Adult Amateur Dressage Shame

crying2Gentle Readers,

This is to be the first part of a series focused on the phenomenon I have termed “Dressage Shame”. It seems that dressage more than any other equestrian sport is subject to the mentality of “I am not worthy”. Perhaps it is because oftentimes adult amateurs enter the sport later in life, having never ridden, or only informally many years ago. You visit your local dressage trainer and watch them ride. They make it seem effortless, and elegant. You watch freestyles online and are enthralled by the precision and power and by the rider with their invisible aids. You want to do that! Or perhaps it is less complex – for whatever reason you do not want to jump anymore. Maybe you had a bad fall or your horse went off and so you switch disciplines.

No matter your route most people enter the dressage arena for the first time with a concept of the sport that is drastically different from reality. The dawning realization of just how long the journey will be is the beginning of Dressage Shame. There are many different types which we will explore in this series and if you have any input or personal experiences, feel free to share.

But for now, some words of comfort. I have been lucky enough to have many good friends and acquaintances within the dressage community, both professionals and adult amateurs alike. These are people of many different personalities and backgrounds but they all have one thing in common – they all have some level of Dressage Shame. Their highs and lows swing along with the types of rides they had that day. They have been crushed and rebuilt and most feel they still come up wanting. And here it is folks – That is okay! It is the ambition to improve that keeps us working for a better way. The key to enjoying dressage as a lifelong journey is to always keep that need in check and to build appropriate goals without a strict time line.

One more key to understanding the process of learning in dressage is best explained through Abraham Maslow’s Four Stages of Competence. It breaks down to four phases which you will see illustrated in the photo below. Note that in the second phase, the Conscious Incompetence phase, there is a dip along the graph. I like to think that the graph is charting happiness or the state of one’s ego. When you are in the Unconscious Incompetence phase then you don’t know what you don’t know! That state of ignorance is a comfortable, self assured place to be. It is only when you are staring into the abyss that you begin to realize what the journey truly entails. For most people it is when you discover how little you know that your happiness spike takes a tailspin downward. 


And to further beleaguer the point, EVERY SINGLE NEW SKILL YOU LEARN MEANS YOU BEGIN AT STAGE ONE AGAIN. You might have the sitting trot down but then you need to learn to sit through a medium trot. Or you put the shoulder-in aids on and suddenly you tip forward and nothing remotely shoulder-in like is happening under you. All the way up the levels and countless times within each level you will be start again and again at the beginning. But you must understand that this phase is a transitional one, albeit one you will repeat, until you will hit Unconscious Competence. It will take many repetitions and much practice but you will slowly build a base upon which you can rely. It will take time. It will take years. You will need patience.

An anology I often tell my students is this –

boatYou are on a tropical island in a boat out on crystal blue waters. Under the water on the ocean floor you see a precious treasure, one which you desperately desire. And so you dive, down into the water swimming with all your might. The more you swim, the more you realize that the water was much deeper than you imagined. The water was so clear from the boat that the treasure beneath looked a mere arm’s length away. Sometimes it can feel like you are never going to reach that treasure and that you are swimming in dark waters with no measure of your own progress. But the best way to gauge how much you have learned is not by looking at the treasure below, but back up at the boat. As time passes I promise you will see that boat get smaller and smaller.  

If you enjoyed reading this, you might also enjoy Rebounding After A Loss In Horses. 

25 responses to “Adult Amateur Dressage Shame

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  5. This was awesome!! I love knowing that I’m not alone in my tailspin of depression – in between the first 2 levels! Once you know how hard dressage is, and realize you’ll never be able to sit the Olympic level extended trot, the temptation to go back to the hunter world or western trail riding is very large!! But this made me realize that it’s normal and an expected journey, so thank you! Onward, and upward, and FORWARD we go!!

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  7. I’ve always felt like the more I learn in dressage, the less I know, but that’s part of its appeal for me. It IS like diving into deep waters, loved the looking back to see how far you’ve come part! Thank you.

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  9. Gentle readers, please respect all breeds and all styles of riding. No single breed or style of riding is without unethical people. Be kind to the new, beginning, 1st time horse owners. Being unkind and rude only shows your arrogance and ignorance to everyone. Anyone that cares enough about horses to be present with them, deserves respect and kindness. Be a welcoming ambassador for your chosen style of riding. Wonderful things can happen when we share knowledge and have open minds.

  10. I quit training due to shame. Now I realize I was very good at what I was doing (starting young dressage horses). But because I wasn’t riding FEI I thought I was not worthy to call myself a trainer. I actually had FEI riders sending me their young horses to start. Duh…where do we get this insecurity? Maybe it is because dressage is so beautiful and horse so magical. I feel I cannot do it justice.

    • THAT is the real shame, Tara. It sounds like you were good at what you did and others thought so as well. But there are too many out there that are in the same boat.

  11. Last September I was given a beautiful, talented horse that is very heavy. I call him designer concrete. Many a day I got into my car in tears. Rode in my dreams and came up with new plans of attack every time. Still cried. Well, it has been almost a year and finally we have connected. What a wonderful teacher he has been,. it is going to be a long journey

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  13. if I were able to continue dressage lessons I might actually get somewhere.. however some dressage trainers I have come in contact with only help those with a larger pocketbook then what I can afford. I still love the sport though and the chance to ride a dressage horse would be a dream come true

  14. Dressage has been a passion,maybe even an obsession of mine forever..It is one thing I will never give up.Maybe with your help I can achieve my goal of becoming a better, more confident we have to get Amirra and me on the same page..

  15. This was a wonderful blog to stumble onto on facebook. I fought with the glass ceiling of advancing beyond training level to first level, that was back when sitting was required. I did conquered the sitting trot on my lovely saddle-bred before the test changed and felt a huge relief. I did something right, lol! Now first level no longer feels like a task and second level is a joy. I recently lost the use of my wonderful saddle-bred after 14 years of partnership. Now I am on the long and shame-filled reality that Finding another horse that hold a candle to my partnership with Treasure is my “new glass ceiling.” I lack connection and while I have ridden others, I do not click. They perform well and the trainer I work with is positive about each new prospect, however I struggle to click. I believe I am fighting the process and allowing my love of dressage to fade with my best friend, Treasure.

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