From Endurance to Dressage
"What Not How"
Lately, I've been hooked on Mike Rowe's podcast, The Way I Heard It. His guests are from all walks of life and cover the political spectrum. Yesterday, I finished episode number 251, "You Wear 40 pounds of Gear Because, You know, You're on Fire Quite a Bit." Rowe's guest was three-time NHRA Funny Car champion Matt Hagan, who not only drag races, but is a rancher and farmer.
As you probably know, one of the topics near and dear to Rowe's heart is work ethic and dirty jobs. Rowe's foundation grants scholarships to individuals who are looking for a career in what he calls, The Trades - welding, electrical, plumbing - basically any kind of job that requires you to get your hands dirty. As a horse girl myself, I have great respect for people who aren't afraid to get dirty and who have a solid work ethic. To this day I can't sit on my butt watching someone else work. My parents raised me to offer a hand whether it is asked for or not.
That's neither here nor there though. The point that I was trying to make is that this particular episode really resonated with me, and maybe that's because of how we did at this Sunday's show. Which, if you didn't read the last two days' posts (here and here), was not good at all. Mike Hagan, the guest, was talking about how important the mental game is in sports, not just racing. In Funny cars, the driver covers 1,000 linear feet at over 300 miles per hour. Hagan pointed out that if your mental game is not razor sharp (my words not his), you won't just not win, you're very likely to wreck and die.
Hagan went on to explain that he has worked so hard on his mental game that he now sees that 1,000 foot track come at him in slow motion. He described it as letting the track come to him. In the seconds that he runs his race, he is able to make numerous corrections as he pilots his rocket to the finish line. As he shared this, Rowe jumped in and compared it to something his mentor had taught him: What Not How.
I actually hit pause on the podcast when I heard those words. Wow, is that ever applicable to dressage. In fact, it's exactly what Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, has been preaching for the past year and a half; scores don't matter; that's how I am doing. What I do in the saddle is what matters. How am I doing? is the wrong question to be asking. Instead, by focusing on what I am doing, the how will take care of itself.
Yesterday, I called it being lackadaisical, but now I see that's not it at all. It's not that I've grown careless, it's that I care a lot more about what I am doing than how I am doing. Maybe that's why the judge's score of 4.5 for my effective use of the aids smarted so much. It felt like a slap in the face when I was deliberately and consciously working so hard at being effective. I wasn't riding for a score; I was riding the horse I had at that particular moment, and what he needed was to feel safe, secure, and reassured. That's what I gave him.
Those moments are difficult to see in the video, but numerous times I reached down to pat Izzy. I also made the decision to ride conservatively which the judge thought was back to front riding. If this horse isn't slowed down when he's pushing against me, he gets even more anxious as he feels the loss of his own balance. Letting him "move out" doesn't ease the tension; it only exacerbates it. Sean's solution is to move him sideways and do lots of bending lines which allows the circle to slow him down without needing to use the hand. Unfortunately, in the middle of a test, it's not exactly appropriate to circle when I feel tension. That means it's probably going to come from the hand.
For maybe the first time ever, I didn't look around at everyone else and think that I was the worst rider out there. That's a monkey that took a long time to be rid of. I have always worried so much about whether I fit in and whether I am good enough. For this show, it never crossed my mind that I shouldn't be there. Instead, I kept thinking about the what of what I was doing. Was I using my aids effectively? Was my inside leg pushing Izzy to my outside hand? Was I keeping him even between my aids? Was he on my outside rein?
For every stride of the schooling ride, the warm up (all 8 minutes of it), and the test itself, I kept up a running commentary that had nothing to do with negative self-talk. I didn't criticize myself, and I didn't compare myself to anyone else. I just focused on the job at hand. In Matt Hagan's world, that means making adjustments for every inch his car travels. For Mike Rowe that meant singing and not wondering if the audience liked it (he was an opera singer in case you didn't know). For me, that meant using every tool that Sean has given me in order to keep Izzy in the conversation. Despite the score, I know that I was successful. What Not How is a new tool that I'll be bringing out every day.
And yet again, onward we go.
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About the Writer and Rider
I am a lifelong rider.
I began endurance riding in 1996 where I ultimately completed five, one-day 100 mile races, the 200-mile Death Valley Encounter, and numerous other 50, 65, and 75 mile races. I began showing dressage in 2010.
Welcome to my dressage journey.
About Speedy G
Speedy went from endurance horse to dressage horse. After helping me earn a USDF Bronze medal in the summer of 2020, he is now semi-retired. Speedy is a 2004, 15'1 hand, purebred Arabian gelding. His Arabian Horse Registry name is G Ima Starr FA.
Izzy was started as a four-year old and then spent the next 18 months in pasture growing up. I bought him as a six-year old, and together, we are showing at the lower levels. He is a 2008, 16'3 hand warmblood gelding. His Rheinland Pfalz-saar International (RPSI) name is Imperioso.
National Rider Awards
State Rider Awards
State Horse Awards
CDS Sapphire Rider Award
Third Level: 63.514%
Third Level: 62.105%
2023 Show Season
(r) Ride-a-Test Clinic
2023 Show Schedule
2023 Completed …
2023 Qualifying Scores
Regional Adult Amateur Competition (RAAC)
Qualifying Training Level
3 Scores/2 Judges/60%: