Dressage breeds doubt in the minds of riders: Doubt about one's ability, one's competitiveness, one's competence. The more experienced rider one becomes, it seems, the more doubt can creep in, founded or otherwise.
It is for this reason that some horses acheive "Hero" status in the barn. The aging schoolmaster, the brilliant gaited young prospect, the horse who seems limitless in his ability to react seamlessly to the aids and crank out movements like a robot while the owner schools day after day.
For the unititiated, watching from behind the viewing room window, there are usually two responses.
"I wish I could have a horse like that. That would be amazing to ride a horse like that." This comes often boldly from the mouth of the rider who has been working so diligently, practicing day after day at getting their horse to the bit, in front of their leg, straight and in some semblance of what will some day look like a dressage test. It's uttered in quiet awe by the rider who wishes she could have an easier time with her leg yield. It's drooled a little by the rider who is starting fly changes in lessons and can't quite seem to get the left change clean . . . ever.
It goes beyond a simple "grass is greener" scenario. These horses acheive star status in these riders minds. The first seedling of the thought can often grow into a giant oak of purpose that ends in the gentle school horse being snuffed as preparations begin for horse shopping, and hours spend watching endless youtube videos looking for expensive gaits and extravagant changes. Suddenly even the horse that inspired the growth of this dream becomes pale in comparison to the horses that are presented in slick, smooth, perfectly edited clips of perfection in the sales videos. Because wouldn't it be great to just "get on and do it?"
"That is so cool. But I could never be good enough to ride that horse." This comes from the rider who has already gone through the horse covet process. They bought (or leased) the horse hero from the rider on the other side of the glass. They realized they couldn't work out in the gym enough hours in the week to get the clean change. They realized they couldn't get their hands quiet enough to keep him from stopping in the middle of the half pass, and in their final lesson, they realized that it was really a lot of work to make it look that easy. They went back and purchased the wonderful school horse from the barn they used to lesson at and are now practicing to enter their first show at training level, though they like to work the trot work from the Third Level Test 1 from time to time into their lessons.
And then, quietly, in the back of the room is the trainer, sitting with their cup of coffee, trying to get warm after three lessons and four rides, waiting for their next student to tack up. She is watching the rider and her horse dancing, in harmony, and she smiles. She thinks to herself "that half pass is better than the ones I got when I schooled him yesterday." and she is proud. She sips her coffee quietly and thinks about how much work goes into building those muscles the horse uses to well to sit. She visualizes the hundreds of rides that built the preparation for the halfsteps the rider does past the window, and she watches the look of concentration on the rider's face as she sees her work hard to keep his right shoulder under control to keep him straight. She shows a look of relief when the changes are clean and a look of concern when she sees shortened steps coming back from extended trot. She thinks about the last twomonths of saddle fitting and trials before they found something that fit both rider and horse and would leave his shoulders freer, and the endless trips up to her own trainer when the changes seemed to disappear for two months when they started the twos. She thought about the days when it was so cold last winter when the longe line was never far from reach.
There is a beautiful clarity in the simplicity that dressage presents at the upper levels. It's the dreamy vision that attracted us all to the sport, and inspires us every day as we still claw our way through success and failure, heartache and happiness through the training scale with our horse, ride after ride, day after day. People tune into FEI TV online and critique the Grand Prixs like armchair quarterbacks. They draw on lessons in leg yields to critique the half passes, and see tension in the horse that is working his guts out for his rider for a championship title. But until you've failed, fallen, and worked through those own problems yourself, you can't appreciate the hard work, the frustration, the sweat and the money that is poured into these horse heroes. The more you learn, the more you appreciate the process and acknowlege the many forks in the road a rider comes to along the way. A full appreciation of it will leave even the most competent rider quietly nervous to sit on a new horse in front of anyone. No one can just 'get on and ride'. Because the more you know, the more you know you don't know: Because this is dressage.