Five Ways to Win in Dressage Competition!

Photo by Embrey Cean was an entry in the 2018 USDF Arts Contest.

By Sally O’Dwyer, Dressage Amateur

 “Winning and losing isn’t everything; sometimes, the journey is just as important as the outcome.” – Alex Morgan

Duchessa wears blue

Winning means success, offering fulfillment, and validation of our riding. Winning motivates us to strive to improve and helps us to move beyond ourselves, which is thrilling. Scientists even say that when we win, we experience “Winner Effect,” which causes us to have a dopamine rush that changes our brain chemistry, making us bolder and more confident. We are wired to achieve, and healthy competition is good for us. Competition is a great way to measure progress and to get valuable feedback.  The purpose of competition is to grow, develop and learn.  

At the same time, riding to win causes tremendous stress, discouragement, and a loss of joy. We lose perspective when we over-focus on outcome.  Far too many riders think how they fare in the ring is their single measure of proficiency. Criticism becomes crushing and hard to take. Trying to win becomes all or nothing, with everything on the line. Fear of losing keeps riders from entering the ring at all. 

Riding to win is too heavy a burden for anyone.  It derails us, makes us miserable, and brings out the worst in our riding. We become overwhelmed as our nerves get the best of us because we just have too much invested or too much to prove. Our bodies become tense, which of course, transfers to our horse. We lose our edge, or ability to take a risk and “go for it”, which is critical to improvement and learning. 

Sadly, society rewards winning above all else. Even second place is viewed as losing. Fourth place in the Olympics is horrendous. We forget that everyone loses, and that losing is not a big deal. It’s just a blip in our lives. Win or not, we are still the same person in the end.  While we all want our medals, we need to heed Surya Bonaly, Olympic ice skater, who said that medals are just that–made of metal.

Ways to Win Every Time!

See a Competition as a Learning Opportunity.

Every time you enter the ring, win or lose, you gain valuable information about how you can improve. If we learn, then losing will not be forever, but temporary. Losing gives us wisdom, humility, and compassion. Losing helps us to become more self-aware, begs us to look in the mirror and hone our skills. Sometimes truth hurts, but we need the truth to learn. Progress is not linear. Sometimes we feel like our riding is falling apart, and other times we bound ahead. We must take responsibility for our performances. Blaming the horse, trainer, vet, farrier, the judge, or anyone else, means we won’t learn and improve.

Sallley and George with trainer Adriane Alvord

Be a Winner in YOUR Story.

Re-frame what winning means to you and create your own goals. Give yourself credit for how far you have come, what you have learned and the terrific horse you have. Perhaps winning to you can mean staying in the ring, performing a solid test, riding a counter canter, picking up the correct lead, or remembering your test. Work to improve your scores over time. Keep your score sheets and look for improvements. Celebrate the gains no matter how small!  Here I am on my little Thoroughbred, working on improving my score. Not winning but having a BLAST!

Keep Your Sense of Humor

Try not to take yourself too seriously. It’s easy to lose perspective with competition. My friend always makes me laugh even after losing by telling me that I am a winner because I beat out all the others who wanted to come to the show but did not make it. They did not get all the paperwork and cash sent in. They did not trailer in at the crack of dawn, set up a stall, haul feed, bedding and more to the show, and groom and braid their horses. They did not clean all their tack and boots, put their lipstick on, and shimmy into their white pants. They did not battle crazy weather and all the other fun and unexpected show happenings. Even if things don’t go as well as planned in the arena, surely you can say, “We had some beautiful moments.”

Don’t Compare Yourself to Others.

It’s impossible anyway; you and your horse together make a unique, oneofakind pair.  The need to beat others is self-defeating, and self-flagellation over a loss doesn’t help either.  Comparison is bad for your mental health.  If you find yourself envious of another rider, then use that power for good. Channel and emulate them. Work harder to ride like them. At the same time, we need to focus on being the best we can be. We don’t have control over the other competitors, or the judges, the environment, or the spectators, so don’t let this distract you—or steal your joy. Since we all receive our individual scores, you can compete against the fiercest competition out there: You!  Understand that the real journey is against yourself and your unrealized potential.

Never, Ever Quit.

There is magic in perseverance. Winners are tenacious. They do not let losing get in their way and they don’t shy away from competition. They just keep doing their best, give 100%, and feel positive in that.  Winners are optimistic and believe it is possible. They are patient and know that to be a great competitor, they will have to go down centerline many times. They know that eventually, they win!

Sally and George finish a test

Hold fast to your dreams and find opportunity in challenge. Dressage is beautiful, but it is a demanding sport.  Betsy Steiner, in her book Mind, Body, Spirit, reminds us that “achieving total psychological self-control and total body control is a tall order—one that requires the ability to focus completely on your horse and your riding and to put everything else out of your mind.”  It’s hard for the top trainers and pros. It takes years to develop the balance, control and focus to compete successfully.  When you focus on competition as an opportunity to learn, you will become a better competitor and grow as a rider. And, you will have fun and make great memories.  Maybe your goals take longer to realize than you hoped, but if you take the small steps toward getting there, you are making progress. And this is what makes you a winner!

About me. I am a passionate, adult amateur dressage rider, living large in beautiful Boulder, Colorado.  I have two horses, an Off the Track Thoroughbred, George (chestnut pictured), and Rayme, (the Warmblood I am standing next to.) I also have a couple of fabulous Welsh ponies.

I enjoy learning, competing, and reaching for the stars.  I write because I believe we dressage riders need to lift each other up with gigantic buckets of support and love.  I hope my blogs help and encourage others to Go For It!


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