Journey to First- Level That Is

This weekend was special for the Sea Star team since it was the first time Bubba and I would be showing at First Level.  I had hoped that we would be able to try it last year but my struggles with anxiety and relaxation in the ring held us back at Introductory and Training Level. Was this really a bad thing though?  Last year I would have said yes but now, with a little more perspective and a little more experience, it might have been the best possible thing for us.


Three years ago when I went to my first dressage show I did one test, Green as Grass Test Test 1, and I barely eeked out a 61%.  We didn’t even place but I remember feeling exhilarated at just doing a walk/trot test in a short arena and surviving.   I had only been riding for about 10 months, Bubba had never been to a dressage show, and I was utterly awed by the four First Level: Test 3 riders who seemed like they were gods.  They were leg yielding and cantering and extended trotting around the arena and they looked like Olympic athletes to me with their immaculate show clothes and perfect braids.  And they usually didn’t have to ride until after lunch, a huge plus in my eyes compared to the 7 and 8 am ride times we were being assigned.

First Level seemed like a completely unobtainable goal at the time.  I was still terrified of cantering and lord help me if Bubba decided to spook at something because it would send us both into a spiraling panic attack that would linger in the back of my mind for weeks.  From a technical stand point, I was lucky to even make a rough approximation of a twenty meter circle at a trot and please, lets not talk about my posting.

By some miracle we managed to pull things together over the winter and we killed it the next season in the walk/trot tests (Green as Grass 1-3 and Introductory A & B).  We were scoring in the 70s regularly, the 80s once, andressage, horse, first, level, champion, palomino, quarterhorsed we even got a 10 for our medium walk.

In case you don’t know, these are not normal scores, they’re good, borderline really good…for a walk/trot.  Lacking true perspective  I began to take this as a sign, Bubba and I were destined for greatness.  We were going to win every time, we were always going to be in the 70s, and it would be no time before, like those mythical First Level riders, we would be dancing around the arena and racking up the ribbons. Plus, it didn’t help that everyone said we needed to move up and make the leap to walk/trot/cantering right away.

I was quickly knocked off my high horse when we started in at Training Level last year.  For someone who is rather self critical, as I suspect many a dressage rider is, the low 60s that we were getting seemed like a failure after the 70s and high praises of Intro Level infamy.

I always expect myself to do the best I have ever done, to always be improving, and to never make mistakes in or out of the arena, and to always be improving.  The harder I tried to do better, to make corrections, and to push further the worse we did.  I was getting progressively more frustrated and poor Bubba was getting fed up with my stupidity.  I got to a point in September where I was ready to never show again.

In my mind the season was salvaged when we held ourselves together and got a 70% on a Training 1 test we did in a last minute show in October. Like any good addict craving just one more fix of the good stuff, I was hooked again.

Despite this brief moment of glory, my frustration continued to grow as we trained through the winter. Driven to find some extra help I signed up for a clinic that focused on the rider’s seat and position (exactly what I needed) through the incorporation of yoga, Pilates, tai chi, and balimo exercises into a cohesive workout routine designed for riders.  It seemed like the perfect opportunity because you got 4 hours of riding, 8 hours of ‘mat workouts’, and the advice of 3 experts for a relatively low price.  Plus, it was a group lesson format, which reassured my paranoid mind that at least we wouldn’t be the sole focus of everyone’s attention for the entire time.

I was looking forward to this clinic like it was Easter morning. I just knew that this would be the one thing I needed to fix all the things that had been going wrong all year.

The first lesson was literally the worst ride I have ever had in my life.  I was completely embarrassed because we were in a group with much higher level riders and I felt like I was a complete amateur, which, compared to them, I was.  I managed to keep myself from bawling like a baby in the arena but as soon as we stepped outside to go back to our stall I was sobbing.  Bubba was a nervous wreck because he thought he had done something wrong and I was ready to give up riding entirely.  I was completely willing to pack everything back up in the trailer, go back home, and never get on a horse again.

By this time I had convinced myself that I was an unfixable rider, too stupid to figure out how to control myself and not athletic enough to even try.

My long suffering coach, who had graciously offered to come with me free of charge for the weekend, gave me a mental shove back to the gym for the last half of the day and the now dreaded second ride that would be coming later that afternoon.

That second ride was slightly better, Bubba wasn’t completely uncontrollable, I didn’t burst into tears in front of thirty people, and we managed to get some work done. I was still an emotional mess and completely willing to call it quits though so my coach sat with me and we hashed things out long into the night and I went to bed slightly more optimistic about how the second day would go.

Ride three saw us doing some cantering but ride four was where the real breakthrough came.  I was finally feeling slightly more confident in my abilities and we’d just completed a series of self awareness activities and stretches that relieved some of my constant back pain and had me feeling like I had good posture for once in my life.

After surviving ride three’s cantering I was more willing to trust Bubba and, guess what?  Ride four’s was the best cantering I had ever done.  It felt easy, it felt light, it felt active, it felt harmonious, and perhaps most importantly to me, it felt controlled.

This time when I left the arena it was tears of joy and a renewed faith in my own riding skills.

One of the pervasive themes that I took away from this clinic came from the very first gym workout with our yoga instructor.  She said that we have to give ourselves permission to be wherever we are in our own journey.

Continuing to reflect on my experiences of the clinic, and the last show season, I realized that for the entire last year, or more, I had been unhappy with myself, which was translating to Bubba as unhappiness with him, which made him stiffer and more tense, creating a nasty feedback loop where I thought we were an unsolvable mess that shouldn’t even bother entering a show.

Focusing on the feelings of harmony and acceptance that I touched upon at this clinic has lead me to refocus the entire way I approached my riding and showing. Instead of chasing after that high of a 70% ride, I’m trying to re-find that harmony and connection that we had while we were cantering. I’m trying to learn something from every ride, not make it a perfect one.

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We didn’t have great scores
but we still got ribbons!

At the show this weekend, I still struggled with anxiety and tension but I was closer to the harmony than I ever was during last year. I made riding errors, that I know affected Bubba’s performance, but they were errors that I knew about and had been working on. I could recognize where I had done something that was less than satisfactory and I could think of a strategy to try to improve it during my lesson tomorrow. I could see improvements though, heck, I lost my stirrups in the first stride of an extended trot diagonal and posted across the entire arena before I got them back. That’s a pretty big accomplishment!

Most importantly though, I was able to be a little bit better partner to my horse. I improved in our second ride and made it a better experience for him. I learned from the mistakes of the first ride and made improvements without getting angry with myself or upset with Bubba.

It’s hard to imagine that we’re a First Level team now because I don’t feel like I remember those First Level riders looking three years ago.  Bubba and I didn’t feel floaty this weekend and we were doing more grape stomping than dancing but, we’ll get there eventually. After all as they say, its the journey, not the destination where you find out who you really are.