One of my absolute favorite books on dressage is "The Ethics and Passions of Dressage" by Charles de Kunffy. I make an effort to read this small but powerful book at least once a year to help re-center myself and focus on what is really important in riding. In this book, de Kunffy speaks about dressage as a living art and our responsibility as riders to carry on the tradition of classical riding. He speaks about the character development of the rider on the path of riding, and that is something I am really passionate about.
When on the path of learning to ride and of horsemanship, we focus on getting our bodies in shape by doing yoga or pilates. We take clinics and learn about how to apply the perfect aid for a flying change or how to ride a great shoulder-in. We read books on dressage theory to learn the hows, the whats and whys of what we do. In our barn, we offer lectures on dressage theory as the "mind" part of riding is very important! However, this is an endeavor that requires the mind, body and spirit. It is the "spirit" element that is most often overlooked. I believe that through working with horses, we can develop characteristics that will improve our lives such as focus, patience, empathy, persistence, integrity and confidence. I also believe that personal growth and rider development is a two way street. One helps the other. If you want to become the best rider that you can be, it will require more than learning theory, more than doing yoga, more than studying books on riding. By cultivating the character development of the rider out of the saddle, changes will be made to the riders spirit that will transform not only their riding, but their lives.
That brings about the question, "How do we begin to transform our character?" It starts by creating an open space to allow us to be more in touch with Spirit (our "higher being", the Universe, Source, God...feel free to use which ever term you are comfortable with here). Our lives these days are hectic...we are so busy with our jobs, our families, our responsibilities and in the few moments of quiet that we may have, we get on our smartphones and mindlessly scroll through Facebook or binge watch Netflix. Rarely do we just sit in silence, quiet our minds and allow the space for inspiration to come. By quieting our minds, we create the time and space to begin to analyze our reactions to situations and find out what triggers our fear, anger or insecurity. This is how we can begin to shift the patterns that have controlled our lives. It takes awareness, and it takes practice. By beginning to analyze our reactions to different scenarios, we can begin to learn more about ourselves and find out who we are as individuals. We can begin to stop the cycle of negativity, of anger, of fear, etc... before it even begins. It's vital to be able to really feel what you are experiencing in the moment. If you know you are in a bad mood and you have a short fuse, maybe change the plan for your ride that day to something very simple so you do not set yourself up for frustration and anger to take over. Once the cycle begins it can be very difficult to stop it, so it's easier to control it before it even begins. The more you practice calming your mind and controlling your reactivity in quiet situations, the easier it will be to do once something really triggers that emotion.
Here is an example from my personal experience. I have trained up all my horses from foals. My first young horse I purchased as a yearling in 2003, and he was the first horse I ever started under saddle and trained through the levels. Because he was the first, I was faced with so much insecurity with him. Unfortunately, I did not have a trainer at the time and was really on my own. I felt so isolated at times, and it was really challenging when I would face a difficult situation like trying to teach my horse something new. As soon as I started to struggle with it, I would spiral down into a heap of self loathing, frustration and anger. Frustrated that I felt so helpless and out of control. Then the anger would come in...always at myself but it would come through my body and would always create tension in my horse which would complicate the situation even further. He would become really spooky with the tension, and I would leave the barn every day feeling like a total failure. It took many years for me to learn to be able to step back and analyze the situation from a place of compassion and kindness (not only to my horse but even more to myself!) Self acceptance is vital to creating harmonious relationships, not only with horses but with other people and even ourselves. Experience definitely breeds confidence, so stick with it and persevere. My perspective has definitely changed but even now as I train another one of my horses to the Grand Prix (a level that I am learning about with my horse), I am able to see the situation with clarity, and when I start to struggle with something, I know that it is temporary and that minor failures along the way are inevitable and sometimes end up being a great learning opportunity. I can now stop the anger and frustration in it's tracks before it spirals into negative self talk and the self loathing that always used to ensue. The first horse that I had talked about I ended up training through Prix St. Georges and earning my USDF Bronze & Silver medals on and my husband trained him to Intermediare I and is currently working towards the Grand Prix. Determination and perseverance are critical but first, there must be self compassion!!
Thanks so much for reading!