Ageless Pursuit

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Reprinted from the April 2018 USDF Connection magazine.
By Dawn Metzger

In 2013, dressage trainer Pati Pierucci relocated from Virginia to my barn in Texas. She saw my now 16-year-old Andalusian, Corrado M, and said: “You know, you can do Grand Prix with this horse.”

I replied: “Prove it!”

Pati did: Last year, I earned my USDF gold medal—a goal that had seemed so impossible, I’d never even considered it. I’d like to share some of the key things I learned along the way.

I had wanted to do all of Corrado’s training myself, and consequently I’d failed to make the most of the instruction I’d received. I’d been in the phase of learning known as unconscious incompetence: I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

I have to go to the barn each day with a plan. The plan may change, but I think ahead to what I hope to accomplish.

Find a trainer who is happy to work with the horse you have.

Verify the trainer’s credentials.

At the end of a lesson, you should be able to say what you worked on, how you did, and what you will do tomorrow.

Good trainers are positive. They do not hesitate to tell you when you are screwing up, but they are quick to praise even a small improvement.

Mental coaching can be helpful. My coach helps me to stay positive and grounded. Thanks to her, I now keep a training journal. After every ride, I write down three things I liked (some are pretty small!) and three things I would like to improve.

Another rider’s success does not diminish you. Comparison is your enemy. One coach put it succinctly: “Compare and despair.”

At any level in dressage, fitness is important. It took some time for me to realize how fit, and how important. An independent seat comes from a core that is strong enough to keep your torso in place without stiffness or support from the reins. As a not-so-young person, I loosen up before riding by doing sun salutations and other stretches. I have weights and an exercise ball at home and use them a couple of times a week.

After many years of struggling with an arthritic hip, I finally had it replaced last year. If you need to have this done, do not wait. The difference in my riding was immediately noticeable, but I am still dealing with residual crookedness from having protected the bad hip for so long.

Horses do not stay awake at night plotting how to make things difficult. Some problems are caused by physical issues or by the rider. My horse went a thousand times better when I got a new saddle. For the most part, he does exactly what I tell him, even if it’s not what I think I am telling him. If there is an issue, look first to yourself.

Talk to your horse and praise him while you ride. He needs to know when he has done what you want, or has gotten closer to what you want. Reward any effort on his part to try.

Do not give up. It took me three years to earn the Grand Prix scores for my gold medal, but I finally did it! You do not need to be a natural rider. I certainly am not. Nor do you need a certain kind of horse. What you need is the willingness to do the work—and it is a lot of work. You have to make the dream your own, visualize the journey and the reward, pursue it with humility, and have persistence and a love of learning. You will learn loads about riding, but you will also learn about yourself and develop an even deeper relationship with your horse.

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