The Secret Ingredient of Success in Dressage

Ready, Set…. Hold On!  Full of eagerness and ready to charge for an Olympic medal, American runner Galen Rupp started to make a move with a few laps left in the 10,000 meter race last Saturday. What happened next became one of the most extraordinary moments in these 2012 games. The young Rupp, who nobody considered a serious contender, felt like he had the strength in his legs to open a gap in the tight pack of elite runners and maybe sneak his way into the history books.

Then a beautiful and pivotal exchange happened. British Somali runner Mo Farah, the man absolutely everyone predicted to win and also the runner with whom Rupp shared a coach for the past year, saw the kid getting ready to take off. The more seasoned Farah, current world champion, looked towards his training partner who in this race was now also his rival and told him to wait. Farah recognized that Rupp was about to make a rookie’s error, an eager miscalculation that he could never undo. While moving at speeds defying human ability, he found the oxygen to tell the youngster: be patient.

What Rupp’s relative inexperience prevented him from realizing was that the next few laps around the track in this lung-scorching event did not require more speed or strength or a lead on the other runners. They required a calm steady mind that could wait for the right moment, and this was not it.

So Rupp checked his pace and held steady. A moment later, when the timing was right, he followed Farah in a sprint down the final stretch. Shocking not only himself but every analyst and coach in the sport, Rupp crossed the line in second place right behind the man he owed the race to—Farah. Spectators could feel his surprise and elation. Cameras panned to his splotchy face staring open-mouthed and bug-eyed at the race clock. There was his name in second place! He had done it! He stared, disbelieving. The gangly kid whose biggest hope was to be an also-ran in a marquee event just won an Olympic silver medal.

In the post-race interview, Rupp credited his training partner fully for the outcome. He recalled how Farah saw him gathering his energy and told him not to blow it. Had he not listened, he would have gone ahead and sprinted too early, flamed out, and staggered to a disappointing finish. After all the years of training and sacrifice and planning, the race came down to one exceptional and hard-to-trust element: patience. A calm, steady mind.

For the rest of the day, I thought about that race and how an experienced training partner helped the younger one reach an elation he otherwise would have missed. I reflected how this applies to training horses, especially for dressage, when we are quick to mess things up with eagerness and our hurry to get the next result. When a moment is going well, our human nature is to push harder, work stronger, expect even more. More often than not, this is where we go wrong. We treat dressage education like a buffet line where can quickly sample our way through exercises.

More often than not, we need to recognize when things are good and then sit still and breathe and allow them to unfold as they are meant. Patience. Admittedly, this plan of action does not thrill students. In lessons, many will tackle an exercise quickly and then look up with eyes that say what now? What next? To their disappointment, my reply is often that they need to continue what they are doing. That’s it. Carry on. Both they and their horses need the time to integrate the changes throughout their bodies and balance based on exercises we’re undertaking in that moment. This involves that hard-to-trust element of patience. In order to get to the next step we often needed to wait right where we were.

I have watched numerous young horses’ training get derailed by eagerness and expectation. Especially when a horse demonstrates talent and willingness, our tendency is to adjust the training to a faster timeline. Riders prefer to speed up the necessary years of solidifying basics before getting to more interesting or exciting kinds of riding. Of course, horses and riders then end up with big gaps in their knowledge and physical abilities. Their performance reflects an incomplete education and a noted lack of the harmony dressage for which dressage once aimed.

A trainer of mine used to watch me accomplish something difficult with my horse and then say “now don’t get greedy.” He meant that I shouldn’t just keep pushing my horse to the next challenge and then the next and so on. Usually his advice irked me. If things were good right now, then surely with more effort they could be exceptional five minutes from now, no?

Another trainer would watch me struggling and frustrated. Before I could try to force something to happen, she would tell me, “Many times, it is just a matter of waiting. You’re doing the right thing. Now just wait.” Wait? Wait? It was one of those instructions that always seemed the most senseless in that moment but proved invaluable a few moments down the road. Learning to follow this advice always presents more challenges than mastering the skill or exercise in question.

When I watched young Rupp step aboard the Olympic medal stand, I applauded his ability to listen to good advice. Indeed, he had posted a blazing time in the race but it wasn’t those results that most impressed me. In the right moment, he chose a calm steady mind over more speed. And that made all the difference.


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.