Classical Training: Letting Go of the Ego and Excuses
Mum always said that her best pupils were the ones that didn't talk back! I knew of course that she was using this as a tool of persuasion for me to be quiet, but in actual fact when I watched her give lessons, the ones that made the most progress where the ones that sat quietly, taking it all in.
The ones that talked back made excuses and spent the lesson thinking of reasons why they couldn't do what mum was asking. They ended up not being able to do what mum was asking.
A major part of riding and particularly dressage is learning to accept the everyday, learning to deal with pain, setback, physical hurdles, distractions, excuses, your own pride, and just do the best you can, every time you get on the horse.
I always find it strange when people talk about how they have perfected "their method". A rider who believes they no longer need help is a rider who will never improve or teach a horse anything.
I admire those who follow a particular philosophy, or training style, but anyone who believes they have designed their own, is forgetting that every single time we get on our horse, we are a different rider and the horse is a slightly different horse to the one he was the ride before. Therefore, making excuses why it won't work today, or telling ourselves we can do it all, is ridiculous, because every day we are faced with a unique scenario.
It is also pointless then to try to copy other riders, or compare ourselves and challenge ourselves to be better than everyone else. Really the only rider we should challenge is ourselves; to be the best rider possible for the sole purpose of making our horse's job easier! Until we accept our own flaws and ride for ourselves, we will never find peace of mind, open our mind up to training, and find the relaxation needed to be in harmony with our horse!
"Mental relaxation is critical for a good seat. A rider in a hurry, or one who cannot connect mentally with her horse will never relax sufficiently to sit well," Gerd Heuschmann wrote in his book on the psychological components of dressage. And many other great equestrians have commented on the need for humility in our sport. In Paul Belasik's "Riding towards the Light" the author comments that "we are all alone and yet there are many of us out there. We could inspire each other with the spirit and integrity of our work, or we can presume, criticise and judge. If a horseman has an abiding respect for his or her own road, then it must show in the respect for others and for the horse. We can never really compete against each other because we are all on different roads. To be a real horseman I knew I would have to keep a careful check on my own ideas and ego and have true respect for the horse's life."
It's this part of our sport: the fact that we have another mind to consider that makes our own humility too vital to the creation of a partnership. "How an athlete can be limited by a belief that he is better than he is depends on whether that athlete's overestimation is due to strong self-confidence, or excessive ego," says sport psychologist and horse rider Seana Adamson. "Self confidence is good. A self confident athlete is not threatened by occasional setbacks, so they will soon learn that they are overestimating their abilities and make the necessary adjustments. Because there is an inner feeling of confidence, this athlete will be open to all types of learning, communicating, and relationship building with the horse. A confident athlete is as interested in the training process, as they are in the outcome of competition. There is a healthy balance between process and outcome orientation."
Seana warns, however, for an athlete with an an excessive ego is much more interested in outcome and because we train with animals, this can put pressure on the horse/rider relationship. "The athlete with the ego trains because they want to win, not because they enjoy the training process. The relationship with the horse may tend to be more authoritarian. They assume they have all the answers, and that only a select few are good enough to help them. They have a very hard time admitting mistakes, and feel very threatened by any perceived failure or criticism. It is much harder for them to admit short comings, or seek help. So they close themselves off to a rich reservoir of potential knowledge. People who are excessively ego driven tend to be very self absorbed, and often end up socially withdrawn and isolated." How then can they connect with their horse?
Furthermore if a rider thinks they know everything, and doesn't need to learn and improve, they suffer from what Seana calls a severe form of the ego driven state described above. "It can be extremely damaging and is usually unsustainable. If you know everything then boredom becomes a real problem because you have nothing left to learn, and nothing new to teach. Every true horseman/woman knows that horses, and especially dressage, encompasses a lifetime of learning. If you ever meet a horses person who says they know everything- run. Fast!"
Well known German rider Ingrid Klimke knows that if you feel great and think you are great, you will be great, but that it is better not to compare yourself to other riders. "You just need to be realistic to yourself," says Ingrid. "Nobody knows everything and if a rider is talking back to his trainer and making excuses about why the horse is not going well, is he concentrating? The truth is if you talk you cannot listen at the same time!"
According to Seana, when a rider becomes angry or argumentative with their coach, they are losing effectiveness. She notes that it is impossible to be fully focused on your performance if you're busy butting heads with your trainer. "However, the rider often has important and valuable information to express, so good communication between rider and trainer is important," said Adamson. "Especially if there is any concern about the soundness of the horse. Often the rider can feel something much more distinctly than a trainer can see it. When either rider or trainer begins to feel frustrated or angry it is time to stop and take a break. Calmly communicate what you're feeling, problem solve, collaborate and sort it out."
Stressing that coaching relationships within a family can be particularly delicate, again it just comes down to letting go of the excuses and communicating effectively. "At its best this form of training can be extremely rewarding both competitively and emotionally. At its worst it can become a source of considerable stress within the family dynamics. Arguing in public is always destructive, so if communication has broken down to that point, then it is time to take a look at what is going on."
While Ingrid agrees that argumentative riding is more common in the case of family training family, she acknowledges that this happens in all sports, and the best an athlete can do is just do it for themselves. "Stay in your own bubble," Klimke exclaimed.
Certain that making excuses can never be a positive in horse training, Ingrid says a cure to quiet a busy mind while training is simply to listen, and put your own thoughts aside for the sake of your relationship with your horse-only a great partnership can win!"
Siding with Ingrid, Seana believes the best strategy is to try to stay within your own performance, with the goal being to become one with your horse! "Anything that distracts you from that is potentially detrimental. The famous poem "The Desiderata" says, "If you compare yourself to others you may become vain and bitter, for there will always be greater and lesser persons than yourself."
If you look for the faults in others just to make yourself feel better ("Oh good. He's having trouble with the 4's too..." ), then you are filling your subconscious with negative images, and ultimately you just do harm to yourself. If you look at your top competitors and feel fearful, then you are flooding your system with fear chemicals which can have a detrimental effect on your own performance.
However it is important to compare yourself to other riders who demonstrate excellence, in order to improve. Imagine a picture of a top rider, and then imagine how you might emulate them with your own body. Look at some videos of some top Olympic riders, and then sneak in a video of yourself. What is the first thing your notice? Do you need to sit quieter, stronger, or straighter?
So comparing is good, but not competing! A rider must stay within their own performance while in competition. Your competitors are factors that are out of your control, and focusing on them will only be a distraction to your own performance. If you need to watch then take a walk break, look around the warm up for a rider who inspires you, and try to "ride on their coat tails".
Another aspect to consider when letting go of ego is in admitting that you need help. My 6-year old stallion is amazing, but there came a point in our training where even though we had a great working relationship, I needed the help of someone more capable than I, even just once or twice, to reaffirm my side of our two man team. I found that when I returned to the saddle, Batialo was A, glad to have me back, and B, just that bit more in tune with my aids, making it easier for me to concentrate on getting my own self correct. This is not a failure as a rider. Failure would be in not admitting that you need advice/guidance, and end up on the ground when "enthusiasm" turns into "out of control".
All in all, we should look to those for guidance, listen to everything and everyone, forget the reasons why we can't do something, focus on the things we can, and never say I am done learning, because who knows how or what the ride tomorrow will bring. A rider must absolutely put their ego aside in dressage training. Any time the rider knowingly aspires to the detriment of their horse then the ego has become excessively involved.
By Sarah Warne for Eurodressage
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