What’s Your Story?

Sally O'Dwyer at the US Dressage Finals. Photo by Chelsey Burris

Don’t sleepwalk through your story. Own it, and be more intentional about your dressage journey

By Sally O’Dwyer

“Don’t sleepwalk through your story—own it.”

Photo by Chelsey Burris

We don’t often ponder why we ride dressage.  We tend to be mentally lazy, going through the motions without thought, rudderless, and lacking a compass.  To find your “WHY,” reflect on where your dressage story starts, where you are now, and how you want it to end.  As Steve Jobs said, you cannot connect the dots without looking back. 

The psychology of narrative theory is the study of how the stories we tell ourselves shape our lives, giving us meaning. Stories are built upon experiences, events, decisions and choices, desires, feelings, and even our senses.  A good story ties together the pieces of our lives, reducing uncertainty about the future. Armed with a good story, we can deal with the setbacks, the hard work, and the ups and downs emblematic of a typical dressage journey.

There are many subplots, situations, and external factors affecting your dressage story: work, career, families, friends, relationships, health, and where you live.  Fate, such as accidents or illnesses, and life circumstances influence the storyline. In addition, our own stories are like ivy, intertwined with the stories of others.

As the storyteller, you, the protagonist, knows what matters. Your story cannot be a fairy tale. It must be authentic and deeply true.  We may admire other people’s stories, especially if they are successful, but adopting another’s story devalues your own and trying to live someone else’s life is misery. 

How you see yourself in your story matters.  Being negative doesn’t help and look out for thought statements that hold you back—like I’m too old, it’s too hard, I can’t learn new things, I always lose, I’m a klutz, or I’m broke. Grab some creativity and be open to new ideas.

Is the genre of your story romance, mystery, thriller, comedy, or tragedy?   There will no doubt be drama, tension, and twists and turns in your story.   Perhaps you had a radical conversion at some point, just like St. Paul, who literally fell off his horse.

Do you define yourself as the “comeback kid”? Did you rise from nowhere? Were you clueless and got clued in?  Are you the unsung hero, a “rag to riches” story, or the underdog?  Are you a child of dressage, a late bloomer, or experiencing a rebirth?  Are their heroes, anti-heroes, or villains in your story?  Are you on a quest, a voyage, or are you a budding professional?  Do you have a particular niche in the dressage world or are you the champion of a particular breed? 

Where to start in creating your story. Brainstorm and write down anything that might be important. This doesn’t need to be chronological.  Stick with the important, key pieces, such as turning points and feelings, what excited you and devastated you. Include what you found out about yourself, and the reasons behind decisions you made. It’s easier to write if you think about what you would say to a room full of dressage passionistas. Remember, your audience doesn’t care about failures per se.  They care about how you overcame them. They want to be inspired by you, as after all, they are all on similar journeys.

Have a story worth telling. What’s your message?  Your story should not be a thousand-page novel, a historical recitation of your life or the lives of your horses, a data dump, or a bunch of facts about your life.  Leave out the fluff and go with short and punchy. A long, rambling, dragged-out story loses impact for you and others. Take some time to edit and hone your story until it takes less than five minutes to tell.

Answer the following questions—you can use bullets at this stage.

YOUR BEGINNING: At first, your earlier times may appear to have nothing to do with dressage.  (For example, as a kid I had a shaggy pony that I fell off a lot—while there was nothing directly related to dressage here, it was a start.)

  • Where did your passion for horses come from?
  • What first fueled your passion and drew you to the sport? 
  • Who inspired you?
  • Why did you think Dressage was right for you?

NOW:  What’s going on in your life today?  How do you feel about dressage now?  What is it about dressage that motivates you and keeps you coming back to the barn day after day? 

  • What do you find most rewarding about riding dressage? 
  • What value do you derive from it?
  • What challenges do you face?  
  • What have you discovered about yourself, your horse, and your riding?
  • What do you wish you could change?

FUTURE: Your Third Act.  Using your story to build the future you want. What would be a satisfying finish to your dressage journey? Will you ride off into the sunset, happy to know that you have an amazing relationship with your horse?  Will you have a wall of medals, ribbons, and trophies?   Will you retire your horse to live a life of leisure?  Will you support young riders in your area? Or will you pursue becoming a professional rider?  Judge? Technical Delegate?  Barn owner? Trainer?  Writer? GMO leader?

  • What do you want to achieve?
  • How does your story end?
  • What do you see for yourself?
  • How will you feel?
Photo by Caroline Cheval

Now that you have your story, take a bit of time to reflect on it.  How do you feel about it?  Any surprises or themes? Crafting your story helps you become more self-aware, offers clarity, and helps you to identify priorities. Considering your story will help you to understand that you are probably not lost, and that your path is not as random as it might feel. Create a storyboard-or make a poster that illustrates your story and display it where you and others can see it.  You can use photos, quotes that you love, and maybe use some arrows to show where you are going!  Use the downloadable included to sketch out your tale.

Share your story with others.   The more you communicate your story, the more obvious and clearer it will become to you. By sharing your story, you build community, connect with others in a meaningful way.  Others learn to trust you because they understand where you are coming from and where you want to go. Your story reassures those on similar paths.  Your story offers lessons learned, solutions to similar problems they may be facing, and helps them realize that they are not alone, and that the struggle is real! 

I hope crafting your story will make you bolder and provide you with the courage to lean into your goals.  Your story will help you see that you are moving forward and help you to better learn from your experiences, be more grounded in your passion and give you clarity on what you need to do and any changes you need to make to achieve the future you would like to see for yourself.  I can’t wait to hear your story!

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