Dressage Amateurs- Are You Having Fun?

I spend my time in a lot of barns of various disciplines. People and horses are alike in many ways all over the country, with subtle differences in habits and customs.

I don’t get called out to competition focused dressage barns that often except for when there is a significant movement problem or behavioral problem. I usually stick out like a sore thumb in many ways – jeans and baseball cap amongst the expensive breeches, shining tall boots, expensive and large moving horses. I take my little corner with my student while big, angry horses circle and stomp around me. I hear teeth grinding, loud, heavy movement, coaches yelling, students grimacing, veins popping, horses slobbering.

I often get the hairy eyeball from other coaches, or wondering eyes from other students. Who is this person? The other thing that sticks out like a sore thumb is my students horse- stretching, breathing, licking and chewing, relaxing. Why is this not the norm? Why is this even something that constantly has to be explained, brought up, shown?

Stepping outside of my peaceful little world into these kinds of barns is like being splashed in the face with cold water. The horses so often look miserable- and if they aren’t actively resisting, they have the look of quiet desperation, the living dead, the horse in learned helplessness.

The students look, quite often, just as miserable as the horse. They imported the horse, bought the right tack, hired the top name, but sit in their saddle like it pains them to be there. The coach yelling, the strong horse resisting in self defense, the struggle to look good, the pressure to win ribbons and to keep up with the Jones…it just can’t be fun. All that money made in a job you possibly hate to spend your recreational time that tense, that stressed, for what?

So I have to ask- dressage amateurs, are you having fun? If you have a good teacher who values your horse and you, kudos to you! It doesn’t get better than that.

If not, why? A change might be so simple, like firing the tightwad coach who yells. It might be leaving your barn entirely. It might be selling the young, imported horse for one that suits you better and you aren’t afraid of. It might be a serious overhaul of the entire picture – no one can answer that but you. But if you aren’t having fun, ask yourself why. It SHOULD be fun.

Lord knows you pay enough, you ought to have a teacher who makes it fun, a horse you like to ride, and relaxing and uplifting recreational time.

It’s not the fault of the sport itself, but the culture that has developed to put performance above all- to put ribbons above the health of the horse- to put movement and obedience before relationship and relaxation. Is that why you got into riding? Is that what drew you to horses in the first place? Or did it get lost in the glamour of the barn, the prestige of the medals and the reputation for winning of the trainer?

7 thoughts on “Dressage Amateurs- Are You Having Fun?

  1. Yes, I am having fun! My dressage coach is well-respected, earned the USDF medals, etc. And sometimes my lesson is a trail ride. Or a ride in the field. My horse is a on the smaller, chunkier, slower side. And my trainer loves him as much as her own fancy warmblood…or her own dressage pony (of unknown parentage). Showing is low on our priorities. I am definitely having fun as a dressage amateur!

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  2. Great post! I ride because it’s my passion. I’m the same horse-crazed girl I was when I was 5, and I adore my mare. A couple of years ago, I signed up for some dressage lessons because dressage is supposed to help improve your horse, right? I also have some pretty bad habits as a rider. At first it started out OK, the trainer was working with us where we were at. After about 6 lessons, we had somehow gotten to the point where my horse was breathing irregularly from being so tense, I had blisters on my hands (I was told if we had just done the groundwork with side reins, we could have avoided the blisters), and I cried on the way home from the lesson. Nobody was having fun, including said trainer. Needless to say that was my last lesson, but it really made me question the discipline, at least how it’s being executed when showing is the primary goal.

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  3. Again, such a great observation and making it real!!!!
    Definitely certain pressures of trying to fit in and keep up with the rest of what others are doing can really set you off course!!!
    I had a similar experience like you mentioned with an over the top yelling instructor that was making everything so horrible and not fun. All I could think about was “what and why am I paying for this?” Both the horse and I were so miserable, so I made some changes and found an instructor who actually took things slow, made things fun, and we actually progessed so much faster….
    So I had an epiphany a few lessons later….don’t care about, ribbons, titles, medal standings, a judge’s opinion/rating, etc….just how much fun could we have in our lessons and working on our own “invisible or silent” blues!!! No other validations mattered anymore to me, just our mental and physical happiness!

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  4. Worked for many years with a “difficult” dressage trainer, almost quit riding due to the performance anxiety and toxic relationship. I had zero confidence in my horse, my riding and myself. After 10 years, I said “no more”, quit the trainer (not the horse), started working on my biomechanics with a calm, patient trainer who accepted me and all my worries. That was the best decision I ever made, still have the horse, still riding, still working on my biomechanics with weekly lessons; but no more dressage competitions. I am 67 years old, re-rider started again at 50! Love your blog, very timely, and look forward to reading it every morning before I head out to the barn.

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  5. I am having so much fun but that wasn’t always the case. My current horse sent me on a journey to seek out different answers and I found a wonderful Orlando of working with horses rather than working on them. I do see what you describe in some barns. I’ve also seen it in hunter jumper with gadgets and such. And I’ve seen some western trainers around here thst I wouldn’t let near my horse: horses with heads tied up for hours or tied to the saddle. Horses forced to work until the sweat is dripping off of them. I don’t know what learning people think is happening but it’s not what they think. I am not denying your experience but I want to point out thst it happens in all disciplines and we need to address it.

    Because if it’s not fun what is the point?

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