A lot about the world right now is stressful. It was that way for most people before 2020 started hitting us with sucker punches every couple of weeks, but it’s much worse now for most people I know.
For many of us, horses are a stress reliever…or they are supposed to be. Sometimes they get hurt and cause extra stress…but most of the time our time with our horses is what makes our days a little easier. With Covid, a lot of us lost that for months. I was lucky. I wasn’t working at the time and when my trainer lost her groom, I jumped in and volunteered. By doing that, I guaranteed myself some horse time in all the craziness (even if it did mean working my butt off and having very little time in the saddle). I was lucky to have that option.
Now that we are all back to almost “normal” I’m seeing people at the barn in different stages of their learning than I am. That always makes me look back and appreciate what I’ve learned and where I have been. Dressage is a journey. For some it’s a lot more winding than others. For some it starts earlier or later depending on life circumstances. For each of us it is a long journey once undertaken.
For me, being at the barn I can turn everything off now (most of the time). I have learned over the years to forget time (much to the irritation of my husband). To forget my to-do list. To forget my money troubles. To forget my health troubles. To simply be there. I try to stay in that zone even when I am grooming, cleaning a stall, straightening up my tack trunk, or watching someone else ride. That zone is the learning zone.
Because of my ability to get in “the zone” with my body and turn off my brain, I have been able to progress pretty quickly in dressage. Sure, I use my brain sometimes. I have absolutely gone “huh?” to a trainer or clinician and had to ask them exactly what they meant (or attempted my variation of what they said only to get yelled at). I still use my brain and think and make adjustments, but what I’m using my brain for in those moments is focused on what is going on underneath me and not the extraneous items of the day.
I can and do end up with a bad ride if I’m distracted by something outside the arena (either literally, or in my head). I know that. It happens to all of us. So I have learned to make myself a little bubble when I ride. I’m there…breathing and moving with my horse.
The best rides (or more…those glorious moments of awesome) are when I’m 100% in my body and riding off the feeling.
I think about riding like I think about yoga. If you go into it with you brain running (and don’t attempt to quiet it), you’re not going to have a good session. If you’re worried your pants are see-through when you bend over…or how you are absolutely the least “hot” person in the class…or how you can never get into that position…or what you need to get at the grocery store after class….you are not going to improve. You’re going to sit there, not get any better, get frustrated and yoga is going to become stressful for you. If you go in and focus on your breath, really feel your body and let go…you will go deeper into that stretch and it will be easier next session.
Dressage is like that. If you remember to breathe, you’re one step ahead. Thinking about your breathing keeps you in your body rather than your head. Sometimes it helps to close your eyes for a few seconds (make sure your in a situation that is safe). Really let go in your body and feel yourself merging with your horse. Feel your horse. Feel their back and all four feet. Feel when they release and relax when you release and relax. Feel them stretch over their spine. Feel them the moment they begin to tense before a spook and be ready to support them or redirect them.
Each movement, each twitch, each breath, each smile…anything you do while you’re on your horse affects your horse and the way they move under you. If your back is tight, how can you expect theirs to be loose? If your mind is running a million miles an hour and not focused on the exact bend you need to feel on a 15 meter circle…how can you expect your horse to mentally be there with you. Be with your horse, so they can be with you.
The biggest part of dressage is mental. Learning to breathe and let go of the mind chatter is a simple (but not easy) way to improve your riding instantly. This is even more important during these trying times. Leave that stuff in the car when you get to the barn and your riding will improve and your stress level will go down. Be with your horse and allow them to be your therapy.