Lessons Learned
Confessions of a Championship Rider

By Sandra Adair

I’m sure you’ve heard the saying “Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.” Well I am currently its poster child! Two years ago at Championships, Charisma and I were GAIG and SWDC Freestyle Champions and GAIG First Level Reserve Champions. Most of the next year was just a blur, with death, divorce and disease taking a heavy toll on my life and my riding. We started showing again this spring at Second Level and Second Level Freestyle. With scores to the mid-70’s, I was optimistic about Championships. The weather had cooled off and Charisma had been a total pleasure to ride. But then it got hot again. Plants started budding, and my mare came into “spring” heat. This is the cycle that makes you question the sanity of your decision to own a mare, and usually results in a vacation of sorts until it’s over. Although the staples in Charisma’s ears help her normal cycles, there was nothing that would calm the combination of blaring hormones and electric show nerves. We not only lost each of our four championship classes, we were dead last. If you were there, we were the ones doing airs above the ground in the middle our tests! No matter what I did, I couldn’t seem to improve our performance, and I was very discouraged. With a little introspection, however, I discovered just how much I had learned, and would like to share my insights with you.

We learn more from our failures than our successes. Many years ago when I started riding dressage, I rode in a clinic with Hans Bis. I couldn’t make a 20-meter circle to satisfy this German master to save my life, and I tried to slink away afterwards thinking I should never ride again. That night at the dinner party everyone shared their worst clinic experience. The encouragement was consistent: dressage is an art, it takes commitment and patient practice, and a willingness to look the fool getting it wrong until you figure out how to get it right. I reviewed my video, saw what Hans was trying to teach me, and went back to my riding with renewed vigor. I came back six months later to become the star of the clinic. I could do no wrong! Afterwards, though, I had another realization. As wonderful as the accolades were, I learned so much more from my ‘failed’ clinic than I did from my stardom! And so it was with these two very different championships. The great jackets, victory laps and memories from 2003 are priceless, but the fresh perspective on Charisma’s training, and the many new tools I discovered to assist me with it, were definitely worth the price of admission!

To ride or not to ride, is that even a question? Thursday morning Charisma felt like a pressure cooker about to explode. I babied her some, hoping she would settle down. Even though I rode a cautious and conservative test, Charisma still spooked and our score was a disappointing 55%. Thursday afternoon our warm-up was going so badly, that when my trainer, Lyndon Rife, asked “Do you want to know what I think you should do?” part of me was hoping he would say “Scratch.” No such luck. He suggested that instead of backing off as I had done that morning, that I stay with the program and go for brilliance! He encouraged me to ride better than I thought I could, and together we diligently worked through Charisma’s resistance for the next half hour. She entered the ring with the presence for which she was named, and we almost pulled off a winning ride. About two-thirds through her test she came apart and the 7’s went to 2’s! Even though our final score ended up the same as the first, the experience was vastly different! We didn’t accomplish a thing from our first approach except mediocrity. Like Julie Rife reminded me, for a training program to be effective, you have to be in it for the long haul, and make decisions based on what will get you where you want to go.

It’s important to celebrate all of our accomplishments. This year HDS, SWDC, and GAIG gave a fabulous tote bag to every rider to acknowledge their achievement at being there. After all, out of 1200 members in Region 9, less than 15% qualified and competed in this year’s Championships. As I remind my students, ribbons are wonderful, but the real rewards of showing come from what we learn beforehand, setting goals, refining our skills, and checking the accuracy of our training. The day of the show tests our abilities, of course, but the winner is the horse/rider team who has the best ride that particular day, for that particular judge. It’s hard to view the Championships as just another show, but we would probably all ride better and have more fun if we did! When I looked back at my tests, I realized I had actually accomplished a great deal. I got positive feedback from some very tough judges, who confirmed that the technical side of our training was correct. And though the late afternoon streaks of sunlight and shadows in the arena had Charisma snorting, and she was still too tense to earn a winning score, I was able to keep her obedient through our entire freestyle. We even did a lovely medium canter all the way up the centerline and halted BEFORE we ran into the judge’s stand! Since the show, I have seriously up leveled my own riding, and that of my students. Despite Charisma’s still being in heat this week, we had a very successful start on our flying changes, and did some amazing steps of piaffe!

The bottom line is more not less. During the course of the show, my friends and I discussed the pressure of competing at Championships, and how to find relaxation and harmony when performance anxiety is making it hard to breathe! Courtney Macdonald’s mom, Doris, wisely pointed out that the only way to get practice at this type of show is to do more of them! Since we do so much better in a quiet atmosphere, I have actually avoided the big shows, but no more taking the comfortable route. I’m committed to sticking with it, willing to look foolish, and I'm definitely in it for the long run. Besides, I’ve always read that it takes a rather hot horse to excel at Grand Prix!


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