How to Train Your Dragon

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TAMED: A happy Dragon and his owner/rider PHOTO COURTESY OF KAREN RICE

The biggest impediment to progress, an amateur rider discovers, is her own psyche

Reprinted from the July/August 2015 issue of USDF Connection

By Karen Rice

My 18-year-old Holsteiner/ Thoroughbred gelding, Mahantango, is a frustrating combination of hot, sensitive, and lazy. Finding the balance between “Dragon’s” hot button and his lazy button is like trying to sit on a knife’s edge. I bought him as a barely broke six-year old, and if I knew then what I know now, well, life would be different.

I have had a lot of difficulty with Dragon over the years. Whatever it is that I want to do, he usually has his own plan that is in complete opposition from mine. All of that discord has produced a considerable amount of mental baggage on my part—and entrenched reactions that, although they felt familiar and comfortable, were hindering my riding. It has been no small feat for my trainer, Debbie Bowman, to help me unpack the unwanted baggage and change the ingrained habits.

Example: Early on in the process, Debbie wanted me to trot a circle and ask Dragon to stretch his neck down to round his back. Sure, I thought, until she said: “You cannot use your hands to pull his head down; you must push his neck down with your abdominal muscles.”

Normally, I ask with my leg; Dragon speeds up; I pull on the reins to slow him down and to get his head down. This time, I asked him to trot, used my legs to ask him to step farther under, used my abs, ignored the voice in my head telling me to use my hands, and did not use my reins! The result was a collection of amazing feelings: how good the horse felt to not be restricted; how good (but quite scary) my body felt to go with the horse and not restrict him; and how strange it felt to go against my commanding brain and do something that it didn’t want me to do. It was not physically hard to do; why was I making it so hard?

But Dragon and I have had some moderate success. In 2010, we were seventh at the Region 1 Great American/USDF Regional Championships at First Level. Since then, we ventured into Second Level, won a few classes, and even got highscore Second Level ride at a recognized show.

Now, I want Third Level. Just to show Dragon that he can do it, and to show that controlling, self-sabotaging part of my brain—I call it Fang, after the term created by self-help author Martha Beck—that I can do it. So I applied for a training grant from the Fredericksburg chapter of the Virginia Dressage Association (VADAF), and I used the money to pay for more lessons with Debbie Bowman.

I’ve learned that by slowing my mind down and ignoring Fang screaming at me throughout my test, I can ride more mindfully and correctly. Will I ever be able to ride a Second or Third Level test on Dragon with 100 percent confidence? I’m not there yet, but thanks to the VADAF training grant and Debbie’s expert instruction, I am closer than I’ve ever been. With my improved confidence on Dragon, I’m learning how to keep Fang at bay. You could even say that Fang and I have reached an uneasy truce.

Karen Rice is a research hydrologist who rides dressage tests in her head during dull, mandatory meetings. She, two horses, a dog, and a cat live symbiotically on their farm near Keswick, VA. With Dragon, she finished fifth at the Second Level Col. Bengt Ljungquist Memorial Championships in 2013.  

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