Jenny Susser on Prepare to Perform

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Artwork by Lori Ann Thwing, entry in the 2015 USDF Arts Contest.

This article won the 2021 GMO Newsletter Award for a general interest article for GMOs with 500 or more members. It originally appeared in the New England Dressage Association newsletter, A Tip of the Hat, July 2021.

The USDF Group Member Organization (GMO) Newsletter Awards are designed to recognize outstanding efforts by GMOs that produce newsletters. Awards in two categories will be presented for exemplary articles. Nominations are due by August 31st. Only an official representative of a GMO may submit the nomination. For a nomination form follow this link.

By Jenny Susser

How to get better at home so it shows at the show

Why do you show?” and “What makes showing great or fulfilling?” were two provocative questions posed by Jenny Susser during her NEDA lecture, titled, “How to get better at home so that it shows at the show.” An Olympic swimmer with a doctoral degree in Clinical Health Psychology,Jenny expertly advised us on how to prepare both mentally and physically to maximize our per­formance in the dressage arena.

She made a wonderful analogy between real estate and dressage. In real estate, we’ve all heard that old saying, it’s all about “location, location, location.” In dressage, it’s all about “preparation, preparation, preparation.” It seems obvious that good preparation is the cornerstone of riding suc­cessfully in competition. But how many of us fall into the trap of practicing the things we do well but then avoiding or paying minimal attention to the difficult stuff. Yet, it’s the difficult things we need to work on so that we can master them and be confident of our mastery.

Jenny says that it’s important to ac­ knowledge where we are in our riding and to have a clear picture of where we want to go. We also need to understand the difference between goals,dreams, desires, and wishes. Goals are things that we can turn into ac­tions, while dreams, desires, and wishes are passive thoughts. “A goal well stated,” said Jenny, “should reveal a line of actions to take in order to get there.” She described SMART(S) goals as: Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic (but challenging), Time sensitive, and Support (support is your team which includes trainer, family, blacksmith, vet, etc.). It’s important to set goals and review them on a regular basis.

In addition, know your skills, your abilities, your strengths, and your weaknesses, and identify your support system. As riders, we tend to be detached from our skill set. And, as most dressage riders are women, we have been culturally conditioned to be humble and self-deprecating. Instead, we need to acknowledge our skill set; a good way of doing so is to write it down. Jenny is a strong advocate of making a skill set list that contains a minimum of 30 items and a maximum of one million. You can do this list over a period of time but do it with no outside assistance. You’ll find that you start recalling things from your list when riding which will give your self-confidence a tremendous boost.

Preparing mentally is every bit as important as preparing physically so that you have as much control as possible of your thoughts, enabling you to maintain your focus. When stressed, we produce cortisol-show nerves, fear (sound familiar?). Clearly, this is not conducive to a good performance. As humans, our thoughts are ridiculously ha­bitual, and we need to be able to break the pattern of habitual negative thoughts and replace them with positive thoughts. This is where writing down our goals and our skills is helpful. We need to think about what we look forward to in training and at shows and what we don’t look forward to. Some people perform well with a certain level of stress present, but it’s an impediment for many, as it can cause us to disconnect. You do not necessarily have to feel good to perform well, but most of us would like to.

If we are able to focus well, we are much better able to handle pressure. To improve our ability to focus, we should be inten­tionally creating pressure at home. This can be done in a number of ways: braid your horse, invite someone to come watch you, ask someone to videotape you, work on those more challenging movements, pretend you are competing, ride in your show clothes, ride a test with no do overs train more the way you compete. With the last one, you want to think about moder­ation. Pressuring yourself and your horse on a daily basis could backfire-a couple of times a week is plenty.

When it comes to practicing the more dif­ficult things, remember that you can always return to the easier things to refresh your horse and yourself and leave the session with both of you feeling good about your­ selves. Jenny made me think of the way my trainer teaches me to deal with the difficult things-break them down into simpler pieces and gradually work my way up to the ultimate goal. For example, if the ultimate goal is canter pirouette, think about all the pieces that lead up to that: a very good col­lected canter, then a pirouette canter, the ability to perform collected canter on small circle, and so on. Once all the pieces are in place, the canter pirouette is no longer like running a marathon in the worst possible weather with no preparation while wearing high heels but, instead, the culmination of systematically building up to it. By laying a progressive foundation, you will find that the challenging things become easier and easier over time. But if you avoid the difficult work, it will always be challenging and feel unattainable. Jenny also talked about the need to identify when you make mistakes and to analyze why so that you can make the needed corrections. A book that she highly recommends is The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle more effectively. Beth says that most riders give their aids too slowly.

When an amateur rider arrives at the barn after sitting at a sedentary job all day, they have to calm their mind and wake their body to get into sync with their horse. Also, people who ride on their own do not have anyone to watch, and imitation is one of the best teachers. Beth suggests utilizing YouTube to watch the best riders. She gave the example of Shelly Francis who, before the introduction of the internet, became a better rider by studying and imitating photo­ graphs of top riders. She had her brother sit ringside with Henry Wynmalen’s book, A Study of the Finer Points of Riding, in hand, and evaluate her position based on the pic­tures in the book. Certainly not an easy way to learn but proof that visual aids can be very effective. For the same reason, avoid watching bad riders because they can also affect your riding.

The “non-thinking” zone, where the best communication between horse and rider takes place, is meditational, always positive, a dream-like state that is receptive, playful, mentally aware, and receptive to muscle memory. Horses teach us to be in this zone. Horses are incapable of thinking of anything but the present moment and help us achieve that positive feeling of being mind­ fully in the present.

“Amateurs beat themselves up too much,” says Beth. She went on to reassure us that professionals make plenty of mistakes, too. The difference is that pros pick themselves up and keep moving forward. One of my fa­vorite comments made by Beth has to do with the importance of intention. I’m para­ phrasing here, but the gist of it was intention is more than trying. There is an element of resolve to it. Action without intention is weak. Have a clear intention, then resolve to take action to make it happen. Winning riders are those that can combine intention in their actions.

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