Believe me when I say that I like to be in control.

Those who know me well enough to keep their mouths shut might describe me in less generous terms. I like to be in charge, I like to know what’s next, and I most certainly don’t like surprises.

So when I began riding horses at (ahem) a later age in life, I found myself in a bit of a conundrum. When boosted up onto a large, flighty, sometimes unpredictable animal, my control instincts went into overdrive. I think this is why dressage appeals to female riders my age: there are rules to be followed. Tests. Timelines. Clear measurements of success. It was created by the Germans, for goodness sake.

In fact, I think the first commandment of dressage is, “There shall be no wild galloping of horses.” A cowboy friend (aka a wild galloper of horses) gleefully described us dressage riders as “micromanaging, tight-assed control freaks,” or something along those lines.

And indeed, I wanted to micromanage movement: both mine and my horse’s. I wanted to control the speed and rhythm of the trot. Control the bend. Control his position. Control my position. Gimme control!

Riding felt like having 20 plates spinning in the air, and I couldn’t let one thing get away from me. It was a tense balancing act, and I was constantly on a wire. Needless to say, I also did not have very much fun.

Despite my best efforts to ruin riding for myself, I began to have brief “a-ha moments,” where I would feel like it was easy. There was a lightness and connection with my horse that felt unforced. I felt like I was flying. I loved that feeling and I began riding for it. I realized that I was going to have to get out of my horse’s way and let him move like a horse, adjusting myself to him.

I began to chant in my head: Relax. Breathe. Ride with your heart. Relax. Breathe. Ride with your heart.

There was an immediate change in his body language. He became less stiff and evasive. He was free to move and really began to open up for me. He began to listen to my legs and my body. And there was a change in me: I went from feeling like I was precariously perched on top of a 1200lb animal to feeling like we were one unit with one common movement.

Rather than trying to shove and wedge him through the doors I wanted him to go through (connection, bend, straightness, rhythm), I shifted my focus to opening doors for him. Rather than micromanaging 25 things I wanted of him, I made it easy: we’re just going to move together- forward and with fluidity.

It takes a lot of trust on my part to let go of the control. It requires confidence in him and his training, and a belief in myself and my instinct. It’s something I have to work on continuously. I remind myself that control is an illusion, a wisp. It’s like trying to hold onto a cloud.

Instead of closing down and holding tighter, I must open up: chest, heart, hips, mind. I have to hold everything a little looser.

Now as I ride, I’m quick to realize when I’m being drawn into battles. Instead of taking them all on, I know immediately to take a breath and bring the focus back to relaxing and opening doors: both to my heart and his.