It has come up again, in a big way, the impact that showing has on training and on our horses. As I was riding around the arena the other day I was thinking about this controversial topic and what it means to young people coming up in the sport. It is sad to see the horses recently eliminated from a show in Denmark for distressing lesions, the article can be found here. https://www.eurodressage.com/2022/06/11/eleven-combinations-sent-home-lesions-after-health-check-2022-danish-championships
I see a lot of conversation on social media about how competition ruins horses and mars the quality of training. This is a subject close to my heart. I have had times where the competition got the best of me and I wondered if I really belong in the dressage sport. Of course in the end of the day, it is not competition that ruins the training, it is ego.
Can we put the two together? Can we train the horses in a way that honors their undeniable interest to partner with us and be successful in the arena? Many people would like to blame the judges. Others blame certain trainers and training systems, and yet others don't even believe that a horse is a sentient being. I think it is all of our jobs to do the right thing, everyday and at the horse shows. I do not know that I would have the same satisfaction from training without the challenge of the show, I do know that I would make less training mistakes without the pressure from the shows. There have been times where my ego got the best of me and I did not handle the emotions well. After too many mistakes I became curious about how to get my mindset in the right place to ride from my deepest values daily and then work to take that with me to the show ring.
Training horses is a huge life lesson, everyday. I have a book to write about the parallels between living life to the fullest and riding dressage. We make mistakes, and pressure can push one to do things that are not congruent with our identity or beliefs. Money is a big motivator, and the pressure to keep business by showing up and performing well at the horse shows is a real thing. So, how do we manage these pressures?
I am not the only one who has had to step back and ask myself "what am I doing here?" I have watched through the years as people have stepped out of sport, changed their tactics and reinvented themselves. We have all watched as prominent trainers have taken time off, reevaluated and come back with new perspective and much more curiosity as to how to deal with training problems and create more connection and ultimately more points.
It is our responsibility as trainers to draw a line. There are going to be times when the timeline to an event or pushing the horses to the pressures of age appropriate training is not correct. There are other times when things align and a horse moves seamlessly through stages of training and is in the winners circle. Of course age and wisdom help us to make these decisions. Success creates the respect to be able to make appropriate decisions and in doing so builds more success.
We all see in other top sport when someone pushes themselves inappropriately that their body breaks down. Mentally someone wants something bad enough that they do not listen to their own body, from the injury they learn the lesson and hopefully make better decisions next time. We do have to push hard to be at the top, but there is a limit and when we cross the limit our body does not function. There is less judgement because we do it to ourselves.
With horses it is not the same. We are able to use longer spurs, skinnier bits, longer whips to push the horses past their comfort zone. But, we all see at the very top of the sport are the people that are figuring out that when the horse wants to do it, the partnership is unbeatable. A horse performing under stress will not be triumphant over a horse that is willingly and knowingly partnering with it's rider, or will it? It is true that sometimes the judges cannot see the difference. A horse that is manhandled a bit in the warm up, or at home, can still look pleasant in the show ring. This is our responsibility, to train daily with relaxation and teaching, rather than manipulation and stronger bits. It is our responsibility to learn the proper skills and apply them to our horses appropriately and with sincere appreciation for their willingness. We owe the sport this. Without a shift in our perspective horse sports are at risk.
In America we do not have a system in place, yet, that asks riders to gain a certain number of points prior to moving to the next level. There is a belief that implementing this will cause hardship to trainers and limit the number of amateurs moving into the sport. Personally I disagree. And I believe that this simple rule change will already make a huge change in the way horses are treated. Success in dressage, in my opinion, is a combination of talent, skill, practice and mindset. Without learning the skill we cannot feel confident, without feeling confident we cannot ride in balance and harmony. Skill means the ability to sit correctly and apply the aids. When we are not made aware of the levels and why a certain acceptance of the aids is necessary, it is possible to get off course. We prioritize the wrong things, which ultimately puts the horse in a bad spot. As trainers we would all have better businesses if the playing field was evened out. We would have more time to create real riders and horse and rider partnerships. I believe that trainers would also improve because they would need to learn how to teach students to sit, ride in balance and apply the aids rather than balance themselves on a double bridle and ride off the program the trainer installed.
Why do we ride? Because we want to partner with this beautiful animal that very easily could tell us it is not interested. And yet they don't. They try and try often to their detriment. We need to honor this. As trainers we need to be willing to say what is necessary, be examples in the show ring and not succumb to winning no matter what. We will make mistakes, this is inevitable. I have made mistakes, being to strong and by trying not to be too strong, I have actually failed to teach my horse correctly and in doing so put her in situations that were uncomfortable and unfair. I have learned the hard way how to control my emotions and try to bring my truest self out to the show, even at the risk of not winning. I am inspired by riders who prioritize the partnership and the teaching. We can all look to them for examples of how to work in better harmony.
We have also seen on social media that we don't need a trainer that praises us all the time, but one who tells the truth. I disagree. Everyone, even most amateurs can tell what is wrong, and most people sitting on the sidelines are happy to talk about it! Let's upgrade it! Let's talk about what is right, and grow it, and then learn how to communicate and teach. Learning how to ride is not easy and does not happen over night. Showing is exhilarating, there is nothing like it when a test goes well. If we go step by step through the levels and teach the requirements, have an appropriate horse and realistic goals, chances are we can have fun with our horses and be kind to them. Where we run into trouble is when we buy an inappropriate horse, find a trainer that is trying to build his business on our success or let the opinion of others influence our judgement. This can be at any level of the sport, if we are talking people just coming in or if we are talking about riders going to top international sport.
We owe it to the horses and we need to be examples for the young riders, who are the future horseman. I believe in horse sports. I love the challenge and I know that without the challenge of the shows I would not put as much energy and curiosity into my training. Let's work together to be better stewards of our sport. Do we really need a third vet check to notice spur marks and mouth lesions? This is completely distressing, and I think we all can do better.
Love to Ride :)