Raising the Bar Without Lowering the Standard

January 19, 2016


I can remember very clearly my first time witnessing a bona-fide jumper schooling a fence: Not a kid throwing a horse at a scary airy vertical hanging in the middle of a ring, but a real, honest-to-goodness jumper being schooled to the height of his ability, watching his eyes and ears ping between the standards and his knees lift like they were attached by rubber bands to the clouds.  I remember getting goosebumps when the instructor called to the girl standing near the standards "raise it three."  And i watched and wondered if it was too much, if it was too high. . . after the horse had cooled down and I walked into that ring to help dismantle the jump to teach a lesson of up-downs over trotting poles and crossrails, I remember very clearly standing by the standards and seeing them to be as high as I was. . . and looking at the pins, clearly stuck into the holes as high as my eyebrows.  Amazing. I was inspired to instill such faith, and have such knowlege to bring that horse over the bar as it rose slowly up all those holes below.

I went on to teach the children, and realized that we all want to hear "raise it three," but those words are spoken relative to the standards we ride between, and the wisdom behind those words is the foundation of trust we ride upon.

Fast forward nearly two decades and several thousand miles and I'm soon finding myself to be the voice that calls to raise the bar.  But how high? What standards? 


There are at least three types of students, in my experience, when it comes to those standards, but certainly three specific ones worth mentioning here:  There are the ones that just want to remember they jumped to the top of the standard.  They don't care how high the standard was, they just want to hear that the bar was raised.  There are also the riders that don't care if the rail is raised at all: they are content to know they can, and they live within their limitations, fears, family, reality, whatever.  There are also the riders that see the big picture, and want to see it through, but through either experience, or time, they realize that it must come one hole at a time. The standards are never changed, and sometimes they are even raised so that the top hole seems so far away it is out of reach: These are the riders that say little, do much, and try hard.


The ones that only want to hear you tell them they can jump a few holes higher, well, those riders are driven to compete.  They sometimes lack the knowlege and education to understand that in order to raise the bar, you will have to lower the standard.  In the world that I was taught horsemanship in, that is pretty much just a lie.  This type of student has evolved to feel that they have the right to compete, and the right to exercise at a level higher than the skills they've acquired, simply because they've been doing (in their mind) it long enough, have paid enough or have paid enough for a horse that's capable even if they're not, or they surround themselves with people who don't know enough to tell them otherwise.  In this case, the only way they will listen to a real, knowlegeable instructor, is if he or she swaps out the standards for a shorter set.  Because if the bar must be raised a hole, then the standards must be made lower.  There is no patience, it simply black and white: scores are emphasized, points are accumulated and tallied.


The second type is one that cares neither whether the bar is raised or lowered.  He or she is there to simply ride.  Their riding is a pursuit driven by the love for their horse, and their busy life shapes their day-to-day involvement.  The instructor is sensitive to this, and associates the same set of standards, and the bar can be raised or lowered each day, and the rider is happy to develop his or her skill with that set of standards.  There's a certain of amount of reality that limits real progression, but because the rider is honest with herself about this, both horse and rider progress appropriately within the accepted limitations. The big picture is always right there in the arena, each day.  Goals are set short term, and there is patience. Showing is attempted only if the stars are aligned.


The third type of rider sees the bigger picture.  The desire for acheivement is tempered by patience.  When the bar is raised each time, the standard does not change.  There are falls, there are setbacks, but the same set of standards greets horse and rider every time they walk into the arena. Shows and tests are strategic, and used as guages and a stone to hone their skills- and nerve - against.  They are humble enough to start out at the bottom, yet they strive to get to the top - if their horse is able, if they are able to commit the time, and if they acheive the necessary prerequisites to allow their progress.  Each hole is a medal, worn proudly, quietly,humbly earned, but still re-earned with each ride. They are content with a day's work punching a pin into a newly drilled hole just halfway up the standard, because of what it represents. The patience represents each step up, and each step up leads only to the next onset of patience and learning.

I know, especially recently, that my standards are high.  And I promise you, just like most other riders I know and admire, I have demons that whisper to me while I ride - and to help you, I merely repeat what they say when I teach...I try to help you to find easy that which I find hard.  Competition is not a RIGHT, it is EARNED and sometimes, whether due to ability, financial limitations, or simply time, it is only aspired to.  Even for me.  But it is never taken for granted.  I work very hard to prepare, progress, and prevent disappointment by keeping my standards high.  Competitive Dressage is all about the standards in the ring, at the show, on the day.  NOT simply what you can present on your best day at home.   Of course, the standard of judging is ideally to be the same adherence to the ideal, but we all know that a 7 for your well known steady eddie sweetheart at the local show at the lesson barn down the road may not meet the expectation for a 7 at the CBLMs or the next Regional Championships, much less represent yourself as prepared to meet the standard presented there.  The only "good enough" in dressage is for the level you currently show at, while you are still not good enough for the level you want to move up to. Each level, whether it be schooling show versus rated, championship versus CDI, barn fun show versus White Fences . . .you must be able to meet the standard.   And while each rider and horse is an individual, and has their own struggles and challenges, the standards stay the same.  By being honest with yourself, by reacting positively (and like a grownup) to criticism from your instructor, you give yourself the chance to do the homework you need to do to give yourself a chance to raise it up a hole without lying to yourself.   When you move up a level, you will know you are prepared to fulfill the criteria, not just to gather homework and comments for us to structure lessons around.  By doing so, when you come down the final centerline to X, you may be just as proud to reach the third hole up as the third hole down when you get your scoresheet back.  Most of all, you will know, because those same standards were in the ring all along, I will have done my best and "raised it three" to help get you there that day.

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