Dressage Horse Training: Learning versus competiting

Hello everyone,

I have been wrestling with this idea of learning versus competing.  How do I feel about it?  How do I express it? How do I share my thoughts without making other people feel defensive or angry?  I am interested to know if there are others out there who have some similar thoughts or ideas.

I have always been a super type-A competitive person to the point of been a sore loser.  As I am reaching my middle years, I am making a conscious effort to leave those behaviors behind and find a healthy and fun way to pursue my passions.  I think competition is a part of this and maybe this is a discussion of what constitutes healthy competition.

Dressage, by it’s nature is a progression of understanding and application of skills.  I enjoy having a judge’s snapshot of feedback to include in my process as it helps me pinpoint what I am doing well and what needs extra time and attention. Good so far.

The problem for me begins when my learning style bumps up against what the dressage community wants competitors to do.  The accepted or idealized method of showing is to always show a level below what you are schooling.  This totally makes sense if you are going to overface your horse or get angry or frustrated with your horse for not meeting your performance expectations.  I, on the other hand, thrive on being out on the leading edge of my skill-set.  Riding a test that I am working on gives me real-time feedback so I can hone in on exactly what I need to focus on–besides everything.  If I wait until I am perfect at each aspect of each test, then I know I will lose interest in the competitive part of the process.  And, for me each test is an adventure I embark on with my horse so I do not get angry or frustrated with my horse (perhaps that will change as I am on my second or third horse thru the levels). I’m thrilled each time we ride the test, I remember all the parts of the test and my horse tries his best.  I want to keep this attitude towards showing and keep the experience in the “fun” zone.  I don’ t want to get wrapped around the axle because I got a 62% when I should have gotten a 70%.  I want to be able to enjoy the ride each and every time.

If I had to pick learning versus showing, I would pick learning and set aside showing.  I do want to ride Grand Prix before I”m 42 but, I want to learn how to train my horse to Grand Prix for the ride, not just hop on a finished school master.  I’ve realized that for me the process is every bit as important as the end result.  This absolutely does not need to be the same for everyone but the key is the alignment of what makes you happy with what you are doing.

So, for me, an ideal season and learning experience involves riding a test I want to compete at for the year.  Take my test home and create a training plan to include highlighted skill sets.  Some issues are longer term–better quality of gaits.  Other feedback is more specific, canter-walk transition is too abrupt.  This is feedback I can use to create a detailed learning process for me and my horse.  Usually the new skill set is a combination of strength, coordination and balance for both me and  my horse.  And, sometimes I have to break a training issue down even further than I had initially done to really find the missing link in the training.  For example, the canter-walk transition can actually be taken back to picking up the reins at the walk.  Does your horse come onto the bit using his topline or does he recruit the underside neck muscles initially and then switch to the topline muscles? This learning part of the process takes the time it takes.  It may work itself out in a few months or carry over to the next year.

So while it is not my intention to butt heads with trainers or judges, sometimes this happens.  I find myself trying to balance my learning needs with the established process.  I do know that you don’t get better by not doing it.  Does anyone else have a thought to share on this subject?

Good Riding,

Tara 🙂

Author, Out of the Saddle: 9 Steps to Improve Your Horseback Riding

Out of the Saddle



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