Dressage: Just Like Life

We had a riding club dressage competition (unlike the last time, it was not one day event-style, so there was no jumping) and once again, I learned more than the test.

William grudgingly responds when I call his name. It’s thrilling!

I felt confident that I knew what I was doing, as regards having memorised the thing; I was not 100% convinced that the final movement was doable: turn at A in the walk, pick up trot at D, halt at G. Those weirdo invisible letters were worse than the weirdo, non-consecutive letters on the edges of the 20×40 arena — but I did feel my peripheral vision was up to the task: D lives on the centre line between K and F, with G floating in the ether between H and M.

My relationship with Willi-illi-am is not as bonded as mine is with Cathal, even though he likes when I call him that silly name. He’s been fairly aloof of in the past, but now that I’m more consistent with taking him for lessons, he’s warmed up. He’ll eventually turn to me when I call him and he will follow after me when a lesson is done, without me holding his reins.

Those weirdo invisible letters were worse than the weirdo, non-consecutive letters on the edges of the 20×40 arena

I’d been adamant about trying him out in a test because he’s more giving than Cathal, even though his left rein canter transition is janky.

I was the correct degree of nervous, I think, and I was ready. But the dressage set up was not.

Dressage is harder than it looks. Setting up the space? EVEN HARDER.

Every time I think I have hit peak respect for my riding instructors, something else comes along to make it even peak-ier. Measuring out the area is really precise! Laying down the boards is really fiddly! You absolutely cannot do this by yourself! It required three of us and all I was doing was spotting the correct lengths on the tape and sticking in the letters. It took three others to drag the white boards around and another of us to scoop the poop. Sheesh!

After that, I had an hour to get myself organised.

Extremely cursory swipe of the boots.

I knew I should have tried to get the worst of the dried mud off my boots before the day, but as it transpired, I still had too much time on my hands, after cleaning boots, changing into my whites, securing myself a long stick — and all that after giving William a brush and tacking him up. Is it my mind, then, that’s getting in the way? Too much time to think about whether or not I was too early, or running late, or whether or not I should just bring him up? (We’ll get back to this.)

I just brought him up. It was roughly 40 minutes before my start time. I figured I’d walk him around, do transitions, take advantage of the instructor who was there to coach us before our tests… I had the practice arena to myself before my run and I practiced that pesky left hand transition to no great effect. My worry about that part started blowing out of proportion, so I stopped.

I waited for my start and commenced nattering at myself. Should I have run through the whole test? Should I have waited ten minutes before I came up? Should I have cantered more? Should I have cantered less? The one good thing I did was keep contact as we stood, waiting. One of my instructors had told us to do this, several times, when waiting to go in for our test and the reasoning is this: if I just sat there with washing lines for reins, he’d think we were done and his head would be out of the game. Something as simple as holding the reins at attention kept him focused and dare I say, it kept me focused too.

Time for my test. What happened was: We entered at A on the right rein, nice and straight, I felt great, and then we tracked right and… and my mind lost itself entirely. I literally could not stop second guessing every single thing from that moment on. William felt like he was going backwards through molasses and at several stages it felt like he was going to stop dead.

About halfway through, down the long side from H to K I thought, ‘I should have taken Cathal instead.’

I applied more leg and kept breathing but I was so distracted by his pace that, as I came around a long diagonal, I couldn’t remember whether it was my second rein change or the first — had I ridden both of the 20 metre circles in the centre or had I forgotten one? For three strides from X to H, I could not for the life of me recall the second circle. Should I stop? Should I go back? What should I do?

I carried on. I went ahead and did the next thing I thought was right and hoped for the best.

It turned out to be a good decision.

The rest of my test unspooled with me feeling like I was all over the place in the saddle, that William was going to transition down to walk, much less halt, at anytime, that my hands were up around my ears and what must we look like?!? I hit a few good transitions, the left canter rein was an utter debacle, the right rein strike off was pristine and the ensuing cantered circle from B to E was good. We turned at A, popped the trot at D as though we’d been doing it all our lives and got a good halt. I saluted and was so unhappy I couldn’t believe it.

Everyone asked me how it went. I asked everyone who’d gone before me this as well. It’s question that asked the rider to express their impression of the work, and in retrospect, while I get why you’d ask that, I think it’s maybe not the correct query. It may be more along the lines of: how did you think it went? Because what I thought it was like was not what it looked like.

So, my mind was going a mile a minute, going past critical thinking — Can I do this better? — into criticism — You are doing this wrong, as well as badly. And yet, despite this input, my body was doing what it was meant to: looking ahead to the next letter, reminding itself to put the hands down, squeezing with the legs, breathing. My mind was already defeated even before we got to the rubbish canter: it had decided this was terrible and a waste of time. Meanwhile, my body did not give up and continued to respond to the tiny, quiet part of my mind that contained the actual facts of the test, the changes of pace and rein, and got on with it.

In the main, at least to the external judge, we ended up doing just fine, tying for first and coming second by only .5 points.

‘Smashing’ is a term that requires more frequent usage from this moment on.

Um. Okay? It wasn’t like I was going to dispute the feedback (the judge said I would have gotten an *8* on that final turn-trot-halt transition if I had not come in slightly off the centre line!) but the disparity between perception and reality is, LOL, mind-boggling.

I carried on. I went ahead and did the next thing I thought was right and hoped for the best.

Best thing I learned? Carry on. Go forward even if you think you’ve messed up. The judge was vey kindly letting people who’d missed a movement go back and try again*. If I’d lost my place, she would have let me know; I trusted in that and in myself. Beneath all the mental nonsense, I knew what I was doing.

It’s not my intention to turn this into an opportunity to berate myself because I was berating myself. There is a necessary-slash-vital degree of self-awareness required to do anything worth doing. And at the end of the day, the power of my mind did get us through — it just wasn’t the upper part of it. The deeper bit, the trustworthy bit, where the neutral information lives, that was still functioning. My body listened to that part and got us through.

There’s so much more here to tease out… and paradoxically, I’ll be giving it lots of thought.


Many Brave Fools: A Story of Addiction, Dysfunction, Codependency… and Horses is AVAILABLE NOW.

Order your copy today:
> In the US, click on over to Trafalgar Square Books’ site.
> In the UK and Europe, visit Quiller Publishing’s page.


*Which doesn’t happen in a real life competition; this was more of a clinic atmosphere.

2 Replies to “Dressage: Just Like Life”

  1. I received an e-Mail from Elenor Freyne the Librarian@ Ballyhaunis She received three copies of Many Brave Fools today . The books should be on the shelf’s in coming weeks I will post on the FB Page Ballyhaunis Life . If it is okay with you, a little blurb on your Great-Grandmother Katherine Morley Conley, who emigrated over a century ago I met Sandra and Ursula Morley and another second cousin their Sister Maureen Lilly on Saturday. They will be real friends Best , we are all very proud of you Ireland as a place to heal….I get it Merri

    Sent from my iPhone


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