Life Lessons From Dressage


By Susan Howe

Many of you may have seen the viral video of US Admiral McCraven giving a commencement speech at the University of Texas in 2014.  I have watched that speech several times, and continue to be inspired by McCraven’s belief that simple actions can change the world. While we may not be changing the world when we work at the art and craft of dressage, we are certainly changing the world and environment of our horses, and our actions impact the world of others, who so often find themselves on the journey with us.  Fairly new to dressage, I have been changed and inspired by the generosity, dedication, and incredible work ethic of my trainer Pati Pierucci, and the fabulous team that surrounds and supports my riding efforts. I find myself thinking of McCraven’s speech often, and have seen firsthand how it can be applied to my horses and my riding. His lessons include:

The small things in life matter.  McCraven talks about starting each day by making your bed.  This action provides a small sense of pride and accomplishment, and can inspire you to accomplish other things in the day.  Start your day with your horse by showing up.  Don’t feel like riding?  Show up.  Can’t manage the trip to the barn that day?  Show up.  Even if you aren’t feeling it on a particular day (hey, we’ve all been there!), show up. Your horse is counting on you. Nothing beats a consistent riding schedule, and continued care and attention for your horse.

Find your tribe.  A good team surrounding you is incredibly transformative.  Seek out a group of friends on your team who support and encourage each other.  You may  find them at your barn, as other students of the same trainer, through your local dressage association, at shows or clinics, or through volunteering. The camaraderie of other adult amateurs is invaluable; they understand both the struggles and successes with horses, and can provide great support and perspective.  Find an excellent veterinary team, and err on the side of caution when you suspect a problem with your horse. Trust your gut.  Use a farrier that listens to you and your trainer, and works as part of the team. Equine body work specialists can be invaluable in making your most important team member feel at their best. A nutritionist can also be extremely helpful in helping your horse feel strong, relaxed, and happy in the work. Most importantly, find the best trainer and coach that you can access and afford. An experienced trainer that incorporates each of these things into an organized, progressive, well planned, and effective training and maintenance program for you and your horse is the golden ticket to ensuring you have the best chance of continued successful pursuit of your riding goals. 

Respect everyone.  Horses are a great equalizer, and provide a good example for us in how to interact with people.  They don’t care about gender, race, color, religion, political viewpoints, or social or economic status.  They care about our character and how they feel when they are around us.  They touch our hearts in special ways, and soften when we are kind.  Respect these incredible animals, and respect those around you.  Support others on their journey, encourage and congratulate them for their successes, and lift them up when they are going through hard times.  Don’t think of other riders as your competition; you are competing for your own scores or measures of progress toward your own goals.  Be nice.   

Understand the purpose of the drill.  In the dressage world, nothing could be more true than the adage “we don’t typically rise to the occasion, we fall to the level of our best preparation”.  Lessons, coaching, training, and practice are designed to make you and your horse better.  Practice does not make perfect; it makes improvement. Take advantage of as much training, coaching, and practice as you can.   Pati has taken me from riding Second Level to riding Prix St. Georges in the last eight months.  It has been far from perfect on most days (due much more to my shortcomings than my wonderful horse’s), but It has been amazing to see how each day builds on the next, and each skill we learn prepares us to try something new.  Dressage is a series of progressive building blocks, and I am now seeing firsthand how a strong foundation and understanding of the basics really matters.  Appreciate and reflect on the process, and the incredible opportunity to learn with your horse.  

Hard work and failure build resilience. You will fail often, but don’t be afraid of that failure. You may have a hard time building the muscle memory or strength for a new skill, you may not understand an exercise, you may forget your test, you may just not click with your horse on a particular day, or your horse may not be feeling his best.  Developing knowledge, skill, and competence does not happen overnight, or even over weeks or months, and involves many less than perfect attempts every day.  Acknowledge that on some days, the best course may be to keep things short and end on a positive note.  Test your resolve, love and listen to your horse and trainer, reach out for help when needed, and move forward. 

Put yourself out there.  Push yourself.  We are all in different stages of our dressage journey, and none of it is linear.  Pushing the envelope might mean cantering a full 20-meter circle, it might mean registering with that clinician with whom you have always wanted to ride, going to a schooling show, attempting to ride a test at a new level, or going to Florida for a season.  Wherever you are in the process, continue to take risks and put yourself out there.  Get in the game. 

Know your worth.  You may encounter naysayers, or less than positive interactions, during the course of your work with horses.  Show your character, stand your ground, and advocate for yourself, and especially for your horse. If something doesn’t feel right about a situation or interaction, you have the power to change it.  Steer clear of bullies, don’t tolerate foolishness, stay focused on your goals, and don’t let naysayers bring you down.  Rise up. 

Be your best in the darkest moments.  We all know that horses can break our hearts.  They get hurt, they get sick, they may not be a good match for us, they have limitations, they have bad days, they die.  These things are inevitable.  Firm resolve and incredible inner strength are necessary when dealing with horse hardships; be your best in the dark moments, even when things are awful. And they will be awful at times. Cry, grieve, wail, do what you need to do, but pick yourself up and keep moving. Perseverance, courage, and resilience are needed when we invest so much of our hearts and lives in another living creature.   

Never underestimate the power of hope and positivity. Sometimes it’s you that needs to hear the positivity, and sometimes it’s you that needs to provide it for others. A trainer and coach with a positive teaching style can have a huge impact on your approach to riding, and even your attitude about situations outside of the horse world.  I have always been somewhat of a cynical glass half empty type of person, and I tend to expect the worst, but my coach is very much the opposite.  She has inspired and guided me in recognizing the positives in my riding or other issues with my horses, even on days or weeks when it feels like I can’t ride at all, or when things don’t go to plan with the horses.  It has made me more grateful, more tolerant, more patient, and more inclined to look at situations from different perspectives.  That’s pretty incredible stuff coming out of dressage lessons.  Be hopeful, be positive, be grateful, be forgiving, be brave.  

Never give up.  Enough said.  

Dressage doesn’t change the world.  But it can be transformative in the lives of others; it has been for me.  It has allowed me to witness riders and trainers with incredible grace, generosity of spirit, and mental toughness, combined with a gentle and caring heart. The experience of riding my first FEI tests this year summed all of this up for me – friends came to support, braid, get me dressed, calm my nerves, watch, film, and surround me with good wishes and champagne afterwards.  I rode in a shadbelly that was beautifully customized by a friend, in a saddle with a nameplate inscribed with a verse that was meaningful to his previous owner, and so representative of my horse’s amazing training.  And, throughout the experience, I felt the overwhelming pride and support of my incredible trainer.  We can all enhance the extraordinary opportunities that we have with our horses if we continue to show up, find our tribe, respect other people we encounter along the way, recognize that we will fail often, take risks, step up in hard times, know our character and worth, lift up others, and never give up.  Enjoy this amazing ride that we are all so incredibly lucky to experience. 


  1. What an eloquent article. I am lucky and proud to be your friend and I can attest that you do a great job of living it out each day. Cheers.

  2. Very well said, Sue! I’m proud to know you and glad that you’re a fellow Fort Worth Dressage Club member!

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