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 –
You 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.