Everybody who studies anything seriously is familiar with frustration. Especially when you are an artist or an athlete, and especially when you are a rider. This frustration can have several sources. It can be due to impatience because we are not progressing as quickly as we would like or as we had hoped. A very common cause for frustration is when we compare ourself to others, whether they are our peers or our role models, or some arbitrary standard of excellence. I used to think: “What is WRONG with me? Why can’t I ride like so-and-so?” I would for instance expect myself to be able to ride as well as my teachers, although they had many more years of experience than I - not to mention the talent issue.
We may get frustrated if the horse we are riding isn’t progressing as fast as some of the other horses we have trained, or maybe we had a very good ride one day and the next day we expect to continue exactly where we left off, only to find that the horse is not having an especially good day. Maybe he is muscle sore from the day before or needs time to digest the new things he learned the day before.
Over the years I learned the hard way that comparing myself to others was highly counter productive. It made me feel bad about myself, it took away the joy of riding, and it made me actually ride worse because I was pressuring myself. The harder I tried to force myself to progress, the worse it got and the longer it took me to improve again. Sometimes I actually had to quit riding in my mind. I had to give up all hope of ever becoming a decent rider in order to relax enough to be able to progress again. I assume this probably happens to every ambitious, passionate rider from time to time or at certain stages in their development.
Comparing the horse you are riding to others is not fair to the horse, either. It puts too much pressure on yourself and your horse. We have to work with the horse we have in front of us every day, not the horse we would like to have. (Just like the horse has to deal with the rider he has, not the one he might like to have).
It seems that most of the frustrations we experience boil down to having expectations that we or our horse can’t meet (yet). They come from a result-oriented mindset, rather than a process-oriented one. They also come from us attaching value to “mistakes”, “shortcomings”, and “failures”, and then tying our sense of self-worth to them. They make us feel inadequate, untalented, hopeless. I’m sure everyone can relate to this. It took me many years to realise that these are unhealthy attitudes that slow down our progress.
It is healthier and much more productive to approach each day with our horses without expectations. Both the horse and the rider progress faster and more smoothly if we start each training session by trying to find out how the horse is feeling today, mentally as well as physically. Then we go from there and explore what is possible on this day. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have a sense of direction or a long term goal that we are aiming for. But we are flexible on a day to day basis on how to approach this long term goal.
When we come across something that we or our horse aren’t doing well, we can ask ourselves: How can I sit differently? How can I aid differently? How do I need to guide the horse through this part of the exercise? What is preventing the horse from doing it? Is he lacking the necessary body awareness, balance, coordination, suppleness or strength? Is he not understanding what he is supposed to do? How can I build a ladder of smaller learning steps so that he understands what I want and he is able to learn to do it? Then you can collaborate with your horse on finding a solution to the problem.
Another helpful mindset is not to enter a training session with the goal of achieving something specific. Instead, make it your goal to discover something new about your horse or about dressage, or about causes and effects and the interrelationships between the different parts of the body. This way, whatever happens will be a learning experience and therefore valuable. Even if something goes wrong, you can learn something from it and further your understanding. Very often we learnthe most from things that went wrong because they make us re-examine what we think we know. So, we should actually be grateful for things that don’t go perfectly because they provide us with the opportunity to learn more.
Another factor to keep in mind when we feel like we are progressing too slowly is that we might be in a so-called plateau phase. Horses and humans don’t learn in a steady progression that unfolds at the same pace every day. We all have learning phases and plateau phases. During the learning phase we make visible progress. Our skills or our horse’s skills are increasing. We see “results”. But if we expect this progress to continue without change for a longer period of time we will be disappointed because progress will sooner or later slow down or even come to a halt. During the plateau phases we feel like we are stuck, but they actually play an important role in consolidating and internalizing all the new things we learned during the last learning phase. Just like nature needs winter to rest and prepare for the next growing season, we need the plateau phase to digest the last learning phase andprepare for the next one.
It also happens that our awareness and understanding have outgrown our practical skill, which means that after having been content with our riding for a while we suddenly discover things that we are doing poorly. It feels subjectively as if we are riding worse than ever, but in reality it’s not our riding that has become worse. It is our understanding and awareness that have increased so that we are now able to see all kinds of things that we have always done poorly or incorrectly. But in the past ignorance was bliss.
The newly developed awareness is very painful at first - until you realize that you have now entered a new cycle of learning. It means that you are now ready to take on new problems and begin a new growth period. So, these are growing pains.
If you reframe the disappointment and frustration at not being able to do something or discovering that you are not as good as you had previously believed, and look at it as a sign that you are about to get better, you eventually start welcoming these discoveries.
These are some suggestions for a change of perspective. You can avoid getting frustrated by riding without expectations and by reframing mistakes and shortcomings in a positive way, trying to see the learning opportunities they contain, or the signs that you are about to make progress again very soon.