The world of dressage can be wonderful, beautiful and damn frustrating at times, and para-dressage is no different. If I were to ask you on any given day what you are striving for as a rider you might say “a more responsive horse”, “a more supple bend” or maybe “he needs to take the weight behind." If I could have a penny for every time I have heard instructors tell the rider that a horse just needs to develop confidence in the contact, or needs to be stronger in its core, I might just be able to buy myself a talented young ‘dressage horse.'
I don’t think that this approach is wrong, in fact there are hundreds of scientific papers supporting the principles of correct training, muscle development and optimal biomechanics. This what we are told ‘good’ looks like.
Like many para riders I started my career as therapy, the movement of the horse acted as physiotherapy on my joints, helping to keep me mobile and improving my ability to walk. At this point I was an ineffective passenger, I knew nothing about horses but I did know that it felt great. Nevertheless, that is not why I continued on this journey, for me being on a horse was immensely empowering. My disability means that there are many aspects of my life that are outside of my control and, for those 45 minutes, it feels amazing to be fully responsible for this powerful creature. In the years that followed I came to understand that this was another being, there was a relationship there. Horses have a way of speaking without words and I wanted to tap into that.
Squeezing Out More Points
I have had the benefit of some fantastic tuition over the years. In fact this article can mostly be attributed to the back and forth I have had with one particular coach, Clive Milkins. I am privileged that I have had access to the same coaches over the years, they can see the changes, both good and bad, and support me in finding my your own definition of ‘good’.
It seems to me that the landscape of modern dressage is very goal orientated, there are clear pathways that we are expected to pursue and qualification criteria we strive to meet. Even the mystical 70% barrier is a construct that encourages us to focus on the numbers. You find yourself trying to push that ‘6’ to a ‘7’, the walk might ‘need’ to be more active or the horse might ‘need’ to come through more in the trot.
For some riders this is what good looks like, they strive for those scores and will only feel fulfilled if the right number is on that sheet at the end of the day. That’s fine; many successes have been born out of this mindset, after all dressage is a sport.
I myself am familiar with this outlook and I too worked incredibly hard to make those numbers climb, analysing each test to squeeze a few more marks out. Ihave even asked my coaches to do the same, this never-ending question of ‘how do I do better?’. However, as I gained more experience over time I began to doubt this system. It was making me miserable and I was no longer enjoying my sport. I knew that in order to continue with it, I needed to change my perspective.
A Break from Competition
So I started to think, which can be rather dangerous when your path was so clearly laid out for you, goals already firmly in place. I decided to stop competing for a few months and see what happened, not even allowing myself to think as a competitor when schooling.
Interestingly, removing the dreaded numbers from the picture, even temporarily, I found that I began to enjoy riding again. I felt the same enjoyment I did all those years ago, when I was first handed the reins. Instead of worrying about the numbers I began to explore how I could make myself a better rider, by fundamentally doing less. I have an unbroken mare that I am hoping will be my next para horse; I wanted to improve my riding for her.
Suddenly my goals shifted from ‘improving my scores’ to ‘being a more effective rider’. I felt like the blinkers were off and I could see the bigger picture, which is both liberating and slightly scary. I began to understand what ‘good’ looked like to me.
There is so much pressure in every level of our sport, particularly once you have paid that affiliation membership fee. As rider’s we all want the best for our horses and often this conflicts with our own personal goals. Sometimes it is worth taking a step back, reviewing the ‘why?’, Why did you first get in the saddle? Why did you decide to dedicate your time, effort and money into this sport? Were you chasing those scores from the beginning?
For some this will always be their focus, but for many riders the enjoyment comes from something far deeper than a few sashes and a handful of red rosettes. As a disabled person, horses have taught me the value of mutual respect, my body doesn’t always behave, I have no grip in my hands and sometimes I wake up with stiff joints. My horse is not sympathetic to this, he doesn’t care that my shoulders ache and my hands are gone numb, he’ll lean on me all the same. My disability is irrelevant to him but my riding ability is not.
The Meaning of Dressage
It is my responsibility to know how to ride, using the same traditional principles everyone else does; I have to stay still in my seat and correct resistance at the right moment, it’s a timing game. If my horse does not respond on the first ‘click’ I have to back that up with something else. It’s like doing a dynamic jigsaw and sometimes, no matter how hard you try, the pieces do not go together. This can frustrate to no end and often results in a bad ride, and for me at least, a bad day. Conversely, when the pieces do come together there is nothing like it, nothing in the world. This is what ‘good’ looks like to me.
Only now am I beginning to understand the meaning of Dressage, it is training in its most basic form. It is not 5 minutes in an arena once a month but instead the 5 years you have spend beforehand laying the foundations of a solid partnership. The enjoyment should be in those 5 years, regardless of the number at the end of that day. By all means each of us should have the opportunity to chase our dreams, but our sport cannot be fully goal orientated or it will die. There has to be value placed in the journey and an appreciation of the privilege we should feel each time our horses allow this partnership. After all, they have minds of their own, and I can guarantee that their concern does not lie with the quality of their next medium trot.
by Kyrby Brown
Kyrby Brown is a Grade II Para Dressage Rider currently on Equestrian Team GBR’s Podium Potential Pathway Program. She trains at Ride2Achieve with Jo Alderton and Clive Milkins in Herefordshire. She hopes to make her international debut this year, following the sad retirement of her top horse Sam in November 2019.