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.


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