If there's one thing you can say about horse people it's that we're a passionate bunch. We eagerly board the emotional coaster that is horses, buckle our seatbelts, and get swept away with beaming grins. But what goes up must come down. The sky scraping highs of blue ribbons and training hallmarks can be followed by the disheartening plummet of lameness issues or bad falls. Such is the equestrian journey. We come to know it too well, but then again not recognize it at all.
Recently, I was speaking to the boyfriend of an eventing trainer who was blatantly confused by the despair that a vet visit had caused.
"I don't understand. When you've been riding horses all your life don't you know that this is how the cycle goes?"
He'd only been introduced to the horse world a year ago, but he had already pinpointed the Achilles heel that many of us equestrians grapple with for a lifetime. Unfortunately, the emotional investment that we make in our horses, and in our sport, can make or break us. I know too many fellow riders (myself included) who've let a bad lesson or a disappointing show eat away at them long after it's over. Our passion for perfection can be our greatest strength or our biggest weakness, and it's up to us determine where we land.
Personally, nothing deflates me more than the lack of progression in my training. Training plateaus may be a fact of life, but my blades dull with monotony. If I had to choose between practicing the same FEI movements over and over and a continuous cycle of progression from first to second level I would choose the latter, hands down. Not to say that when training levels out I don't still have that insatiable drive to get out and ride, but I don't buzz with adrenaline after running into the same training challenge for the 19th ride in a row.
It's these moments where I fight burnout. And I don't mean the "I never want to do this again" burnout, I mean the "please let this ride be better because I'm out of ideas" burnout. It's the kind of burnout that comes from caring too much, rather than not at all.
It's these times where I need to push my reset button. Just last year I remember I'd gotten into the habit of practicing the same several movements with my lease mare, hoping to solidifying our second level status as soon as possible. At some point my practice turned into a drill, perhaps from my own lack of creativity or the perfectionist affliction which seems to burden so many of us dressage folk. It took some time before I realized, what good is there being a solid second level team if I wore myself and my horse out getting there?
Instead, I signed up for a first level show. It was our first show together, and believe it or not my first show in ten years thanks to a long horseless period post-college. A lot of firsts for one weekend! Coming down centerline I was rejuvenated. My little mare was responsive, relaxed, focused, and most of all happy to be doing something different. We earned a solid 67% on our first test and the judge's comment "nice pair with great basics on display" relit my fire like a match. I was so proud of my lease mare and so enthused about what we'd accomplished together that I wasn't even thinking about the challenges that still lay ahead.
At our next lesson I had a clear head as I swung my foot into the stirrup. I was ready to take on the world with my little mare and most of all I was ready to have a blast doing it. One simple reset had done a world of difference. In the past it's been a clinic, an education conference, or even a vacation away from the barn that has reaffirmed my love for the sport and put me back on track.
I'm not going to say that I won't slip into that cycle again where my dedication burns like a candle at both ends before extinguishing eventually in the middle. However, I hope to grow as a rider and recognize this pattern quicker, channeling my energy into something more sustainable. It' like preparing at a horse show, doing just the right amount of warm up so that your horse is both relaxed and calm but still fresh and responsive to your aids. It's a finely orchestrated balancing act. I've got to keep my focus and adrenaline high, because the bell hasn't rung yet and I've still got a test to ride.