Thursday, December 13, 2018


Last week I had a training session on Capi that I really wasn’t happy with--I did achieve my throughness goal, but it wasn’t how I wanted it to feel.  I noted the tension and pressure, and decided to try a new plan the next day. I finished the rest of my day, taught my lessons, rode my other horses, chatted with staff and clients, then turned my phone on silent and had dinner with a friend.  The next day I got on with my new plan at the ready, but I didn't need it. Apparently Capi had gone back to his stall, thought about it, and he decided yesterday’s work was just fine. He happily agreed with me on this whole throughness idea. We had a much more relaxed, productive ride.

A year ago, I wouldn’t have been able to write that paragraph.  I would have spent the rest of the day, the entire evening, and the night riding and re-riding the training session, beating myself up for every part that I could have done differently. I would be sure it was entirely my fault, and not that Capi just needed a night to process. My self-criticizing would have so embedded itself in my thoughts that it would add a sharp snap to my conversations, because how dare you interrupt my self-flagellation?  By the time I got on the next day, I’d be convinced I should give up this dressage thing and go get an office job.

Last December was a turning point for me. I spent the better part of 2017 in emotional turmoil. By December, my body had enough.  I had an autoimmune reaction to a common antibiotic, one I've taken many times before, that nearly killed me. While I was literally tied in bed in the hospital, waiting to see if the drugs were going to work in time, I had time to think.  I came to a decision. I decided it was time to start living a full life.

Which was going to be a big shift.  Horses are a performance industry, steeped in the “what have you done for me lately” idea.  An industry where being busy is a status symbol. Dressage trainer’s coffee talk at shows is about how many horses are in your barn, how many students do you have at a show, how many clinics are you teaching, how many horses in training, etc.  Trainers brag about not having a day off for weeks on end. Then we wonder why we are burned out and impatient.

In a job where I willingly pay to be judged, it’s no surprise I was always judging myself and always coming up short. So I’d work more. Which made me tired and judgmental and hard on myself.  So I’d put in more hours. And so the cycle continued, until I felt like I was nothing more than my job.

I needed to learn to see myself as more than my professional identity. Sure, I have spent many years building and running a training business, but that is only part of who I am as a person. I needed to embrace the non-horse parts of myself as beautiful and worthy of my attention as well.  

They say “turn your passion into your job and you’ll never work a day in your life.” They say “work harder and you’ll achieve more.”  I think that’s bunk. If you work hard in a job you love, giving pieces of yourself every day with no time to refill, you’ll get burned out and bitter.

I had to do what I thought was impossible.  I let go of the guilt of taking time for myself.

Once that was acknowledged (but not fully conquered, that will take a lifetime), I started tracking my work hours, including the time spent at my desk.  The number was a bit staggering. I took a deep breath, and decided that some marketing and office work would just have to wait. This was, and still is, very difficult for me, leaving work for another day.  But I’m learning to do it.

I simplified some of my office work and delegated more.  I looked at all of SFD’s tasks, decided what was important to me and embraced those things.  Those things centered most around training, competition, and education. Then I looked at my staff, and handed them the other parts of my job, parts I thought they’d be good at.  Then I took another deep breath and trusted the people I had entrusted.

I decided it was time to learn to manage instead of just work harder.  I started having regular meetings with Carly, my stable manager, where we talked about things like how to do scheduling and how best to manage the day-to-day horse care.  When we needed to do some hiring, I passed that along to her as well, and she hired and trained a team of people that work really well together.

Of course there were, and still are, growing pains. Times when I learned that I needed to be more clear on expectations, times when the new responsibility didn’t work out, times when the ball was dropped. But because I’m not so overworked and anxious, I can deal with most of them more calmly and with less self judgement.  

As part of my focus shift, when Kelsey, my assistant trainer, enrolled in part 2 of the L this summer, I gave her as much support as I could. In past years, I would have kept the SFD calendar cranking along. But instead, I let go of SFD’s schooling shows and educational seminars for 2018 and went with Kelsey to give her moral support as her scribe for her L exam.  Which ended up being quite helpful when I got an invite to fill a last-minute spot in an ‘r’ program in August.

This is Chicago's Cloud Gate, picture taken from inside looking up

These fledgling boundaries created time for other things I love, things that make me feel like a more complete person. I went home to see family, then spent a day exploring in Chicago. I ran in a few 5ks.  I went to Austin City Limits music festival. I stole away to NYC for an overnight to eat, walk the Brooklyn bridge, and see a show. I went hiking. I took a lot of pictures of things at funny angles. I learned some cooking basics and had regular dinners with friends.

Guess what? No one left my barn because I took a weekend off.  Even my highly-judgy-brain has to admit that my changes didn’t ruin SFD.  My business is solvent. I ended up with just as many All-Breeds Champion and Reserve slots as previous years. I was high up in Horse of the Year in Freestyle and brought home ribbons from Kentucky again this year.  Timecenter says SFD is giving just as many lessons as last year. I’m still riding multiple horses daily.

The best part is I'm enjoying it more.  

Friday, November 16, 2018

Dreams and Purpose

When I talk to students about dressage progress, I always ask them a multiple-choice question. What is your goal -- is it (A) to see how far you can go, (B) to see how far this horse can go, or (C) to see how far you and this horse together can go?  The answer to this question helps me guide the rider to an appropriate plan.

For riders who want to see how far they can go, that often means a different mount at different stages of the journey.  For those who want to see how far the horse can go, that often means I spend more time in the saddle, and sometimes includes me showing the horse.  If the goal is to see how far the partnership can go, I often spend less time on their horse, but they may need to accept that their lovely, wonderful 15.3 ottb isn’t bound for the Pan Am games, and they may not earn their silver or gold medals, which is 100% ok, especially in the case of a “heart horse,” the horse that we love more than we love our goals.

I am a professional, which means I answer “A” in this question. But deep inside every professional rider is the kid who fell in love with ponies.  We are all looking for the “heart horse,” that one that gets under our skin, the one that breaks through our professional demeanor. The one that we keep on the books, even though a dressage trainer’s income does not really allow enough wiggle room for a sentimental horse. The one that gives wings to our goals and lets them fly to fulfill our dreams.  Because every dressage rider I know is a dreamer.

I bring this up because I’m going to tell the story of Venus, my mare.  She is not my “heart horse.”  But she is the horse I have.     

I have written a lot about Venus over the years.  I bought her as a 2-year-old.  At that point in my life, I had finished my working student time and was still freelance teaching.  I had a breeder I was talking with about starting and selling her young stock, so I had nice youngsters to ride, but I needed a horse to develop a bit further.  I wanted to show her in the at-that-point burgeoning Young Horse division to market my skills as a young horse trainer, and then eventually sell her. She was a good business decision—I did not expect to make a ton of profit on her, but she would give me the exposure I needed.

I knew Venus wasn’t going to be the easiest youngster when I met her. She had, and still has, a very powerful, athletic hind end.  She had, and thankfully no longer has, a nervous, untrusting look in her eye.  But I am a professional, and I wasn’t on a short time limit with her, so I thought I would be fine.

She took a lot of time to start, but in the long run, she became a trusting, reliable, rock-solid mare.  I did show her in the Young Horse divisions as a 4-and-5-year-old, where she did well.  Not horse-of-my-dreams well, but respectable.  Late in her 6-year-old year, she kicked a stone wall, bruising her left hind coffin joint.  Bone bruises take forever to heal, but she did fully recover.  Once she was sound and had a flying change, she had served her purpose in my program and was not the horse of my dreams, so I put her on the market.

She didn’t sell. 

So I took her off the market and developed her some more.  While she got stronger, I played quadrille and pas de deux with her.  One winter, I taught her to jump just for fun.  Her trot developed more cadence and her canter more jump.   She was getting fancy.

Meanwhile, my business had changed. I was teaching more.  Sales and young horses had become a much smaller part of my business. I had students earning their bronze and silver medals.  To support this business growth path, a horse that could get me more attention at the upper levels would be nice.  I began to think Venus could fill that purpose. Ok, I admit it, I began to dream a little, of neck sashes and shows that require invitations.  

So the next summer, I campaigned her at 3rd and 4th levels.  She did her first PSG at a schooling show.  She gave me some lovely, soft, high-scoring tests, usually in smaller, quieter venues.  In the big venues, she would get a little nervous, and tension would creep in and affect her scores. 

I signed her up for 4th level at Dressage at Devon. I knew the venue would be hard for her, so it was my litmus test of could she, with enough time, handle the bigger venues.  The weather was horrible.We had blowing rain and a cold, blustery wind.  These were definitely the hardest conditions Venus had shown under all season. She warmed up tight, but manageable. As we went in, the wind kicked up and the flags blew horizontal.  The plastic protecting the judge’s booths rattled.  She performed all of the movements, but was quite tense.  As we halted at x, I could feel her heart pounding she was so afraid. 

The score was underwhelming – not disastrous, but not her potential at all.   My emotional reaction was much stronger – I was overcome by guilt for putting my sweet mare through this.  I knew I could not ask her to fulfill the purpose of a horse to get me noticed.  It just wasn’t fair to her. I gave up on my dream and put her on the market again.

And again she didn’t sell.

I frankly, have no idea why she didn’t sell. I’ve sold tricky horses, I’ve sold green horses, I’ve sold hot, quick, small horses, I even sold a horse with a 2-beat walk and a tendency to rear (all fully disclosed, of course). Venus is quiet, has a great resume, is super consistent in her reactions, and is tolerant of riders sorting things out.  She’s probably the most solid horse I’ve ever had for sale, and the market just didn’t seem to want her.

I now had a horse on my grocery bill that wasn’t furthering my career and wasn’t my “heart horse.”  I enjoyed riding her, but as I answered “A” above, and she clearly wasn’t the horse for my dreams. I wasn’t sure exactly what I should do with her.  Her sale was to fund my next horse, so I was a bit stuck.

Then disaster struck. For no reason any vet can figure out (and believe me, multiple vets ran every test imaginable to try to figure it out), she developed laminitis. 

Nothing rips a horse lover’s heart out faster than watching a horse in pain. Dreams and purpose be damned, I just wanted her to not hurt. 

The x-rays showed a very, very minor rotation, but Venus’ laminitis was compounded by a series of abscesses that undermined her already-stressed lamina.  Resulting in a quarter crack and the heel area falling off. Literally.

My vet and my shoer assured me that she would, in time, be fine. Gradually, she became sound.  She had some creative, expensive shoes that she could not risk losing or her recovery would be set back months.  As turnout wasn’t an option, I moved her to the stall with a half door that overlooks the grooming area. Always a very friendly horse, she took to calling to everyone as they came to the barn.

One of my students fell in love with the pretty red mare.  She would bring Venus raisins and strawberry starburst jelly beans, and hand graze her whenever she was at the barn. Venus would nicker when my student got out of her car.  As Venus’ feet became more comfortable, my student started to ride her a little.  My student was, at that time, a first level rider. The power and sensitivity of a competing-4th level mare would have been a bit too much for her, but after being sick for so long, Venus was nicely tuned down. 

As Venus became stronger and more comfortable, my student became more confident and skilled. She began half-leasing Venus.  I was worried at first, as my student had a bit of canter anxiety, and Venus has a large canter stride, but the trust she had in Venus helped her over her nervousness. 

Over the months, I watched my student slowly develop a stronger, more independent seat. I’ve watched her learn to half halt and half pass with authority.  I’ve watched Venus thrive under the loving care of her own AA.  I’ve watched my student begin to dream, and her dreams are ones that Venus can make come true.

On her non-leased days, Venus sometimes helps me teach or I hop on her.  Ironically, when I ride her now, without the pressure of my goals, we find each other more enjoyable.  I am more creative with her, and experiment with training ideas, ideas I wouldn’t have tried if she was headed for a centerline.  But I have no goals of taking her in front of a judge, so I’m willing to play more, and when she gets tense, instead of feeling the need to have her work through it, I’m more inclined to leave that challenge for another day and go for a stroll the hill.  She has become my mental-unwind horse.

My mare again has a purpose. 

Friday, October 19, 2018

Catching Up

My blog has been silent for a long time.  Other than some recycled work, I haven't posted in over a year.  I went through a rough year, probably the hardest of my life, in 2017.  Writing has always been an outlet for me.  Although I wrote prolifically in my journal, my journey was personal.  Plus telling a story while you are in the midst of it, well, that just isn’t the time.  Perspective is important in all narrative.  But some parts I’m ready to share, if just to bring things up-to-speed for some future blog ideas I have cooking.

Blogging as a performance- based business owner puts me a bit at odds.  My writing mentors have always rewarded honest, real, gritty prose.   Business marketing tells me to fill the internet with fun, fluffy, positive things.  As a culture, we tend to gloss over emotionally uncomfortable topics, pretending the rains never happen.  But life isn't always nice and pretty, and growth is often uncomfortable, messy, and painful.  Change rarely comes from comfort, and growth often has a price.  The beautiful thing about life is often when the struggles are mounting, there’s a bright spot somewhere.  I’m sure this comes as no surprise, but horses are my bright spot.

If you follow Straight Forward Dressage or know me on Facebook, you’ll know the 2017 show season was a good one.  Secret had a solid PSG/I-1 season, earning a handful of the scores I need to advance in my judge’s training and competed in her first CDI. Capi ended up winning Region 8, BLMS, and stood 5th at Nationals with his second level Peter Pan freestyle.  Sling was 3rd level champion at the DVCTA championship show.  In the barn, my students earned a large handful of All-breeds awards, a regional reserve champion, a 10th place finish in Kentucky, and a freshly minted bronze medal. My para-equestrian student was 2nd at the Para national championship in Tryon (more on that in a later blog, I have GREAT photos) and won USDF Grade III Para Rider of the year.  Last year, this consistency was really reassuring.  Even with the hurricane whirling around me, these horses were the calm eye of the storm.

This year the horses continue to shine brightly.  Secret gave me the rest of my PSG/I-1 scores plus a few to spare, collecting many blue ribbons along the way.  Capi had an amazing year with many 3rd level and freestyle scores in the 70’s.  He had some very-normal-horse moments this last weekend at Regionals (I just don’t understand why they have gatekeepers in championship classes and no other national classes, but I digress...) that put him mid pack in most of his classes, with the exception of his 2nd level freestyle, which he placed   well enough to earn him another trip to KY this year.  Sling went home to his young rider to teach her FEI dressage.  As a trainer, seeing a long-term training horse go home and do what you trained it to do is really rewarding.

My personal horses were not so comforting—I’ll spare you all the details. In 2017 and even into this year, I have been reminded that it isn’t the long hours, the work, or the low pay that exhausts professionals. It’s the heartbreak.

With all the goings-on in the second half of last year, in addition to my blog, my riding education was put on hold. I hit an occasional lesson here or there, but wasn’t able to keep my education in the forefront like I usually do.  This year I have been able to amend this.  Most of my education budget and time have gone to judge education.  In the spring I audited Part 1 A and B of the L program, and I’m really glad I did, as I received a last-minute invite to a small r program in August.  I also played scribe for the L Part 2 while my assistant trainer, Kelsey, prepared for, took, and then passed her exam. 

In addition to educating my judge’s eye, I’ve been back in lessons regularly again. Secret has stayed home from the show circuit since June, and with Scott Hassler’s help, she is making huge strides on the big jump to Grand Prix.  Every day she reminds me that, in this dressage game, heart is more important than breeding.  Jeanne McDonald has seen Capi and I as regularly as our messy schedules allow, contributing hugely to his show ring consistency this year.

I’m super excited for the upcoming winter.  Instead of freezing up here in PA, I’m headed to Fl for 3 months of training.  I’m sharing a facility with Sara Schmitt, where I’ll get her eyes on my riding daily, as well as access to all of the other wonderful instructors who winter with the Palm trees.  I haven’t had this long of an intensive since I was a working student.  I’ve gone to FL to warm up and get inspired for bits of time each winter, and last year even took a student down for 2 weeks to compete. But this will be the first time I will be able to be fully immersed in my own education.  With Secret schooling the GP and Capi knocking on the door of PSG, it’s time.  I’ll keep you all well apprised of my progress.

Although I’ve had the opportunity to go to FL in the past, I’ve resisted, because FL can be an amazing, inspiring dressage immersion, or it can be a sunny place to feel poor and inadequate.   Plus as I’m not taking my entire barn south, I’ve needed the right people in the right places at home.  Now I do.  I have a solid stable manager in Carly, who I trust completely with the care of not only the horses but their humans.  I have newly-minted L grad Kelsey who has matured into a lovely instructor and my eyes-on-the-ground at home.  Cheryle, who has helped keep my office stuff organized for years, has taken on additional responsibilities as well.  These women, just by being who they are and doing their jobs well, are providing the springboard to my dreams. 

This blog started out as an update-my-readers bit, so I could jump into my dressage story line where it is today, but as writing often does, it took its own path.  The more I write, the more my emotions turn to gratitude to my support system that has stayed with me to the other side of my rough year.  Shelley, Linda, and Wendy are amazing owners who have trusted me with their horses.  My trainers have been amazing to help me get as much education as possible around my nutty happenings.  My barn family, both staff and clients, have been there for me every step of the way, even when the steps were messy and confusing to them.  Because of all of you, my heart is full, and my future looks bright.