Confessions of a Recovering Perfectionist
The Lesson Journal of Judith Tarr


lesson 10 Lesson 12 lesson 14 lesson 15
lesson 16

Hello. My name is Judith and I'm a perfectionist.

You'll find people like me everywhere in the horse world. We're the ones spending years learning how to ride that perfect circle, execute that perfect rollback, create the perfect roundpen horse, run the perfect barrel pattern … you name the discipline, you'll find us there. Perfecting tiny details. Spinning and spinning in the same exacting place. Never getting anywhere because, of course, nobody and nothing is ever perfect. We are, in short, constipated by the need to be perfect.

For me, the drug of choice was dressage. I've always had grand dreams – not to compete or win medals, but to train my own horse to Grand Prix. I've ridden horses at that level and even beyond, I've taken many many many lessons and clinics, I ended up with Lipizzans because, you know, that bred for dressage thing? Four-and-a-half centuries ought to count for something.

I kept running into walls – trainers moving away, me moving away, horses injured or not quite up to it – until finally I had what I hoped would be the one: my very own, highly talented, totally devoted Lipizzan stallion. His registered name is Pluto Carrma III. We call him Pooka (because, if you look it up, he is). I bought him before he was born, foaled him out, raised him, trained him, started him. He was, and is, all mine.

I had the trainer, I thought; a clinician found us just when we were reaching the edge of what the trainer could do, and promised that they would teach us the one way, the right way, the perfect way. They said all the right words and made all the right assurances and even, for a while, seemed to be taking us in the right direction. There were what I thought were great discoveries and amazing bits of knowledge, and I was ever so excited – but I always felt like an idiot after clinics, and blamed myself when I couldn't duplicate the results or even come close to them. I wasn't perfect. I couldn't ever be perfect. It just wasn't going to happen.

Then one day I woke up to the fact that I wasn't riding my horse any more. He'd been handed over to the trainer. "Sit over there, dear, and let someone who knows what they're doing ride your horse." Because I couldn't be perfect, there was no hope of my ever being perfect, and he was such a wonderful horse with so much talent that he really, truly did deserve a more perfect rider.

When I could force myself to ride him (afraid to ride him above a walk because I might do something wrong), he was harder and harder to ride and could do less and less. The trainer could push him into what looked like a nice dressage frame, but the work didn't translate outside of training sessions. There was much focus on his asymmetrical neck – a birth accident had left him with an atlas that developed more on the left side than on the right, so he had a big bulge up there on one side and a hollow on the other, which led to his carrying his neck in an S-curve, throwing his right shoulder, and not liking to use his left hind. We had tried for a long time to equalize this, with much tweaking and positioning of the neck and head, and there had been some success – he could go straighter in the neck. Still, he wasn't free in the shoulders at all, and was becoming harder and harder to ride forward. As for bend or lateral work, forget it. Even the trainer wasn't getting much of that out of him.

So there we were. The harder we tried to be perfect, the less perfect we became. When I realized that I wasn't riding, or even wanting to ride, and when I did, I was terrified of making a mistake, I also realized that the "perfect" clinician had been enabling all my weaknesses and feeding my need to be perfect until there was nothing much left of me at all.

My horse, meanwhile, was sending up flares. They came across as, "Need help with balance. Need somebody who knows what's going on with that neck. Need to free up shoulders. Need HELP!"

  Happy Pooka

These journal entries are the story of how we got that help, and what came of it. We're still at it, and will be for a long time to come. I still get hung up on being perfect. He still gets convinced he can't use his body that way, he can't, he can't, he'll DIE!

And you know, what we're doing now? We don't call it dressage. It's just good riding and correct training. (Which of course is what dressage is.) Now we've stopped trying to do perfect dressage, we're doing more real dressage than we ever did – and we're doing it better.

But don't take it from me. Take it from my horse, whose body is changing all over in some rather dramatic ways, and whose mind and temper are notably improved. This is a happy horse. And that's what it's really about.


The Supporting Cast of Characters
Four photos from left courtesy Lynne Glazer



Khepera (Da Keed)
Four photos from left courtesy Lynne Glazer

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