Confessions of a Recovering Dressage Queen Originally printed in Dressage Today

According to the AHSA Rule Book and the FEI Rule Book, the object of dressage is

“… the harmonious development of the physique and ability of the horse. As a result it makes the horse calm, supple, loose and flexible but also confident, attentive and keen, thus achieving perfect understanding with his rider…displaying a natural and harmonious balance both physically and mentally.” Almost Zen-like, isn’t it?

Harmony. Hold that thought.

My story begins in 1956, when I was about 5 years old. I have a photograph of this moment, but it is also one of the few moments from my early childhood that I can still remember clearly. I am standing, dressed in my “dungarees” and cowboy boots, in the front yard of a hack stable somewhere near the city of Providence, RI, where I grew up. My teenage sister and her friend have just finished going for a trail ride, and my sister is asking me if I want to sit on her horse before he is taken away to be unsaddled. At that moment, I could think of nothing more that I wanted in the whole world.

Next scene is of me again, at the age of 11, sitting in a seat at the old Boston Garden, watching the real Spanish Riding School perform. They are on their second-ever trip to the US, and I am so thrilled at the unspeakable beauty of what I’m seeing that I am in tears for the better part of the evening.

Fast-forward  to sometime in the early 1990’s. I have been an aspiring dressage queen now for 20 years, having finally found, in the 1970’s, someone to teach me dressage, in the person of my now-husband, Bill.  I was in college in the early 70’s, and when I graduated, I took a full-time job at night, tending bar, so that I could hang around the barn all day. Back then, I was eventing too, and I can remember times when I worked until 1 AM tending bar, came back to my apartment to sleep for an hour, then got up to go off to compete in a one-day horse trials. By 1978 I was fully employed as a dressage professional, and my time consisted of (at least) 80-hour work weeks; by the mid-90’s I was pretty burned out, mentally and physically. Every waking hour of almost every day was spent in either the company, or the service, of horses. In this 1994 (and years following) scene, I am standing next to some horse (this is a recurring scene) yelling at that horse because it was being uncooperative in the stall. Or I am sitting on some horse, feeling frustrated with the horse’s resistance, and I am using my strong seat and aids in an effort to make the horse uncomfortable enough that he will finally just do what I want him to. Not outright cruelty, thank God, but plenty of intimidation was happening.

Next scene happens on an October night in the late ‘90’s. I am visiting our barn in order to do the evening feeding and barn check. There is a special energy in the air, with a restless wind and clouds swirling around the full moon. After I finish my work, I spend a minute visiting with one of our four horses, and for reasons still unknown to me, start to think this thought: “If you can hear my thoughts, touch my nose.” I repeat the thought several times, and the horse, at first restless and distracted, becomes still. He then lowers his head, and then slowly and deliberately touches my nose with his, precisely and gently. I thank him, and move to the next and the next. Three more visits, three more restless horses who gradually become still, lower their heads, and slowly, carefully touch my nose. It absolutely blew me away, and at the same time I felt frustrated—apparently, they could hear my thoughts, but try as I might, I could not hear theirs.

Now we jump to some time around 1998. I am standing with my special horse, Dino, who has suddenly become quite sick. He has a fever, elevated respiration, and a deep cough. My vet has diagnosed pneumonia, and is preparing to run an IV line in order to give Dino fluids and antibiotics. Dino is a very dear and kind soul, but not the bravest horse in the barn. Any procedure, including routine paste worming, will send him to the back of the stall, with his head as high as he can get it. Inasmuch as he stands 17.3h high, this can be rather effective, from his point of view, but he usually gives up his resistance if you just wait a minute. On this particular night, however, he carries out his resistance as my vet, with his bottle of fluids, and I, with the lead shank, follow my horse round and round the stall.  We move eventually out into the aisle, as he refuses to let us insert the needle into his jugular vein. A look of pure terror is in his eyes, and although we are exasperated, we have not attempted to punish him; we’re just waiting for Dino’s consent, which does not look imminent. Suddenly, I hear a voice—as if someone had spoken directly into the side of my head–and it says, “You’re trying to kill me!” Without a second to consider it, I silently reply, “No! We’re trying to help you!” Instantly (I have witnesses!) Dino drops his head and stands quietly as we insert the needle.   Hmmmmmm…That got my attention.

OK, you’re thinking, this is all very interesting, but what does this journey of mine have to do with HARMONY? My answer is, “everything.”  Bear with me.

As far as I’m concerned, the story I have told you is not so much about weird happenings and psychic revelations as it is about my progress through stages in my relationships with horses. And in that context, it is a cautionary tale. You see, at first, I was in love with horses just because they are magnificent creatures. I was fascinated with everything about them, with no personal agendas, and I was happy just to ride.  But by the 1990’s, everything I did with horses had a personal agenda. I was riding toward my goals, toward career enhancement, or toward my weekly income. I was riding to prove my knowledge and to validate myself. I was riding for all kinds of reasons that people find to do things. This was not some conscious shift that I made—it just happened, gradually, and when it did, it changed the way I did everything.

I didn’t go around abusing horses; there were no incidents of cruelty. It was much more subtle than that. I had simply demoted them to the status of subordinates, or vehicles to my goals, and I had pretty much stopped thinking of them as wonderful just because they were horses. Now, they were only wonderful if they could get great scores, preferably at Prix St. Georges or higher. If the horses I dealt with had other plans for their lives than the ones their owners or I had, then it was my business to get them to knuckle down and do the work. Again, I want to emphasize, there is no glaring sin here. Rather, it was a much more insidious thing at work, because I no longer honored each horse’s right to be who he or she was. I no longer saw the beauty of each one. Sometimes I didn’t face the truth about particular horses—ones who were unhappy in their jobs. They either were helping me get where I wanted to be, or they weren’t. And it was around this point, by the way, that it stopped being fun. But when, as it happened to me, you suddenly can no longer ignore the fact that these creatures, whom you have been trying to bend to your will, really do have intelligence and a quiet dignity of their own, everything changes.

Horses are not lesser creatures. In fact, at times I am sure that they are quite the opposite. After all, they let us ride them, and I know for sure that it’s not because they are too stupid to know how to prevent it. But some of us, somehow, even with the best of intentions, can get drawn away from the goal of developing a partnership with our horses through the exquisite logic of the dressage training system. We can forget, as I did, that the reason we got into dressage was to work with a horse partner to create beauty, for the enjoyment and inspiration of those who see it. We find ourselves, at the end of many years, as I did, setting agendas and worrying about the bottom line, as we perhaps must, but in the bargain, forgetting to honor the horses as fellow travelers through this adventure. In point of fact, without the horses, there would be no dressage adventure.

Let me be clear about something: nothing that I have experienced, so far, has convinced me that we shouldn’t ride horses. Nothing tells me that dressage, or for that matter, team penning  or endurance riding are bad things. Every horse, and every rider, has a niche that suits him or her.  The problems arise, as nearly as I can tell, when we don’t  “listen” to what the horses are telling us. You don’t have to be a psychic to hear your horse—I have worked with countless people who understand their horses very well, who know their thoughts as well as their own. Dressage seems to attract these types, I think; they are people who are generally very aware, sensitive, and intelligent. They also tend to be highly motivated and goal-oriented, and sometimes that’s where the problems creep in. They arise when we turn a deaf ear to what, I am convinced, on some level, we already know. We set our agendas and work like crazy to turn our equine partners into Olympic hopefuls. In some cases, that is entirely appropriate, but in some others, it is not.

Somewhere I read that, in the end, we are not judged by our actions, but by the choices we made. There are those big, tough choices—like, should I sell my expensive warmblood, who is massively unhappy doing the thing that I bought him for, and lose a lot of money in the process? And there are little choices, like, whether or not to give your horse the day off when he is a little cooked, even though the show is in 2 days. It could be about whether to tighten the noseband a little more to keep that mouth shut, instead of fixing the problem that makes the horse want to open his mouth. Or maybe it’s about whether to withdraw from your last class at the show, knowing that your horse’s sides are a bit sore from the spurs, or whether to just cover the bare spots with dye. And it turns out, I think, that every decision, even a little, seemingly harmless one, matters.

The judge may not know what’s going on, you may not be breaking any rules, and you promise to give your horse that time off later—but you know what? Your horse knows. He or she knows, and may well forgive you. But you know too, somewhere in your heart.  A little violation has taken place—a violation of the balance and trust—the HARMONY– between you and your partner. Not your servant, but your partner, a creature whose existence on this earth is just as important as yours. One transgression will surely not ruin the partnership between horse and rider, and in most cases, horses will forgive a lot before things start to deteriorate. But sooner or later, the imbalance that has been created will take its toll.

Our culture values accomplishment over intent. It is more important to tally up wins and successes than to point to instances of personal accomplishment and joy that we have experienced. Given these conditions, how many of us can afford to be realistic about our own goals and limitations? How many of us can actually just do dressage for the love of it, for the experience of partnership with our horses, or must we set the highest goals and then spend the rest of our lives as failures because we didn’t make it to the Olympics?  Does this sound like balance and harmony?

You know, I share my home with several wonderful dogs who are the light of my life—they are French Bulldogs, and our “kennel” name is Impossibul, which should give you some idea of the bulldog temperament. They are bright, soulful, loving dogs, but stubborn and opinionated. It is said that there are as many Golden Retrievers that achieve the “CD” status in dog obedience each year as there have been Frenchies that have achieved this in the whole history of the breed. Yet there are dedicated Frenchie lovers who try to train these comical and exasperating dogs in obedience, and they do it with love and patience, completely accepting their dogs’ wonderful selves as they are, and enjoying small successes as they come.

How many of us could show that kind of patient, loving acceptance to our horses and to ourselves, as we measure ourselves against the finest horses and riders in the world? For me, I can tell you, it is a very difficult task not to slip back into old habits. But I would like to propose that it is time that we embrace a new culture, one that we ourselves can create just by changing how we think. Each one of us can make the choice to act in a loving and accepting way towards ourselves and our horses. We can each make a choice to live by a new set of rules. We can create our own new “dressage world order,” in which we remember to practice the art of dressage for the reasons that it first captured our imagination. We can work towards  “the harmonious development of the physique and ability of the horse”, for the sake of achieving that “harmonious balance” and “perfect understanding”. We can celebrate each small accomplishment in the learning process rather than rushing towards an end that we can never reach. We can even learn to ride at shows to show off our painstaking work, with pride, instead of figuring out the shortest route to the ribbons.  And, we can simply choose to remember that in this new world of ours, your value as a person is not measured by the level of your skill but rather by the content of your heart.