Get Courage and Achieve Your Dressage Dreams

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By Sally O’Dwyer

Courage is a muscle that when flexed gets stronger, allowing us to live our best lives, achieve our goals, compete in the dressage arena, and enjoy our amazing horses to the fullest. Exercising courage, taking that first step, is an act of faith. It is the precursor for building self-confidence.  No courage, no confidence. Confidence evolves from many courageous starts. With courage, anything is possible. Courage and confidence are as important as good riding skills in dressage competition. Start with courage and realize your dressage goals. And dream big!

 “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” –FDR.  Fear is not fun! As an amateur rider, irrational fear holds me back, especially the older I get. My greatest fear is that I will fall off. I hear myself making excuses for not showing or going off the farm. With horses, some fears are valid, and some are crap.  Fear sucks, cripples us, and destroys dreams. When we are afraid, we don’t ride well. We clutch, cling, clamp, grip, pull, get tense, grit our teeth, and hunch over in the fetal position.  We are stiff and bounce. Our horses sense our fear, and they, in turn, become tense and afraid. A downward fear spiral unfolds.

Get our ot the ring and be brave! Try field praincing.

We can’t eradicate fear from our lives, but we can name it, and tell it to buzz off. Challenge your fears and look at them, right in the eye. It you try to suppress them; they will bubble up in your soul and fester. Taking on fear is the only way to get past it.  We can’t ignore fear because it’s in our DNA. The fear response lives deep in the amygdala, the primal, or “lizard” part of our brains. When we are afraid, Cortisone floods our bodies, setting off alarms. We know that fear is useful for preventing us from true danger.  But, so often fear is unfounded, unhelpful and even detrimental to our health because it stresses us out. This stupid fear is the stuff we need to shed so we can metamorphize into the beautiful dressage riders we are destined to become.  

Our crazy minds are feeding us bull. I assume that you are not riding a dangerous horse.  If you are, stop now and get help.  So often, fear comes from overthinking, ruminating, and allowing our thoughts to swirl out of control. We get stuck in thought loops. We believe the mental garbage our brain heaps upon us. Don’t let downer you control you and suck away your joy. We watch FEI dressage on YouTube and decide we stink as riders and that we are not worthy or capable. We think we are too old, don’t have what it takes, our horse isn’t fancy enough, or we are not adequately fit. We don’t want anyone to see us sit the trot or watch our hands bobble.  We are intimidated by others, scared they will judge us, and think that we are idiots or terrible. We fear we are going to let our trainer down, we will fail, or cause a scene.

Tips to get gutsier and to dance with fear

  1. Create a Courage Plan. Write down what are you afraid of and steps will you take to stomp on your fears. Detail who will help you through each step. Use a large white board to document your fears and what will you do to address them.  Break down your actions into doable chunks, or steps, which will help defuse your fears.  These are your courage baby steps. Your first goal might be to get comfortable loading your horse into a trailer. Putting your plan in writing and documenting progress helps you to stay committed to bravery!  As your courage grows, you may even add more to your courage plan.  Happy to share my courage plan for this year.  Email me at getdressage.com for a PDF.  Here is another generic goal setting worksheet you could use: https://www.developgoodhabits.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/Simple-Goal-Setting-W-819×1024.jpg
Me being brave crossing a stream with cowboys (USDF strongly recommends all riders wear protective headgear when mounted.)
  • Do it now. “The scariest moment is always right before you start”—Stephen King. Now is the time to claim your life. Taking that first courageous step will help you become who you are meant to be, which of course is an awesome dressage rider If you want to learn how to swim, you must jump into the water.  In dressage, you can’t wait for confidence to show up. It comes from inside. You and your horse are not getting any younger. Sign up for that clinic or show (check out eventclinics.com and equestrianentries.com).  The longer you wait to act, the less courageous you will feel.  Seth Godin said, “If you wait until you are ready, it’s going to be too late”.  Try other disciplines to get out of your comfort zone. See what you can get your dressage horse to do! The more you push yourself the braver you will become.
My support crew
  • Get help from others. Find a trainer you can be honest with and get them to help you face your fears in a safe environment.  Get professional help to ensure successful outcomes. Your trainer should be willing to help you with field trips, all the aspects of showing, including trailering, ground manners, timing, warm-up etc. Channel your brave friends when you are low on courage fuel.  They can help you to keep growing and pushing through barriers. Supporters can be your barn buddies or even non-horsey friends on foot.  Just like horses, we tend to be braver among others. Instead of thinking about the fear, think about who you want to be.
  • Define your fear.  Robert Biswas-Diener, author of the Courage Quotient, writes that there are two types of fear: the fear of physical harm and the fear of failure (which harms our ego). If you are truly in danger of harm, stop! If not, consider how the situation might well be a growth opportunity. Tell someone close to you about your fears.  Sometimes putting you fears into words and verbalizing them kills their power.
  • Flip the Fear.  Jen Sincero, author of You are a Badass, says that when fear is pushing you around, look at it from a different perspective. She says you should, so let the fear of not doing the thing you are afraid of scare you and fuel your quest to greatness.  Jen says we should ask ourselves if we are “willing to live an unlived life of mediocrity, whimpiness, and shame”.
  • Consider the worst thing that could happen if you failed. Could you handle it? Would your life the following day, week, or month be changed in a negative way?  We blow up our fears to something huge and forget that the outcome really isn’t going to have a long-term effect on our lives.  Successful people are not afraid of failure. Viewing your situation this way will help you get perspective and build on your self-trust.  Tim Ferris, author of the Four-Hour Work Week offers a Fear Setting Worksheet that includes a worst-case scenario column. https://mindfulambition.net/fear-setting-tim-ferriss/
  • Set reasonable goals. A reasonable goal is one that is just outside your comfort zone.  Sometimes we become obsessed with our dressage goals.  We are at a show and we need a good score to earn a medal.  Getting that score becomes so important failure is no longer an option. All that pressure can become paralyzing and make it impossible for us to take the risks needed to get a good score. Instead, stick to your mission of becoming a fabulous rider by learning through your experience in the show ring.
Choose your reality.

Choose your reality and see yourself as a brave, badass rider. Dare to get out there, be a little audacious, and have fun. It is when we are uncomfortable that we experience the thrill of learning, achieve our potential, and enrich our lives. Do something a little bit scary every day. You must exercise courage many times in order to build up confidence.  Each time you take a little risk (remember, baby steps) into the unknown, you will grow in your bravery.  

You cannot be a winner if you don’t get in the ring. You are the architect of your life. When you look back on your life, you want to be able to say, “I did it, I got out there, and achieved levels of dressage I didn’t think were possible”.  Leaning into and facing your fears will help you improve your relationship with your horse.  No doubt you will unlock greatness in you and your horse by stepping out into the unknown.  With courage, anything is possible.

About me. I am a boomerang rider, like many other amateurs. I began as a kid on backyard ponies.  Then college, family, and career consumed me, and horses took a back seat in my life.  I attribute, or blame, Megan, my youngest, for getting me back into horses about ten years ago.  She showed an interest in riding, and I jumped all over it.  Turns out, she was a lot less interested in horses that I was.  But it got me going again and now I have two horses, George, an OTTB, and a young Warmblood, Rayme.  I hope to earn my USDF Silver Medal next year. Wish me luck!

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