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Magical Thinking: Rachel Saavedra Reflects On A Rider's Endless Evolution

When chatting with a dressage pro, the last place you expect your conversation to go is to the mythology of esteemed writer and professor Joseph Campbell. But then, Rachel Saavedra is not your conventional trainer. Perhaps what make’s Rachel so inspiring though, is her thoughtful and introspective approach to dressage. We explored the existence of a rider in our sport. We talked about mindfulness. We talked about community. And we talked about how our personal journeys relate to our time in the saddle.

(Photo by Gary Getz)

So what does Joseph Campbell have to do with our own equestrian experience? His work covers many facets of the human experience. You can find his ideas reflected across a wide swath of popular culture. Think of Star Wars’ Luke Skywalker and you can begin to appreciate Campbell’s vision of a hero’s journey, one which begins with youthful tenacity and over time adopts patience and finesse. Surprisingly, Skywalker’s own personal evolution doesn’t stray too far from that of a dressage rider’s.

Rachel related Campbell’s philosophy to the dressage experience in this way: “As young adults, we conquer our world like a lion – in a grand and powerful way. As we mature, we gain more knowledge and skill. We have more awareness. There’s less might and more magic. That’s how I see my riding has developed and evolved.”

Full disclosure; I ride at the same barn as Rachel and have the opportunity to see her work. Watching Rachel school a horse is like watching a modern dance. You know there’s serious effort and athleticism, yet what you see is grace and partnership. There’s a playful pas de deux between Rachel and her extraordinary FEI horse, Sueno Hit. There’s the magic. When schooling her young horse Zaltamonte however, Rachel tells me that it sometimes brings out her inner lion. But you would never know it. She looks more like a clever cat. Playful, but in charge.

While she may fly a bit under your social media radar, Rachel is a leading light in the national dressage world with a bucket load of accomplishments. A seasoned Grand Prix competitor and trainer, she is a Senior Faculty Member in the USDF Instructor/Trainer Certification Program and one of the first to be certified at the FEI level. Rachel trains with the likes of Andreas Hausberger, Conrad Schumacher and now most extensively with fellow competitors, Jan Ebeling and Dirk Glitz. Her home base is in Livermore, CA where she teaches both amateur and professional riders. She travels around the US to give clinics, USDF Trainer workshops and occasionally she teaches abroad.

Rachel builds long term relationships with her students and horses in training - helping them be the most they can be. Ultimately, she wants to reach more people and share with others her unique approach to riding and training. Rachel sees the path to that goal in continuing to teach teachers.

Alejandro Salazar is proof in point. An FEI rider, USDF Gold Medalist and successful trainer; his partnership with Rachel goes back more than 15 years. “I value her friendship as much as any other aspect of our relationship. It’s meant the world to me to have someone who is such an amazing and successful horsewoman take a personal interest in me, encourage me and push me to become a better rider and teacher.”

Alejandro is a live wire. His enthusiasm is contagious. Like Rachel, his accomplishments go well beyond dressage. He too is unique and inspirational. Born in Costa Rica, Ale started riding at a young age, competing across South America primarily as a show jumper. Eventually his family moved to the U.S. He has a B.S. in mechanical engineering from UCSB and an M.S. in environmental engineering from Purdue. All this while at the same time training and competing in show jumping and dressage. Ale is one of an elite group of trainers who hold both AHJA and USDF trainer certifications.

On Being ‘Vintage’

At age 56, Rachel no longer counts success in numbers. She seeks to advance her skills by riding fewer horses, more effectively and more thoroughly. This mentality echoes the adage that so many riders in our “perfectionist” sport hold close to their hearts – ‘practice doesn’t make perfect; rather perfect practice makes perfect’. Over the years Rachel has been inspired to step back and examine what truly improves her abilities. “At the beginning of my career, like many younger professionals, I probably rode too many horses. To gain experience and build my business I was go-go-go. But this can be hard on the body and over time didn’t help me to continue improving my riding.”

Rachel is emblematic of the notion that ‘50-is-the-new-30’. As such, I was interested in her perspective and advice for others. In the course of our conversation, she offered up golden nuggets of information, which can be encapsulated in three essential ideas.

Make Your Fitness Fundamental

As we train and condition our horses, we need to be doing the same for ourselves. “People do not understand just how much fitness dressage requires. You must be able to ride isometrically and have an enormous amount of symmetry. And in training, when you and your horse are having an “a-ha” moment, you need the stamina to keep going in order to learn and benefit in that moment. This means there may be a missed opportunity if you run out of breath or lose your stability.”

This comment triggered my own a-ha moment. Even though I practice and teach Yoga, as a dressage rider the idea of isometrics was new for me. It’s natural to think about core strength, balance, flexibility and aerobic conditioning. Yet in that big or even not so big trot, it can be a puzzle how to fit them together. Especially as we leave our 40s and 50s behind, there’s no way around it. Fitness and how we apply it is a huge factor in developing an independent seat, effective aids and the stamina to put it all together.

Plan Your Work and Work Your Plan

For those of us amateurs who ride one horse, just 4-5 times per week, it’s tempting to practice every trick in our playbook. When things are going well it’s simply too fun to stop. On challenging days, there’s a drive to just try and try again. Then we may end up sacrificing quality for quantity.

“People tend to get on and ride and then ride some more. Often there’s no plan beyond spending 45 minutes to work their horse and practice movements. I suggest that riders clarify what they want to accomplish. Have a goal, warm up and stay on topic.” Rachel goes on to emphasize the value of picking a few things to work on each time you ride. “Keep the focus on these objectives, yet avoid drilling them over and over again. Make your point, make it better, then take a short walk break. We want to refresh our horse and ourselves as well. Dressage horses are not long-distance horses, they are power athletes. Riding intense sets of about six minutes or so, with a short rest in between, is better for muscle building.”

This brings us back to our own fitness. Even though we can do more when we’re younger, strategic use of effort is more effective at any age. Doing the right thing just becomes more necessary as we get older.

Celebrate Community

Clearly, Rachel is having great success and enjoys the competition of the sport. Yet, she has come to learn that dressage runs deeper than the centerline. “I love feeling the sense of this community. I tend to participate in shows where the people I most admire are doing the same. It’s not just about the competition. I enjoy the culture. For example, was such a pleasure attending the 2018 USDF FEI-Level Trainers Conference in Del Mar. I seek out the company of my peers and I really enjoyed spending time with the other trainers there.”

No matter our experience, the talents of our horse or the depth of our pocketbook, we all have one big thing in common – a passion for our horse and our sport. The culture of our equine community is what we make it. Rachel reminds us that as we work towards our own personal goals there’s much to be gained through friendships and teamwork. All sorts of opportunities to expand your equestrian horizons are out there. Volunteer at shows, learn to scribe, participate in local chapter events, start a fitness challenge, support horsey non-profits. Imagine if you actually got to know some of your Facebook friends!

Looking Forward

Reflecting on her personal goals Rachel says “it’s all icing on the cake from here. I have two good horses of my own and I’m getting great help as I work to stay current as a Grand Prix rider. I’m seizing this moment, knowing that I’m strong and can continue to ride at my peak performance a while longer.” Sueno Hit, is also finding his stride in dressage at the age of 10. Rachel says that he too is getting more fun out of the work and in the spirit of the game. Together the pair is enjoying the sweet spot in their career, and as things begin to fall into place they remember to be present for every moment of it. After all, the Grand Prix means nothing if we miss soaking up all the little bits in between.

“The goal of life is to make your heartbeat match the beat of the universe, to match your nature with Nature.” Joseph Campbell

“May the horse be with you.” Never Yoda said.


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