2014 Dressage Trainer’s Conference As Seen By A Sport Psychologist
Wednesday, January 29, 2014
Posted by Jenny R. Susser, Ph.D.
“I now will sit like her, ride like her, and my horse will go like her!” I overheard three women talking as the first rider (Mette Larsen and “Deklan”) was warming up for day 2 of the Trainer’s Conference. This comment really struck me, especially after watching the first day of the conference. As a Sport Psychologist and dressage hobbyist, I watch these events with two pairs of eyes: one is as the horse-lover that enjoys riding and learning and loves dressage. The other is as the social scientist, always striving to understand human thought processes and behaviors in a never-ending quest to help people think, act, perform, and feel better. The dressage rider in me absolutely loved the conference, the wisdom, the symbiosis between Steffen and horse, and between Steffen and Scott. The teachings were brilliant and lacked the “horse has to” feel we have somehow gotten stuck in with regards to our horse training. There was a light air of possibility in this type of training and philosophy, sparking curiosity in us “mere mortals” about how we can impact our own horses and ride like Steffen…
Listening to these women chat, the tone was happy and filled with excitement. Steffen and Scott made all these concepts accessible and reasonable, and filled the arena with hope and excitement. But the Sport Psychologist part of me can’t help but wonder how long this excitement will last… and when it will turn into frustration and then just disappear. Not that I'm as negative as that sentence makes me sound, but I see all the time how fully UNprepared we are to make change. Change, especially mental change, takes tremendous energy. We see what we want, talk about it, even give it a try, but for real change to occur, it takes time and energy, lots of time and energy. We are an instant-gratification society and we usually run out of steam on personal projects rather quickly. For instance, its still January, many New Year’s Resolutions are still at play but what about by May, a mere 4 months from now? The easiest resolution to pick on is the exercise one and the data is clear. Gym memberships go crazy in December and January, and by March the gyms are empty again. But why? Why is sustainability so darn difficult? Why can’t we just say “change,” click our heels together three times, and voilà, we will sit like that, ride like that, and our horse will go like that! And now, a full week (yes, only a week) later, how has the impact of the Trainer’s Conference sustained in you? How connected have you remained to what you learned, what you felt, what you promised yourself you would now do for and with your horse, or the inspiration you received?
Like horses, humans are creatures of habit. We seek the same things they do…safety/survival, comfort, relationship (a herd), and fun. It is the word “habit” that contains the power here. Research shows that 95% of what we do each day is habit. Ninety-five percent! Wow! That leaves very little to the imagination—or intention. We think that we think about everything we do all day when actually we don’t. Which leg do you put in your pants first? Many people have to think about how to answer this question. When we do things over and over again, we build something called neural pathways (which are like a super paved road that is easy and quick to travel), also known as muscle memory, making these actions easy and “mindless.” The simplest example is brushing your teeth. Try brushing your teeth tonight with your opposite hand. You will be amazed at how difficult this daily task that you can do without even a thought will become when you change it, even just a little. You are saying to yourself now, “Sure, this will be easy, this doesn’t make any sense,” but try it. The first thing that will happen is that more than half of you will promise to brush your teeth with your off hand tonight and forget!
I do this in my clinics all the time so my research is based on data! Then, it will take you an irritatingly long time to do it. You will have difficulty getting the toothpaste on the brush, getting it in your mouth, maneuvering around to each tooth and not brush your nose or ear! You will feel ridiculously inept at something you are completely masterful at. It is a fascinating exercise in neural pathway discovery!
What I hope you discover is the FACT that change requires new actions, filled with errors and mistakes to recover from, repeated with correction over and over and over and over and over, and did I mention over and over again! By now, many of us have heard the “10,000 hours to expertise rule” (by K. Anders Ericsson, Ph.D.) so let me explain how this rule plays out in our dressage lives. For adult amateurs, think about how you struggle on your horse to get a movement that you just cannot get and then your trainer hops on and in 2.2 seconds, the horse is doing exactly what you could NOT get him/her to do! Our logic here is that the trainer is simply more talented (perhaps, well, likely, but “talent” is an entire conversation in and of itself, read The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle for a new relationship to it). When in reality, it is more of a muscle memory or neural pathway result. How many horses a day for how many years has a typical trainer ridden? The answers are usually anywhere from 5-15 horses a day for 15-30 years! Think of the neural pathways they have developed!!! So, with that information, riding a horse for a trainer is like you brushing your teeth with your GOOD hand. Whew, you are not untalented as you suspected, just not enough neural pathways! So, how to acquire them?
Many of the adult amateurs I work with are very successful professionals with an addictive passion for dressage. When they express frustration in their learning process, I ask a few questions. One, if you are going to compare yourself to your trainer, tell me how many horses you ride a day for how many years? This answer is usually rather sobering. We cannot expect to have the same ability or result with so few hours in the saddle comparatively. Then I ask how many hours they spent becoming a mother, lawyer, doctor or international airline pilot (yes, I had one of those!). We forget to apply logic to our horse lives because they are sourced from our passionate side of the brain, or heart, really. We, as hobbyist (even competitive hobbyists) and amateurs need to commit to creating these new neural pathways in whatever time that takes. We need to see our abilities as the part of the equation after the equal sign. In other words, what we put into it is directly proportional to what our result is. If you only ride one horse three days a week, your progress will be slower than riding two horses five days a week. Take off the pressure to ride like your trainer and focus more on the process and what you ARE able to develop, learn, create, and solidify. To fall in love with learning creates a child-like fascination that rarely results in frustration and leaves you satisfied no matter what.
For trainers, it is a different kind of frustration. Being a professional, especially in the horse world, is full of pressure. Its not that other professionals don’t have pressure, but most professionals don’t get push-back from their computer and golf clubs don’t wake up sore or worry about the wind in the bushes! Steffen Peters is the best competitive rider and trainer in the country right now. This isn’t opinion, his results irrefutably support this statement. Scott Hassler is considered the best evaluator and trainer of young horses and his position in the USET support this statement. Which is why the Trainer’s Conference is led by them and why it was successful last year and record-setting successful this year. This does not mean that there aren’t loads of good and great trainers in the country, but this is what we consider to be the best right now. And it takes a strong sense of self for a trainer to put themselves in an arena with “the best” and go to work. I admire those brave enough to become a student of their craft, no matter their level or list of accomplishments.
Unfortunately, we have put ALL of our dressage trainers on such a pedestal that they have no room for error. They are not allowed to fail or God-forbid, not know something! So they attend the Trainer’s Conference and are filled with conflicting thoughts and feelings—they want to learn and get better but if you don’t fix my horse right now... Imagine being an FEI level trainer and going to this event! Your client is filled with new, good ideas and you are now expected to ride like Steffen and teach like Scott, oh my! As trainers, you must be able to communicate your can and can’t do’s effectively and with pride. Every single trainer can provide value, and they do NOT have to be an Olympian to do so. And not every client is shooting for the Olympics, so the value provided just might be a better match than you think.
Having a strong relationship to reality and the truth is very powerful and since not everyone can be Champion or Olympian or on the Team, how about setting our sights for our horses and ourselves properly. This is THE way to prevent frustration and create satisfaction…and even a little happiness. Then, all there is to do is practice. Practice, practice, practice to build neural pathways by doing it over and over and over. Practice what Steffen showed us, what Scott told us, what the horses and riders did or tried to do, and what we took from being there those two days. Reconnect as often as possible with that feeling you had when you left that day…for that is really why we ride.
Dr. Jenny’s work with equestrians continues to grow, this year she was named the USEF Team Sport Psychologist and was honored to work with the 2012 Olympic Dressage Team in their preparations for the London Olympics. In 2010, she was the Team Psychologist for the South African Para Dressage Team and worked individually with some of the American athletes at the World Equestrian Games in Kentucky. Her work with Lendon Gray and Dressage4Kids is important and fun, and always a part of her schedule. She works with some of the top Young Riders and Juniors in the country, FEI trainers and competitors, and Adult Amateurs all over the country. She remains active out of the pool these days by running and riding her horses.
Jenny R. Susser, Ph.D.
Clinical Sport Psychologist
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