The Next Level

It’s been an interesting competition season for my Dutch gelding Rico and I. After sitting out most of last year while he recovered from a severely bruised suspensory (that he injured while walking out of the barn in the morning – I can’t make this stuff up), we set the goal of qualifying for the USDF Region 2 Championships at Prix St. George and hopefully earning scores toward the USDF Dressage Finals in Kentucky this November. After that, I intended to move us up to Intermediate I as part of a longtime goal to earn my USDF Gold Medal. We’ve competed at Prix St. George since 2013 (which is also when I earned my USDF Silver Medal) so even with the blip last season for the injury, everything indicated that the goals I set were reasonable.

But this is horse showing, remember. Horses learn about our goals and laugh.

Loudly.

Going up to the FEI level has been a similar challenge to the one I faced when going from high school to college.
Going up to the FEI level has been a similar challenge to the one I faced going from high school to college.

To say that we’ve struggled in front of the judges this season is the most accurate statement I can make about our recent performances. We’ve eked our way to Regional qualification (so there’s one goal met) but have by no means excelled. And it hasn’t just been one thing that we’ve struggled at – one weekend we can’t make canter pirouettes that don’t look labored and the next weekend the pirouettes are okay but we don’t carry the balance and throughness to the tempi changes. One test has great walk pirouettes and the next sees them marked down two points for being over-large or stalled. In fact, the only thing we’ve consistently scored well on is our opening centerline and halt – which would be fantastic if things didn’t tend to go to pieces immediately afterward.

When I mentioned my frustration to my longtime coach and mentor, she nodded thoughtfully and then put everything into perspective for me (as she tends to do). And if you’re a freshmen heading to college for the first time very soon, I think her insights will be valuable for you as well.

She told me:

“You’re playing this sport at the next level now, which means the expectations are higher and mistakes are less easily forgiven. Your problem isn’t with your horse or your riding – you’re experiencing culture shock now that you’ve made the transition. It’s time to step everything up and play the game at your new level.”

She’s right, of course. (She always is.) Back in 2013, I went from scoring 65 to 68 percent at Fourth Level (a level that is written in a way that makes it technically more difficult than the Prix St. George) to hovering around the 60 percent mark now that we’ve gone up to FEI. Sitting out 2014 while Rico healed didn’t help us gain any mileage either so this season was our first “real” year at FEI level – and it’s been rough. There are no rest periods in the Prix St. George test; there’s no chance to regroup between movements like there is at Fourth Level – it’s all movement, set up the next movement, movement, set up the next movement.

My coach is right: We’re playing in the big leagues now.

Making the move from high school to college is much the same. Instead of teachers who have known you since ninth grade (or even before), you move on to professors don’t know that you were considered the best writer in your class or that you were a math whiz and calculus tutor; you’re a blank slate to them. As a result, the set of expectations now upon you are higher than any you may have experienced previously. After all, you applied to college and were accepted – perhaps you were even offered a generous merit scholarship based on the strength of your high school performance – and, as such, faculty know that you’re capable of doing the work they will ask of you. College is your education at the next level and it’s the job of the faculty to steer you outside of your previous comfort zone in order to take you there.

Talk about pressure.

I’ll be the first to admit that making the leap is hard. In the wake of Rico and my own growing pains this summer and after hearing my coach’s assessment of them, I thought back to the first paper I turned in as a college freshman (and the not-so-impressive grade that accompanied it). I was a student who was fully prepared for college – a near-perfect GPA, strong scores on the ACT, academic curiosity, and – yes – I was viewed as the strongest writer in my senior class. Naturally, the unexpectedly low number written in the top margin of my much-fussed-over paper came as a shock and led to a serious period of self-doubt:

I knew it; the admission office made a mistake. I’m not cut out for this!

I’m going to be the least successful college freshman in the history of the world!

I obviously have no idea what I’m doing.

But when the pity party ended and I came back to my senses, I realized that I would have to make changes if I wanted to avoid low grades in future. The truth is, high school was fairly easy for me (not counting math – my mortal enemy) so I hadn’t needed to buckle down and develop the sort of strong study habits I required of myself at the college level. But the time had come and I needed to up my game if I was going to succeed. (That I graduated summa cum laude after four years should be enough to tell you that I figured it out in the end – but I’ll be the last one to say it was easy.)

Meanwhile, for Rico and I, the last few weeks have been pretty much like those first few weeks of college were for me – we’ve learned how to train like an FEI pair instead of a low level pair with FEI aspirations, which is the dressage equivalent of having made the leap from high school to college. We’ve fully accepted the new level of expectations before us – and so far, it’s been a success. No judges have assessed us yet (that comes this weekend) but in training at least, the movements are hanging together better and I don’t feel like everything comes at me all at once. Rico feels more confident in what I’m asking and, right around the time he decided that three tempi changes are for wimps and two tempi changes are where it’s at, my coach and I decided the best course of action would be to skip Regionals and Nationals this year and focus our training on the Intermediate 1 for 2016.

After all, we’ve successfully left the lower levels behind us and have learned to be an upper level pair. Why not take the next step on the journey and build on what we’re already doing?

(Need help to find a college for your next level of education? Contact me or pick up a copy of my book.)

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