USDF gold medalist Kim Herslow explains dressage riding as a mental sport.
Dressage riding is a mental sport. I wish I had known then that preparing oneself mentally helps make your performance more successful in the show ring.
Preparing yourself mentally means staying completely focused on the movie of your perfect test that is playing over and over in your mind. The trick is to avoid letting anything cause the pause or stop button to go on, even when you realize you have made a mistake or executed a few subpar strides. Many amateurs make the mistake of focusing only on riding all the movements, instead of seamlessly blending them together with the steps between the movements, such as setting up a clear transition between extended and collected trot, for which you are scored.
When you focus on your perfect test mental movie, you are always riding as though a magnet is drawing you forward. Always be four seconds ahead of what’s coming up. It makes it easier to block out external distractions, which every dressage rider faces sooner or later—the horse suddenly leaning, an open, scary-looking umbrella, a noise, another horse walking by. Adjust to the situation by having a plan in your head of how to respond to such challenges, like a tool you pull out from your toolbox when a screw becomes loose. If you know your horse well, you know that he will likely cut the next corner. So be prepared before the corner, setting your horse up for the corner to prevent the situation from happening. If you still feel your horse is about to cut the corner and is leaning in, simply adjust him. For instance, brace your back, half halt with your reins and ask him to move off your inside leg.
Include in your plan the possibility that your horse might spook, yet don’t dwell on it. Focus on your movie! If your horse spooks, simply ask him to look away from the ghost and move him toward the spooky object with your inside leg, as you would when increasing the size of a circle, while remaining focused on your mental movie. Then look ahead to the next steps without dwelling on what just happened or how many points you might have lost or how many mistakes you have made.
It is also important to breathe deeply and deliberately throughout your test. Deep breathing prevents tension from creeping into your body and helps you to focus on your mental movie. It also prevents you from getting anxious, nervous or overriding your horse, which often happens when the rider is tense. When your horse spooks, loses his balance or makes some sort of mistake, adjust him while keeping up the deep breathing. You have to be the rock in the ring for him, and a consistent, reliable one at that. If you feed off of your horse’s tension, the tension in both of you will triple. Tension, by the way, makes you top-heavy and stiff, preventing you from feeling your horse, whereas staying relaxed helps you have a stable yet deep seat and keep an elastic connection to the bit.
Dressage riding is a cerebral sport, and you have to be in a good place mentally to be effective and in harmony with your horse, especially in the show ring. Visualizing and feeling your perfect ride while keeping your breathing deep will help you achieve better results.
Kim Herslow is a USDF bronze, silver and gold medalist. She has won many regional and national awards including a team gold medal at the 2014 Wellington CDIO3* Nations Cup and the 2013 Dutta Corp/USEF Intermediaire I Dressage National Championship. A graduate of Delaware Valley College with a degree in equine science, she trains with noted professionals, including Lars Petersen, Robert Dover, Guenter Seidel, Debbie McDonald, Scott Hassler and Anne Gribbons, and operates Upper Creek Farm, a training facility in Stockton, New Jersey.