Riding Horses and the Art of Letting Go of Being Perfect
Riding horses and letting go of being perfect is an oxymoron. And yet, I traveled from Florida all the way across the pond to the UK to learn how to do just that. I had to let go of the need to be perfect in order to learn how to ride (and live) in peak performance.
Spending a few weeks training at the Yorkshire Riding Centre in Northern England was a default decision. My other option during that hot June was to hang out at an old farm house in the south of France, where Paul was traveling to transform an old wine vineyard into a golf course.
I know most people would have probably gone with the romantic south of France thing, but I had Paul walk me through the trip and I just couldn’t see how I was going to survive that great “opportunity” with him. It went something like this:
“So, it’s somewhere in the south of France?” I asked, hoping for some enticing details that would inspire me to join him.
“Yeah,” he replied.
“Where would we stay?” I asked. (Oh please, I moaned to myself. You’re not going make me work for this whole conversation are you?)
“In the old, stone farmhouse on the property where I stayed before,” he answered.
“Alone?” I already knew the answer to this question. Paul was never alone. Even if the owners of the farmhouse weren’t going to be there, I knew that after work, Paul would be inviting all the guys he worked with on the golf project back to the house for dinner and companionship. That was Paul.
It seemed every day and every night had to be a big social event. The more the merrier. We were rarely alone. That was the part I hated the most about traveling with Paul while he was working. Actually, it was the most challenging part about living at our own home when he was not working! It was never just our home; it was everyone’s home! Some people adopt stray animals. Paul adopted human beings!
Mind you, it’s not that I didn’t like any of these young men that he worked with, or any of his wonderful friends (who also showed up with their girlfriends), for that matter. They were all great, but it didn’t exactly make for a romantic trip when we were traveling.
But back to the “great opportunity to travel to the south of France.” Basically, I would sit around all day with nothing to do, waiting for him to come home, and then he would arrive with a bunch of guys who were tired and filthy and starving. So, they would cook up a big meal, take showers and turn on the sport’s channel or reruns of the Three Stooges on T.V. You know, guy stuff. Woop-de-doo.
Yeah, just my idea of a good time! I hated flying “across the pond” anyway. It was the oil on the fire of my claustrophobia and my efforts to recover from anorexia. I just couldn’t stand to be trapped like that. (Where would I exercise off all my meals? Walking up and down the aisles of the airplane?) Even first class was nothing but drinks, lousy food and a little less cramped than the steerage in the back! I would have to have a better enticement than that.
“No,” Paul continued, “the property’s caretakers live in the farmhouse and they’re fabulous cooks! Here, check out the photo of this old, industrial size kitchen in this old house. Isn’t that cool? He and his wife cook us all up these unbelievable French meals every evening, with homemade fresh bread. And unbelievable desserts!”
Yikes! My alarm was blaring in my head! Did he forget he was talking to an anorexic that couldn’t even be in the same room with white flour carbohydrates and sugar?
I was going to be locked up in a farmhouse with fresh bread and pastries baking all day long? He wanted me to get excited about a kitchen with industrial size ovens when I hate cooking?
How was I going to keep losing weight in an environment like that?
“Well, what about during the day? I mean, what would I do during the day while you all were at work?” I asked, wondering if the property was within walking distance of a local town with perhaps some nice antique shops to browse around. Anything to get away from the intoxicating aromas of French food cooking all day long; not to mention the fact that we would be surrounded by an old vineyard, and wine had been my other addiction. What was he thinking?
“No, nothing really. It’s quite a drive to the nearest town. Have you ever driven on the left-hand side of the road? Maybe someone would let you drive their car … but it is hours away, and there’s not much in the town. No shops really. Maybe you could bring a book to read?” he suggested with a smirk. Then he started to beg. “Why don’t you come? You would really love the caretakers and the property is really beautiful. I would love to show it to you.”
So, that was how I ended up at the opposite end of Europe, at the fabulous, infamous Yorkshire Riding Centre. Paul and I flew into London together, he took off on another plane to France and I rented a car and drove, on the left-hand side of the road, all the way up along the gorgeous countryside of England, almost up as far north as Scotland.
Our plans were that when he was done working on the golf course, he would then circle back London, drive up to Yorkshire to pick me up, and then we would drive back down to London together and fly back to the states.
I had hoped that maybe we could at least share some beautiful scenery, and stop and browse some antique stores, on our long drive back down to London (hey, we had just bought a new farm in Virginia. I had an entire equestrian estate to furnish!).
Finally free of alcohol and drugs, I was much better able to really enjoy driving a car up through the gorgeous countryside of northern England. That being said, I was driving to my other addiction of choice which was riding horses. And to be really honest, I was also playing around with not eating since I knew I knew I wouldn’t be tempted by the lousy British food.
The Yorkshire Riding Centre was the ultimate in everything there was to do with horses and more. First of all, it was operated by England’s Olympic riders, Jane Bartle and her brother Christopher. Since England was THE quintessential nation of horse lovers, the Bartles were the equivalent of Hollywood stars in our country.
Equestrians of all the various disciplines of English riding come to the famous family’s equestrian centre to train in their sport. Most of them arrived with their horses, having shipped them in, sometimes by boat and sometimes by plane, from all over Europe.
Because the Bartles were known for their own Olympic accomplishments in Dressage and three day eventing, their thirty- acre equestrian centre featured a cross-country course over picturesque rolling hills, 2 Olympic size outdoor rings with show jumps and two indoor rings; one with mirrors to school horses and the other with a set of show jumps. Both indoor rings had stadium seating surrounding the arenas. They had instructors that covered all disciplines of English riding.
I wasn’t there to work on jumping over obstacles. Well, not the solid, wooden ones anyway. But I did have other obstacles to jump over. My goal was to focus on my seat. In the equestrian world, that means riding deep into my saddle for the goal of connecting to the horse through the different areas of my seat; backbone, pelvic bone, crotch area and then down along the upper part of my thighs.
According to my riding instructor back at The Palm Beach International Equestrian Center in Wellington, Florida, I was somehow just not connecting to my “partner.” My horse and I looked like two different entities, with two different agendas, each trying to control the other. One as stubborn and the next! That was my personal obstacle, with horses as well as humans!
Yup, that was my theme with all my relationships; connection (attachment) and control issues. It was a constant battle of who was going to be the domineering one and who was going to surrender. (Who was the Marine and who was the new recruit in boot camp!)
Mind you, the fact that even the brute force of a human being can’t control a 1,200-pound animal did not keep me from continuing to try that method! (What part of a 1,200 pound, solid muscled animal did I not get?) Letting go of control just wasn’t my thing.
Somehow there was this thin wall, or separation, between me and my horse and therefore we were not communicating with our bodies as well as we could have. (Again, the walls in my life!) We were able to get around the show ring and get over the obstacles without knocking them down or killing each other, but it simply wasn’t a smooth or pretty sight.
Supposedly, I was either holding back or blocking the horse’s movement (being too passive) or I was too aggressively forcing my will and obstructing his movement.
Where had I heard that before? Oh yeah, in couples therapy!
I told my trainer in Wellington that the whole problem was my horse, not me. But then she pointed out that my having bought a new, expensive show horse (a completely differently breed, mind you), still hadn’t fixed “the problem.”
I was running out of horses to blame. And before my mind started going down that old familiar road called, “I-just-need-a-new trainer,” she somehow enticed me into considering that maybe, just perhaps, “the problem” was me!
Yorkshire Riding Centre was “presented” as something fun and new to try. If nothing else, trying dressage was definitely going to be a pattern interrupt from jumping horses!
Actually, I learned a massive amount about my riding and my partnership with horses, but I learned even more about myself. I can’t remember the trainer’s exact words all those years ago, but it went something like this.
“Ok, Nancy, now that I’ve watched you ride for a few minutes, I think I see where the problem is,” the dressage instructor said on my first day at YRC as I pulled up on my horse next to her. I braced myself. Unfortunately, I couldn’t stand criticism, and any helpful suggestions about correcting anything was perceived as criticism back in those days.
Despite my resistance, criticism had always been successful at kidnapping and dragging me down a dark path of feeling self-destructive. I just had such a difficult time perceiving criticism as anything positive, because my emotions immediately felt it as negative.
“I see that you seem stiff (as a board, I might add). Your legs are gripping the horse’s sides like a vice and you are therefore bouncing around on your seat and the horse’s back. You are not soft and flexible anywhere in your body (or in my mind, I might add!) and therefore you are not moving with your horse.
“We need to show you how to relax, to let go and to become more supple. The word we will focus on for the next few days is looseness. Looseness is everything in riding. If you don’t have that, you don’t have a good foundation, and everything built on top of that will not be solid and strong. This only works if you are loose,” she began.
“The first step in your relationship with your horse is that you must trust each other. (There’s another issue for me!) Then you need to let go of your ‘death grip’ of looking the picture perfect ‘stiff’ part. Take deep breaths in rhythm with the horse’s movements and just relax. By doing so, your horse will relax as well. You will both be better able to move with each other, and you will be able to give the horse clear, distinct messages with your body of what you want him to do.”
Wait, you mean you want me to break my lifelong habit of giving others mixed messages?
You want me to give up my best friend and commit to just one message?
“Remember, horses are extremely sensitive physically, so your movements must be very subtle. Do not overreact! Don’t try to beat him into submission, Nancy, he’s stronger than you! Use your mind, listen to your senses, use your body signals and finesse the horse into doing what you want him to do. Learn how to work with him in unison instead.
“You want to softly and gently lead him into becoming a great team with you. To achieve that, you must become relaxed and light. To become light on top of him, you need to become more flexible with your body, especially in your joints. Let your ankles absorb your weight.
“All he can feel right now is the uncomfortable bouncing from your stiff, rigid weight, which is throwing him off balance. Besides, you can’t listen to and feel each other with all that distraction going on. Forget what you learned about looking perfect with your perfect hunter seat equitation. You’re not in front of judges today; you are alone with your horse. It’s just the two of you. Let go of your concern for what you look like! Forget that I am here.
“All I care about today is that you learn to let go. Let go of being rigid, let go of the distractions inside your head, and focus on your horse. Focus on relaxing. Become present with your horse so you can really listen to his movements. And then become supple and move with his movements and rhythm. Periodically, close your eyes for a few strides. Feel it. I want you and your horse to meld into one!”
OK, I was not trusting of my horse’s judgment and yet I wasn’t being an assertive leader, either; I was being an aggressive bully. It seemed I was trying too hard to look perfect, focused more on the expensive riding attire and trying to look the part. Meanwhile, I was sacrificing the beauty and the truly rewarding experience of being a well-trained rider able to utilize subtle grace and a flexible, mutual, give-and-take approach in her working equine partnership.
I thought I could fake it, but evidently it was obvious to every equestrian out there watching me perform in the show ring, and it was the reason I wasn’t winning any ribbons. It was also the reason why the riding wasn’t as pleasurable as it could have been. (You mean the experience can be more fun and rewarding than this? OK, I am game! I am willing to be open and to check out that possibility.)
Dressed in perfect clothes and riding perfect horses, with a seemingly picture-perfect-posture, wasn’t hiding anything.
The inside was still reflected on the outside!
Hmm, “something to think about,” as my peak performance trainer, Tony Robbins, would say!
And so that was what I was trying to achieve with the Olympic dressage teachers in northern England. I had gone to learn how to ride better, and yet I left having learned how to gracefully dance with a partner. What I soon discovered was the incredible lightness that I needed to achieve was exactly like the transformation that the author Susan Jeffers, Ph.D., had shared in her interview with me years later on my radio show, “Triumphs of the Human Spirit.”
Susan Jeffers, who wrote Dare to Connect, and Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway®, said when you take off your defensive, stiff demeanor and masks (of who you think you’re supposed to be), you become authentic and very light.
The lightness I was trying to achieve from not eating could have been better achieved by just learning how to let go of (or unload) the past, to let go of my need to look perfect and to loosen up and relax my body; without the alcohol and drugs!
Becoming loose and relaxed without alcohol and drugs was my personal Mt. Everest that I had to start learning how to climb. Evidently, stiff, defensive, stubborn, quick to anger, scared, inflexible and controlling, or obsessed with how I looked to others and looking “perfect,” was not the best recipe for dancing with a partner.
It seems newly recovering addicts, complicated by childhood abuse and Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, are just not fun people to be around! (Who would have guessed that piece of little-known, earth shattering news?) Dancing with horses was about going beyond survival. It was about learning how to enjoy living with the relationships we have with both ourselves and others.
After two weeks of living and training at the fabulous, historic equestrian facilities at the Yorkshire Riding Centre, I was a completely different rider. Now soft and supple, relaxed and light, I was learning an important quality-of-life-enhancing skill called “being able to bend,” and the relationship booster called “the power of give and take.” Not to mention the leadership skills of being able to influence others rather than controlling them.
Yup, I was learning a new concept in my sobriety with alcoholism and my eating disorder called “go with the flow.” It was a mental space I had previously only been able to achieve with the help of plenty of flowing alcohol!
I came home more confidant in my ability to really connect with horses and to form a powerful, symbiotic working relationship with a 1,200-pound animal. Having learned the fine art of dancing with horses, I flew home to the states with many new insights.
For one thing, the reason “dancing with horses” was so pleasurable, easy, fluid and fun was because I was riding well-trained dressage horses; bred to be smooth, rhythmic, springy and light on their feet. They are trained to anticipate where you were going just by listening to your thoughts. With just the most subtle amount of pressure, the shifting of your weight or a slight movement of your eyes, these horses were trained to instantly respond almost before you asked them to.
If you but held a thought or intention in your mind, it seemed as if they could read your mind. (Great training for being careful about what you think!)
What I also learned about the unbelievable grace, beauty and fun of dancing with these dressage horses is that it takes two willing partners to make a successful team.
Back in Wellington, Florida
When I returned home to Wellington, my jumping equestrian friends looked at me like I had been crazy to fly all the way over there to spend the entire two weeks learning dressage; how boring was that, compared to jumping! And there was a time when I looked at dressage with the same disbelief that people could actually spend hours a day getting their horses to walk sideways while lifting their feet in time to some music.
However, our mistake had been that we had been trying to imagine doing that with our Thoroughbred jumpers, who were not highly trained to dance. And quite frankly, it would have been years of exhausting training to try to get them to perform like that … if it ever happened. Our thoroughbred horses were bred for speed, for going forward over obstacles, not for standing in one place and performing exquisite, precise, and complicated dance movements like a pirouette!
I am not saying you couldn’t, with a tremendous amount of work, get another type of horse to train and perform like a horse that has been bred to be a dressage horse. However, some are more suited to that skill than others.
So basically, the lesson learned here (which can be applied to life) was that you needed to know what you wanted to do (jump, race or dance with a horse) and where you wanted to go (trail riding or all the way to the Olympics.) And then you needed to find a partner with the same ability, willingness, and mindset to want to start and finish that dance with you.
If you let go of the distracting background noise and chatter in your head, as well as the expectations from your herd and society altogether … if you let go of trying to control others and to be perfect, and instead relax and listen, you can feel when it works and flows and you can feel when it does not.
It may be that you need to find another horse in order to find the right partner, or it may be that you need to learn to let go to become the right partner.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Nancy Dye is an equestrian breakthrough mindset coach and resilience trainer helping people to transform the quality of their lifestyles.
Nancy is certified as a strategic interventionist by the official coach training school of Tony Robbins and has over 30 years as a change agent; shifting people into peak performance.
Nancy specializes in solving the puzzle of why people are not performing at their best and customizing the right strategy for “jumping over” adversity. She handles all areas of a rider’s lifestyle to include relationships, career, addictions, weight loss, health and transitioning through life stages.
With a past career in corporate sales and as a luxury lifestyle Realtor, Nancy has been coached by some the top sales trainers in the corporate world, as well as by some of the most elite coaches in the world of sports. Nancy redesigns the inner lives of athletes, executives, celebrities, entrepreneurs, and elite military and veterans.
Nancy is married to Jack Miles, a former Olympian gymnast who is inducted into four athletic Hall of Fames. For one-on-one coaching or information on her workshops or riding clinics, Nancy can be reached at NancyDyeResults@gmail.com.