympic hopeful students. Mine wasn’t for horsemanship or dressage but for something just as elusive: a zen state.

Many years ago, I decided my mind could use a good scrubbing out and thus found myself at a zen monastery with no previous training or real understanding of zen (you can draw the parallels here with the newbie dressage rider who buys a fancy horse but doesn’t have a clue how to sit on it). I had read and heard that it took decades of disciplined study and practice to tap into the teachings of zen, but rather naively and probably egotistically, I thought I could abbreviate the process. In fact, I expected full spiritual enlightenment after a few weeks of sitting on the meditation cushions in this room full of bald-headed guys and gals. Let’s face it, what was holding me back? I am an intelligent, motivated, goal-orientated, and capable woman. With a little focus, enlightenment would be mine. Goal accomplished. The unobtainable obtained. (You can draw more parallels here with the novice equestrian believing she’ll be a contender in the next Olympic trials.)

Needless to say, my budding enlightenment received relentless blows before it ever got started. In fact, it’s still waiting to start and I’ve been toiling for a decade. I sat on that little round cushion telling myself “this shouldn’t take too long, I’m more capable than the average person, this is going to be straightforward for me…” and all kinds of other delusional things. I might as well have told myself I’d be the next princess of Morocco. Numerous teachers tried to reel in my preposterous ideas but I regarded their sage advice like fat rain clouds over my parade to enlightenment.

So it goes with The Art of the Bruised Ego. It’s not that I’ve given up on my zen state, though. No, I’m still sitting on the little round cushion regularly, humbly acknowledging that I sure haven’t abbreviated any pathway or process. By the same token, I haven’t given up on one of my starry eyed students making it to the Olympics. But I would feel more optimistic about their chances, as well as my own, if the next Olympic Games added a new event called The Sport of Dashed Dreams. I already have several contenders groomed to take the podium.

Who You Callin’ Fit?

Just as I contemplated a donut-sized roll of fat over the horse’s loins, I listened to his rider tell me how “fit” he was. Never mind that the horse had worked up a sweat walking 100 meters from the barn to the arena and his nostrils expanded for more oxygen at the effort of putting one foot in front of the other. No matter, she told me, this guy was plenty fit.

Mmm-hm.

Well, what about the fat roll over his loins? And around his withers? Or the lack of muscling anywhere on his body? I inquired.

That was no big deal, she replied. Rest assured that under all that chub existed a well-toned animal. Having just published a book about equine fitness, I wanted to educate her about the fallacy in her thinking but I knew from previous experience that there’s no talking someone out of her fitness opinions even if I’m an expert on the topic. And where fitness is concerned, there’s no shortage of strange beliefs. Such as equating chub with tone. In these conversations, I’ve uncovered two truths about Americans. First, we keep low standards for what constitutes fitness. Thus, being just one step ahead of total fatness gets counted as fit. Second, we hold our animals to completely different standards.

Let’s take a look at these, starting with the first of what I call the American Fitness Truths. I blame the exercise gadgets and workout video craze of the 1980s and 90s, but somewhere along the way, folks started believing that a few minutes of respiration elevation in their week would get them fit. Just move yourself around for a four or five minutes every day and, voila, you had successfully combated being unfit. I’ve even seen magazine articles promising results from “The Four Minute Workout,” which leads us Americans to form beliefs that fitness just aint that hard to come by. This has created a highly diluted definition of the term, to say the least. By this line of thinking, it seems that a vigorous shampooing in your morning shower counts at the day’s workout. And for some people, I’m afraid it does.

How a four-minute session of jiggling around can be seen as a legitimate form of fitness is beyond me. But we Americans do like things to happen quickly, so the notion of truncated workouts delight us to no end. Why sweat and hyperventilate for an hour if you only need to walk briskly to and from your mailbox to get fit? The problem, as with many things, is that these opinions never get tested. Many of my students will tell me that they are quite fit, yet if I ask how they know this to be true, they lack substantiation. Have they recently trained for and competed in a an event like a 5k run?, I’ll ask. Or how about a multi-day bicycle trip? Or a yoga retreat? Nope. Nada. None of the above. They just assume that since they are not completely blubbery then they must be fit, right? They never test the assumption. It would be like me thinking I’m a total brainiac but never succumbing to an intelligence test or producing any work that demonstrates mental capability.

I’m a fan of standards and validation, but I find myself frequently without company on this point. When people tell me they are fit, I’m curious how they know this. What’s the standard for validating the claim? If a mechanic tells me the brakes on my car work, I want to be sure he knows it, not just has an opinion about it. The same applies to fitness. If we Americans want to call ourselves fit just because we get up and walk around during commercial breaks on television, this is perfectly fine so long as we can provide proof for our so-called claims. So, be forewarned. Should you find yourself taking a lesson from me in the near future, be ready to provide supporting evidence for any fitness claims. The fact that you are one step ahead of your neighborhood Fat Guy doesn’t count.

Now let’s move on to the second American Fitness Truth. This goes something along these lines: we ourselves will consistently balk at an afternoon filled with heart-pounding exercise (such as climbing a mountain) because it’s just plain unpleasant, but we will not hesitate a second to impose the same task on our animal friends. We hold them to a different expectation, as if their four-leggedness makes them machine-like. We ignore that they have muscles and hearts that get just as weak and flimsy as our own. In this blindsided state, we allow them to stand around idly in a pasture for months and then one day (when they are very unfit), saddle them up and ride them into a sweaty lather while assuming it’s no big deal.

I asked a gal yesterday who was mounted atop a huffing-puffing four-legged creature if she herself had ever run a half marathon. She looked at me like I’d suggested she tattoo a rainbow across her nose. And then she spurred her overworked mount for more giddyup. But how fair could that be?, I pointed out to her. How could she expect her jiggly equine friend to work his butt off for an hour or more when she was so unwilling to impose the same suffering on herself? The answer that folks always give me is that “horses are just different than us, that’s how it’s fair. ” Call me a simpleton, but I’m confused about how differently ANY creature could respond to aerobic activity. Are these folks indicating that if I had four legs and a tail, I could just go out and run a marathon tomorrow without any training? Does a horse’s heart pump differently? In the absence of muscles, does he have the ability to flex his fat ripples? Does he remain in good shape while leading a sedentary life just because he’s a horse?

No, dear reader, of course not. Let me be the needle in the proverbial balloon: horses are no different than us. Their capacity for aerobic fitness is no greater or less than ours. The primary difference between man and beast is not the size of our hearts but our brains. We humans possess the larger grey matter and therefore the ability to subject pudgy steeds to our whims.

Let’s stop kidding ourselves. While they may not be seated on the couch with a can of beer, our horses are NOT standing around at the ready for a mega dose of respiratory suffering. Most of us have a horse that’s only one step ahead of the Neighborhood Fat Horse, a situation that might be different if we had more time. But since making a commitment to our own fitness and carving out our daily four minute workouts, our schedules have gotten tight.