Permission To Be Proud: A Step In My Battle With Imposter Syndrome

Jul 7, 2022 - 8:03 AM

Tonight, my horse Dixie was a little sassy to ride. It was hot out, so after our canter work, I gave her a walk break long enough to make sure she caught her breath and didn’t overheat. I think Dixie was convinced that the ride was over at that point, so when I gathered my reins back up to put her back together for some work in the collected trot, she was not pleased. She protested any sort of an outside rein half-halt; there was head-tossing, tail-swishing and a belligerent dullness to my leg.

I pushed her forward and set to work figuring it out. I incorporated some leg yield away from the wall to activate the outside hind leg and increase my access to the outside rein, then changed the bend to a 10-meter circle and pushed her to outside rein contact I’d established in the leg yield. I alternated between shoulder-in and renvers, both on the wall and the quarter line. I added in some transitions within the trot, from collected to working to medium to collected. I made sure to give with both hands whenever possible to maintain the reach and to ensure Dixie didn’t feel trapped anywhere. Within a few minutes of this kind of work, we’d accessed a better quality collected trot than I’ve ever been able to produce with her. On that note, we called it a day, and she got a nice liniment bath and a banana for her efforts.

Dixie Rose story
Laura Adriaanse has been working to combat imposter syndrome when it comes to her riding. Lillian Kager Photo

On my drive home from the barn, I felt a pang of pride in how I had handled the situation. I had stayed completely level-headed (not traditionally a strength of mine in the face of adversity) and had scrolled through my mental Rolodex to quickly produce exercises to remedy the situation at hand. I actively improved the roadblock I had encountered.

But just as quickly as this proud feeling set in, I found myself trying to find ways to discount my success. This is common for me—it is incredibly easy for me to criticize myself and own my failures, yet incredibly difficult for me to admit I did something right. But this time, I couldn’t really find a way to knock myself down a peg or to attribute the success to someone or something else. I have worked really hard to improve my knowledge and my riding ability, and tonight, I forced myself to accept that fact and let myself feel pride in how I handled the situation in the saddle.

I have been pretty open about my battle with imposter syndrome. I have always held a deep-seated belief that success always comes to me because of luck or external forces or some other factor I don’t control. I earned my USDF bronze medal in 2017, but I never believed I deserved it; the two horses I earned the six required scores on at first, second and third levels were more experienced than I was and were showing me the ropes. I used to joke (though I was actually being pretty serious) that they earned the medal for me despite my riding, not because of it. Any time dressage tests go well for me, I give every bit of credit to my horse, but when they go poorly, it’s 100 percent my fault.

It’s an unhealthy mindset. If a friend told me they thought this way, I would point out that it takes two to tango in riding, and they absolutely played a pivotal role in any accomplishment. Horses do not perform dressage tests in the field during turnout. They do not automatically become round when a rider sits on them, and they do not independently perform movements without guidance from their rider. It is a partnership in which each participant deserves credit. Somehow it has not been as easy to grant myself this type of grace.

I think imposter syndrome, at least for me, stems from a fear of non-constructive criticism or unkind judgment. It hurts when someone points out shortcomings in my riding or makes fun of me behind my back (speaking from experience). I have always figured that if I am the first to criticize my performance vocally and exhaustively, no one can say anything about me that I haven’t already said about myself. At its root, maybe it’s a protective mechanism, but it’s also a slippery slope that has translated to me truly believing I am not capable or worthy of success.

It has been an arduous journey for me to change this way of thinking. Honestly, even writing this blog feels a bit self-indulgent. But I don’t think I am alone in my imposter syndrome, and I think it’s a topic that gets some high-level mention, but it is not often delved into. If you are working hard at something and you achieve the goal you set, you deserve to be proud of yourself! You earned that success. Maybe you had help from a trainer, and maybe your horse is saintly, but you too are a part of the equation. You are entitled to pride in your accomplishments. I will keep repeating this mantra to myself. I think it’s already starting to work.

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