Dressage Is a Mental Minefield

Dressage, or any other equestrian sport, has the potential to become a mental minefield that can completely cripple you both in and out of the arena.

Last year it got the better of me.  I admit it.  I’m not ashamed of it.  I over thought everything and my performance suffered.  My relationship with my horse suffered.

No one was happy.

One of my biggest goals for this competition season was to try to relax, have fun, and take everything in stride.  So when I sent our entries in for our first three day show I knew I was going to have a pretty big challenge.  I could barely keep myself under control for a one day show so to be able to control my mental trips and keep my focus for three days and 6 tests would be a new feat of greatness.

In the week preceding the show I took a lot of confidence from how well Bubba felt in practice.  I was getting a great feeling in my seat and he was extremely responsive so I felt prepped and ready to go when we started to get ready to go last Thursday when our first challenge arose.

I am not a person who likes to be rushed.  In fact I hate it.  The though of only having three hours to get a ride in, bathe, clip, braid, prep food, and pack the trailer was getting me frazzled before I’d even gotten to the barn.  In an effort to calm myself down I made myself a mental checklist and order of operations.

1.) SHORT practice ride, run one test and if it feels good go with it

2.) Let Bubba graze while cleaning stall and getting bath/clipping stations ready.

3.) Catch horse and clip without cross tie incident

4.) Bathe horse and scrub off excess chestnuts without cross tie incident

5.) Graze horse while drying and detangling mane and tail

6.) Braid horse without cross tie incident or seriously amateur looking results

7.) Stash horse in stall while prepping food and tossing him treats because he was a VERY patient boy

8.) Throw things from back of car into back of trailer

9.) Realize I’ve forgotten to clean trailer, get fork and wheel barrow, clean trailer, and schlep poop to compost

10.)Realize I’m now fifteen minutes behind schedule and quickly flee barn so I’m not late to work.

Surprisingly my braiding job turned out really well.  Which is to say, about average for any one else.  Braiding is my kryptonite.

Prep day survived but phase 1 of my regular pre show meltdown, insomnia, begins when I try to go to bed that night. Overall I wound up getting about three hours of accumulated sleep so I was like a dead man driving to the barn on Friday morning to collect Bubba and my coach and drive over to Silverwood.

Thankfully I pass out while my coach is driving and get another 45 minutes of sleep.

When we do get to Silverwood and I pour myself out of the passenger side of the truck I happily find that my father had been following us and is ready and willing to help drag all of our dressage show paraphernalia in to the stabling area.

While we are dragging everything in phase 2, paranoia, begins to rear its ugly head and is quickly followed by phase 3, nausea.

By now Bubba has discovered that his neighbor is a comely mare, who is a hay thief and is attempting to snatch bits of his food through the wall. Squealing and gnashing of teeth ensues. Deciding that we probably should move because of mare madness and incoming inclement weather we scout out the indoor stalls and confer with the extremely friendly competitors already stabled there.  Finding an ideal stall I run to the office to try to find someone in the show management team to approve our stall change.  Not finding the farm owner I run back to the stall and frantically begin changing and getting ready since our first ride time is now only an hour away.  Feeling the onset of phase 4, jitters, I grab my Rescue Remedy gum and start chewing away.

As I’m yanking on my cravat and my dad is attempting to saddle Bubba, something he’s never done before, I realize I haven’t the foggiest clue about what the test is I’m supposed to be doing.  Leaping on my backpack I begin riffling through the gazillion pockets that hold everything from cough drops, to a Vogue magazine, to boot pulls, and hoof picks in an attempt to unearth the show program and my Whinny Widgets.  Finding them buried underneath a bag of makeup and half in the July copy of Vogue I begin scanning through the movements and making wild hand movements as I try to visualize the test in an arena.

Sensing my disquiet Bubba sticks his head out the stall door and breathes in my ear, which oddly calms me down.  I fish a carrot chunk out of the pocket of my show coat and offer it too him, finding him not only saddled but also properly bridled.  Yelling my thanks to my dad and turning on my headset so my coach can yell in my ear from 250 yards away I trot off to the warm up arena and double check everything before getting on.

Finally I begin to calm down and the warm up goes spectacularly.  I feel clear headed and Bubba feels good, if a little lazy.  I’m okay with lazy in the first test, Training Level Test 2, because we’ll be repeating it on Sunday for Tom Poulin and also because our second test is scheduled for only 35 minutes after our first one and is in the arena at the other side of the property.

Hearing my name called I check in with steward, start the warm up lap, smile at the judge, and congratulate the rider before me.  I can feel my heart racing and I purposely practice the breathing techniques that we’ve been working on in my yoga class, breathing in the good and breathing out the bad.  Quickly running through the first parts of the test in my head I almost miss the bell and have to pull a pretty sharp turn to get in the space at A.

Surprisingly the test goes really well, at least what feels good for me, and I exit the arena with a lot of confidence for Training Level Test 1, which I feel also goes very very well.


Rashka looking gorgeous as usual.

Having just exited the arena after my second ride I find the farm owner in her golf cart and quickly get our stall change approved before heading back to the stables to celebrate Day 1 survival and success and repack all of our equipment so we can move to our new stall.

Having settled in, I discover that we accidentally moved in with the stallions, which makes Bubba vocally happy since he still prefers to think that he is one.  Up the aisle from us is Ken Borden of Little Bit Farm Inc. with two of his stallions, one of which is Rashka. Ken has been one of my local riding idols since my first rated show where  I watched  Rashka perform the very first FEI level test I had ever seen in person.

So I was a little bit star struck.

Directly across from us was also one of the horses, Ch’i from Pferde Farm , that the studio I freelance for regular covers at clinics.

Feeling more than a little out classed I wandered over to the show office to see if my scores were in yet.  I had been having fantasies of 70’s for our first ride because it felt really good to me, but I wasn’t expecting as high of a score for our second ride because it had been a little squirrely, but more energetic.

Digging through the file folders I find both my tests and am a little disappointed to see that we were in the low 60’s for both tests, but we still placed third in Test 2 and first in Test 1!  And at least they were above 60!

Satisfied, if not ecstatic, I held Bubba’s dinner pail for him as he munched on his grain and thought over the positives, or wins, for the day.

This is one of the new techniques I’m trying to adopt since I can very easily over focus on the negatives.

While I was thinking over things and Bubba was trying to avoid eating the electrolytes I’d added to his grain I realized that one of my favorite mantras, “FEAR: False Evidence Appearing Real”, could very easily be adapted and used as a reminder for some of things I was trying to focus on improving “FEAR: Freedom Energy Activity and Relaxation”.

I attempted to fall asleep while repeating this to myself but phase 1 was still simmering away and I had trouble falling asleep as I worried over the tests I’d signed up for in Day 2: Training Level Test 3 and First Level Test 1.  These were the two tests that I’d really come to this show for and the two tests that I absolutely had to get qualifying scores in since Test 3 was the last ride that Bubba would need to complete his training level performance certificate and Test 1 was the first ride that would be able to count toward my USDF bronze medal.

Day 2 Morning Mantra: Just get a 60, be happy with a 60.

I was incredibly nervous for the Test 1 since I had royally screwed it up at the schooling show a few weeks ago and this would be under a very serious judge.  Grabbing my Whinny Widgets again and I white board I drew the test out over and over again until I could actually see the lines tracing around the outline of the arena.

Bubba was still a bit lazy and I didn’t want to waste what energy he did have so warm up was short and sweet and before I knew what was happening we were trotting around the arena and waiting on that little bell.

I blanked out most of the test but I remember having a canter depart get a little… off… and thinking, “Oh dear God please just give us a 60.”

Popping off to wait for our Training Level Test, scheduled for 45 minutes later, I scratched Bubba’s man boobs and he did his usual “Oh thank GOD my arm pits were so itchy!” dance.  Dad, having discovered Bubba’s enthusiasm for treats of any form, had stashed some carrot cookies in his pockets and Bubba started sniffing him up and down until Dad fished them all out for him to gobble up.

While we were standing in the shade our judge from the day before walked by and I caught her eye to say hello.  Surprisingly she stopped to ask if I had any other rides under her that weekend.  I said yes, we’d be doing First Level Test 1 again for her in the morning on Day 3.  She asked that I come up to the box afterward and I immediately started imagining the worst case scenario.  Phase 2 was back.

We made it through Test 3 and headed back to the stall for the day, me glad I hadn’t progressed to phase 4 again today, and had actually avoided phase 5, a full blown panic attack, on what I was guessing would be the most stressful day of the weekend.

Looking for the positives again, before we’d even gotten our tests back, I was pleased with the improved energy and responsiveness I had felt in both tests.  He’d felt much more active and much more connected for each one and I was fairly confident that we’d be able to get the scores we needed.

Wanting to watch Ken ride his other stallion, Ovation, I wandered out to the arena where he would be riding and ran into some of the other horse/rider combinations that I’d been videoing and taking photos of for the last couple of years.  Whining about the storm that was supposed to roll through for the morning rides on Day 3 we commiserated that we wouldn’t really be able to scratch any rides since it was technically a different show.

Deciding that I couldn’t put if off any longer I went back to the show office and dug our score sheets out of the box, shocked to find that we’d actually pulled a 64.8% in our First Level test and received a qualifying score in our Training Level test as well.

Thank the dressage gods!dressage, palomino, horse, show, quarter, halter

Relaxed and happy I took Bubba out for his evening grass binge and grain nibbling and actually slept through the night.

Day 3, began screwed up an stayed that way.

Whether it was the added stress of a third show day or the let down of tension from Day 2 everyone, me included, was a little cranky that morning.  Bubba was unusually laconic and I was still constructing disaster scenarios about what our judge could possibly have to say so we wandered over to the warm up arena while it down poured and we both got soaked.

Wanting to avoid complete drenching we warmed up for 10-15 minutes and then parked ourselves under cover to await our ride time.  Poor Bubba was soaking wet buy my all weather rider held up pretty well and I only had a steady dribble of cold water running off my helmet and down my nose.

Wanting to get everything over with, I entered for our warm up lap at a trot instead of our usual free walk.  Also wanting to speed things along, the judge thankfully rung the bell just after the other rider exited and we approached A.

Bubba, upset with having cold water running down his ears and face, was cranky, but energetic.  I was tense and our steering suffered but he certainly looked and felt more active than he had the previous two days.  Saluting, I hurried down to the box, anticipating something wrong and hoping to at least limit the damages.

The judge poked her head out the window and yelled, “I just wanted to let you know that you have a wonderful partnership, it absolutely shines through.”

Stunned at the positive feed back I almost burst into tears, shouting my profuse thanks to her over the noise of the rain and the storm.  I was grinning like a crazed loon all the way out of the arena.

For once we didn’t have a second ride within the hour so Bubba got to dry off in his stall while we awaited our Training Level Test 2 repeat 5 hours later.

In the mean time both of my parents showed up.  This is a bit of a shock because my mom is still not quite convinced about the safety of this whole, ‘horse thing’.  The last show she came to Bubba was still a bit, rambunctious, and I was dealing with minor whiplash from a bucking incident in the warm up the night before that I hadn’t told her about.

Then one of the other girls from the barn showed up with her boyfriend.  Then the girl with the pony up the aisle from us came and I got completely distracted by its complete adorableness.  Then Bubba started getting fed up because we should have been home the day before and he wasn’t really appreciating the friendly overtures that the other gelding behind him was making.

Then I decided I was starving and had to get food and I needed to pick up a new pair of jods since I’d worn through two of the three pairs that I own in the last month.  Then I had to go find the scores from our first test (a 65%!!!!) and then I had to run to the trailer to get the back up for all of our show things since everything was still soaked from the morning ride and then in my rush I got to the warm up too early and wound up sitting around for 45 minutes before I could go in and then my coach’s husband showed up and they got in an argument and then I just wanted to be left alone.

Finally it was almost our ride time, kind of.  Because of the rain there were quite a few scratches and there was some confusion about who was actually supposed to be going into the ring.  Waving me in to the arena the ring steward radioed my ride in and I walked over tot he judge to double check that I was actually supposed to be there.

Nodding me on he rang the bell and we began.

Four movements in I forgot the test.  The bell rang.  I realized I was supposed to be stretchy trotting in a circle and not ambling across in a free walk.  Yelling my apologies I redid the stretchy trot and transitioned down to our medium walk…from test 1.

Bell rings again and I’ve not got a clue why so the judge has to yell the test to me and I feel like a complete idiot.  I’ve done this test before, I knew it this morning when I drew it out after our first ride, but I lost all confidence in my ability to remember it and was unsure of what exactly it is I was supposed to be doing.

Feeling my lack of leadership Bubba started to fall back into his leadership position and was speedier and a little more ‘up’ than usual.

Finishing the rest of the test without further incident I had already begun berating myself before we even left the arena.  I was fighting hard not to cry in front of people but I was quickly loosing the battle so I let Bubba trot us back to our stall where I hid out on the far end away from the adorable pony and the little girl who hadn’t been having such a great day either.

Dad got there first, a blessing, because he always knows what to say to me to make me feel better.  Giving me a pep talk he helped me get the saddle off of Bub’s and me out of my show coat and gloves, which were still wet and sticky from that morning.

Trying to keep it together I asked for his bathing halter and a handful of treats and I quickly got Bub out to the shower stall where I could right off my crying as having gotten soap in my eye if it came to that.

I was so frustrated with myself because Bubba had felt the best he did all weekend.  He felt alive and responsive and reactive, all of the things that we’d been working on improving for each test.  I couldn’t believe that I’d forget the test.  I’d been having this issue in practices for the last two months but I hadn’t had any incidents in the week leading up to the show and I thought I had finally cemented each of the four tests that we would be competing that weekend in my mind.

Hoping to at least not get below a 55% I reluctantly went to find my scores as my Dad kept everyone else away from me and my little posse began packing up our paraphernalia and hauling it back out to the trailer so we could head home.

Finding one of my other local riding idols Margaret Bjorkman, at the score boards I reluctantly approached to see if they’d posted the class yet.  Telling her of my stupid mistakes she reassured me while she helped try to find my class in the lists where we discovered that I’d still been generously given a 64% for the ride.  Once again stunned I made it to the show office to find the actual score sheet, not believing that the score had actually been that high.

Finding that it was reported correctly I was both happy that we had a usable score and angry with myself because my stupidity had cost Bubba what would have been the highest Training Level score he had ever received, a 70%, and we would have finished one of my other secret goals for the year, to qualify for the 70% club award that our local GMO sponsored at the year end awards banquet.

Feeling exceptionally foolish and disappointed in myself I started focusing on how much I felt like I had let my partner down.  It didn’t’ matter that  we’d received excellent comments and scores from the judge despite the repeated errors, I was not happy.

Mentally shoving myself back onto better footing I tried to focus on the positives, Bubba had done phenomenally.  He dealt with the changes to the now familiar pattern beautifully and he didn’t get upset when he felt me loose focus, instead he tried harder and worked harder than he had all weekend.  I couldn’t have asked for more from him but my self doubt was still whispering in the back of my mind.

Avoiding the usual post ride sit down with my coach, I rode back with the trailer and tried to get some of the sleep I had been desperately lacking all weekend.

Now a day out, I’ve forgiven myself a little bit more and tried to give myself a little bit of a break.  Six rides, four different tests, and three days is a lot to ask of myself and a lot to ask of my horse.  Overall we came out of the weekend with many more wins than losses, and I have to focus on those wins because we have another show next weekend and I need to be a better partner for my horse because he certainly stepped up his game for me this weekend in a big way.

Overall I successfully avoided the mental mines on two of the three days of the show, on five of the six rides, and that’s pretty darn good for me considering where things stood at the end of last season.