Training with Gunnar Ostergaard

After two weeks' training with Swedish national champion Gunnar Ostergaard, an amateur dressage rider has new insights on life and business as well as dressage.

Gunnar Ostergaard (right) urges Roseanna DeMaria not to overanalyze riding London but, instead, to feel what is happening. | © Kristina Meyhoff

If you dream of getting instruction from a rider whose work you’ve admired for years, you can imagine what it meant to me, dressage amateur and New York attorney Roseanna DeMaria, to spend two weeks in 2004 riding my Morgan stallion, London, with international dressage trainer Gunnar Ostergaard at Deerwood, his Vermont farm.

I came away with better understanding of, and communication with, my horse. My riding improved dramatically. Beyond that, however, the Deerwood experience showed me the connection between working with horses and the rest of life, including business. Here are the insights I brought away from my two weeks of intense training and observation.

Focus is either a derailer or the solution. Dressage requires the rider and horse to focus their combined efforts in a unified approach. This demands both physical skills and mental toughness. Not surprisingly, both life and business also require focused execution of goals. Focus can be either a solution or a derailer depending on the acumen of the performer. For example, London’s focus or lack thereof directly translates into the quality of his performance. In my case, as a rider when I focus to the exclusion of all else, my performance suffers because I am not integrating my focus skills with the feel necessary to perform. Therefore, I cannot communicate to London what he needs to do to deliver exceptional performance. Simply put, Focus + Feeling = Effective Communication.

Communication is a holistic skill. Effective communication is critical for execution whether in the dressage arena or in life. Without it there is no direction, connection or creativity. However, to be effective, communication must go beyond understanding the words and actions in isolation if we really want to understand who is saying what to whom. London and I were holding entire conversations with each other that neither of us heard. Some of those conversations were very “loud” but their impact was no different than silence because the volume deafened the content. To be complete and clear, communication must be understood on three levels–words, actions and intent. The Ostergaards demonstrated this in their EQ (emotional intelligence) approach to training through an open dialogue that incorporated nonverbal communication and understanding to create action. When these three facets are united, the message is complete and performance is enabled.

Priorities enable clarity. While focus and communication demand a comprehensive approach blending multiple skills for successful performance execution, priorities require choices. My tendency to overanalyze the issues and solve all of them simultaneously is a recipe for failure. The rider must make intelligent choices in training and in competition. These choices include a myriad of issues all contributing to performance. Correct prioritization ensures success because focus and communication can then be launched on each priority in a systematic way.

Leadership boundaries. In their simplest form the boundaries Theresa Oliver (the Ostergaards’ working student) set for London regarding physical space were critical in defining their relationship. These perimeters built a relationship of respect where meaningful focus and communication can then begin. Leadership always requires a definition of the relationship whether in our business or personal lives in order to initiate performance.

Mistakes are necessary for development and growth. Great performance is necessary for outstanding results. Neither happens naturally, and they are not static. Once greatness is achieved, development begins all over again. In sum, both require a serious commitment to continuous improvement to get to the next level of greatness. Inherent in this commitment is an acceptance that intelligent mistakes will be made in pushing the limits of performance to get to the next level. Mistakes are part of the learning process. Welcome them as learning tools. Compartmentalize the negative aspect of the mistake and build upon the mistake to grow.

Excellence requires joy. There are two kinds of performance. The first is a mechanical performance following instructions without any individual empowerment. The second is inspired performance that is both accurate and innovative. The latter is driven by joy. It has energy, expression and individuality that unleash the true power of the individual’s abilities (or the horse’s). Joy doesn’t just happen. It must be felt from the inside out. It will be the fulcrum balancing focus, feeling and communication. Without it excellence is beyond reach.

For a day-by-day account of how Gunnar and his staff worked with Roseanna and London, read Roseanna’s story “Training With the Ostergaards” in the February 2006 issue of Practical Horseman magazine. Roseanna DeMaria is the managing director of the DeMaria Group, a performance and development consulting firm in New York City.