*The Religion of Dressage*

*The Religion of Dressage*

So I was planning on writing a little blurb about how you really need to be a perfectionist to do dressage. In my preparation (and with the advice of a writing mentor lent to me about 20 years ago ringing in my head about avoiding overgeneralization and offending your audience) I went to google to find words that would reflect the opposite of a perfectionist. I not only wanted to use them, but also wanted to see if the dragnet of the English language might also catch some of my peers (or worse yet, clients).
And so, not unlike several other of my posts, my googling shocked me enough to write about it, and completely jump in the deep end and start swimming. I might yet drown, but here we go.
WAY BACK when I was in school and striving to be a particularly overachieving student, I was continually taught that anything less than 100% didn’t reflect excellence. The word was everywhere in school: The cafeteria, the gym wall, the cheerleader’s poster-paint banners, even on the sign outside the parking lot. When a paper was handed back with an 88%, I would imagine my teacher’s frustration and disappointment as she completed the last circle on the second 8. I would walk past the desk and see the open grade book and see the numbers recorded on it and quickly scan for my name and torture myself when I saw the 88. Because it wasn’t perfect. And I wanted to be the not only the best; I wanted to be excellent. I wanted everyone to know that I was trying my hardest and succeeding.

When I googled the word “perfectionist” I was shocked to find an entire page about how to overcome it . . . About how to keep your children away from the perils of perfectionism . . . About how bad it is for you, and all sorts of other things written by people with a lot more letters after their name than me. Everything was about how to ‘lighten up’ and change your perspective to allow for differences (that to me, also interpreted to include failures).

My mind put her hands on her hips and said a loud “hmph.” Since when did trying to be perfect at something become offensive? Our peers, colleagues, and friends might regard us perfectionists as uptight, accuse us of overthinking, say we are judgemental or even call us hypocrites when we vocalize the standards we hold ourselves to. However, how often do we hear eulogies and news program mentions of famous perfectionists who describe them as geniuses who pursued excellence Who devoted themselves to perfecting their music, or performing as an athlete, or in the great length, they took to fulfill their vision as a humanitarian. Were they not perfectionists? Or are we just allowing the spin doctors to weave their web of rhetoric around something we aren’t supposed to be? Because heaven forbid, we try harder than someone else to do something well.

First of all, I think we could all use a little more perfectionism in our lives. Take handwriting, for example. My dear little daughter Paige will not learn cursive in second grade. Her time spent learning to write her letters on lined paper was terrifyingly short, and she didn’t learn the wonders of connecting all her letters together with swirls and lilting lines. She can hardly read anything written by hand unless it is in block letters, or printed in Arial or Times New Roman. This is astonishing to us “old folks” that spent tireless hours copying cursive letters and developing our handwriting, or later when I learned shorthand in high school. First, we learned the perfect way to do it, and then we developed our own style. But it had to be perfect first. If you followed the dotted lines, you got an A+, and then you practiced it, and you added your own little flourishes and made it your own. After it was perfect, after the time was put in. Then you could add to it.

I know my own desire was linked to my faith. Being brought up in a Christian home and school where every Sunday, we were reminded by the pastor that we were asked, nay, expected to be perfect in God’s eyes. It was impossible, of course, but it was still the standard. Without divine intervention, our inability to meet the standard would result in our eternal damnation, and only our belief and our faith could save us. Even so, we had to try – the standard of perfection remained, like the cross behind the altar at the front of the church. Most human actions and interactions could be described as either right or wrong, either an A or and F. . . for the things that didn’t have written direction, there was the examples of leadership to look to, and their advice was offered when requested. The attitude of the church that I grew up in was one of structure, diligence, education and self-examination. There was little that fell under the umbrella of “tolerance,” though there was always an ear lent to understanding the reasoning and elder words of wisdom to guide decision-making. Those words of wisdom often stressed one’s personal values: the things that no one else could see, that very few ever even knew – personal struggles, quiet victories, prayer and remorse, and forgiveness known only to the one who requests it and He who offers it.

Often people view religion as ‘antiquated’ and ‘out of date.’ Most often, the people that feel this way are offended by the structure, and the standards more than the social aspect of people assembling to worship: Whether it’s because they feel they are being judged, or it’s a result of their belief system and desire to be inclusive instead of exclusive, some people seem to be left feeling alienated by perceived standards which remain unknown to them, perhaps simply because they don’t want to be associated or don’t feel comfortable with learning more. I understand this.
Does any of this sound familiar?

Dressage can seem unfair, impossible and also antiquated when you’re standing on the outside of the ring. If you know enough to recognize which test you’re watching, you probably know enough to know what’s hard and what’s not. If you have no idea, and you only see the horse going sideways and forwards and around, it may seem ridiculous to see that the rider didn’t score well.

Dressage is amazing, and it fulfills so much of the drive for perfection in me, but in a constructive way. Not unlike religion, there is an impossible standard, and until I read a blog or Facebook post about your last 100% dressage score, I will maintain that position. We see photo after photo of beaming, proud riders – the most educated and brilliant riders of our time wearing medals and holding aloft bouquets of flowers, proudly passaging in front of adoring masses, often over wins with scores that are little better than a C+. And yes, it is called a test, after all! The only comments I’ve ever received that said anything like “nice try” were largely sarcastic (yes, and I still have that test). Every score on my score sheet shows where I am lacking, and there are no extra points for wearing spurs to try harder, or grip tack to sit better, or the custom boots to keep from wiggling my heels. In fact, the better you get, the less these things matter, and the more I have to do without them (and without help from a whip, even!).

The perfectionist in me turns into the second grader peeking at the teacher’s grade book when I scan my scoresheet. It’s easy to get bogged down in the “needs more . . ” and “crooked . . . ” and “not enough . . . ” but the dressage rider in me, instead has learned to make a mental checklist to either work on these things and adopt them into my riding, or sometimes to ignore them because it was just bad ride! To me, the low scores stick hot pokers in my eyeballs, and the words punch me in the gut a little. Other riders might be able to laugh it off, and they instead see the “elegant pair” comment and the words “active” near the walk score and smile when they see the 8s pop out at them. This is the personal part of dressage, and why I respect riders who don’t wave their scoresheets around for everyone to read. If you’re someone who takes these comments to heart, who tears down, rebuilds, and regroups all in the 5 seconds, it takes to scan a scoresheet and speed read the comments (maybe wincing a little). . . . You are in good company.

As the education, we require our judges to seek out before licensing becomes more and more comprehensive, and as our tolerance for abuse disintegrates and the requirement for respect of these noble animals becomes more and more apparent in how we develop the definitions for dressage, the standards will continue to be fortified. If it is to follow history, Dressage will become an older religion, with less tolerance and a firmer resolve. While its aims may change, as they already have from military need-based to recreational, it will always find the perfectionists challenging themselves at the top: those who are willing to accept the impossible standard, those who will follow the directives, those who will change themselves to help the horse pursue perfection, even though they may feel the feeling of it so few times, if ever, in their lifetime compared to the hours spent in the pursuit. There will also be others who will pay lip service, who will attend the show, commune at X and return home only to do whatever they feel they are justified in doing. And for those, they fail themselves in their personal journey, even if they achieve in the eyes of others.

So after your final salute at your next show, I dare you to mutter under your breath as you walk a few steps toward the judge . . . Dearly, Beloved, we are gathered here to repent of our transgressions, our late changes, our humongous pirouettes, our egg-shaped circles. We ask forgiveness for our late canter departs, and our lateral walk. We glorify the standards of dressage, to which we are held and which we can never achieve. May the judge have mercy on our poor white full-seats and forgive us as we accept the judgment passed down upon us. Thank you for your time, have a nice day. . . .Thank God that’s over.

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