Riding is training. Whenever you are sitting on your horse, your friend’s horse or that string trail horse on vacation you are training him. The effects might be small or large, consistent with what has already been taught or something completely new. There is no such thing as a dressage rider. There are only trainers.
Why may one person climb onto a horse’s back and have him galloping round the ring while another can barely trot? Some people might say it is because of strength – the rider with the electric seat is just muscled and the other all flab. I disagree. Why can one rider canter a horse well on the right lead and poorly on the left? Why can another rider get on the horse and do the opposite? Why are some people talented at organizing the trot but fall apart at the walk or canter? Why can one rider bring out a horse’s best passage but consistently struggle with the piaffe? As riders we all put our print onto our horse. Our weaknesses will become their weaknesses. That is the nature of training.
We teach our horses our personal pattern of strengths and weaknesses every time we ride, a little at a time. Take the example of a two dancers floating around a ballroom – most likely you are picturing a couple of professional quality. They seem to move effortlessly, in tandem and with grace. They make it look easy but in reality there is a constant, gentle flow of physical communication moving from the lead dancer to his partner indicating to her where to turn, how much and what movement is upcoming. She must be trained in the movements to know the meaning in each changing touch and strong enough execute them in a controlled manner. He must be stable enough in his body to then receive her at the end of each movement and balance her for the next. The responsibilities strongly parallel that of our roles as horse and rider in dressage. The rider is the lead dancer and the horse follows. These professional dancers are the ideal, but now imagine if the lead lost balance every time he lowered his partner into a dip and had to grab onto her hair to keep himself from falling. It would probably take only two or three times of this before she protested loudly against that movement. Thankfully for humans horses are much more forgiving or else there would be many more butts in the dirt.
The most common issue I see as a trainer is the use of the horses mouth either as a balance bar or as a hand brake that is constantly applied. This is understandable and let’s address two common reasons. Reason one: the rider – let’s name her Annie – has come into horses later in life and has a healthy sense of just how big they are. She does not want to lose control because falling off is a very bad thing. Therefore everytime she asks the horse – let’s name him Dobbin – to ‘go’ there is a little (or lot) of ‘stop’ in the aid as well. This simultaneous command confuses Dobbin and he will respond with a lukewarm transition at best, which in her heart of hearts is what Annie is comfortable with, despite the red-faced instructor who is shouting at her from the sidelines. Reason number two is a bit more complex: let’s pretend that now Annie has much more confidence but has still come into riding later in life. Her seat is not developed but when that instructor tells her to go, by god she is going to go! So she kicks Dobbin and he, being a willing sort, canters forward. The problem is Annie does not have the seat to go with him. Dobbin literally canters out from under her and leaves her behind. So as the transition begins Annie grabs the reins to prevent being left behind which then pulls his mouth and slows him back down. Now lets move forward in time to a couple of months later. Metaphorically Annie has now grabbed her dance partner’s hair as she begins to dip him a few hundred times. Dobbin is no longer moving forward as he once did and Annie is wondering what happened to that wonderful horse that she bought a few months ago. Annie is sweating her butt off now and looks like a tomato after every ride. Dressage completely wipes her out! She needs a nap after every ride! She looks at her instructor who is riding seven horses a day and thinks, “She must be the fittest, strongest human being who ever walked the earth. I will never be able to get that strong. THAT is the reason my instructor is able to ride my horse so well – because she is an iron woman!” So now, in Annie’s quest to find a reason behind it all, she has created a self-limiting excuse for herself. Here we are, gentle reader, at the bottom of the quagmire. Though this might not be your particular pattern, you most likely have found yourself at the bottom of a very similar situation, whether it be not being able to pick up one canter lead, not being able to keep your horse in a frame or just finding that your Dobbin has given you the middle hoof altogether.
Now I am going to write something and I want you to read it carefully. Dressage is basics. No, do not scan this and move on. I am going to write it again to force you to read it again. Dressage is basics. The movements in dressage are a test of your handle on the basics. Dressage tests begin with stop, go, left and right. Introductory Level A, the first test in the series, does not even require canter. It is the most rudimentary quiery into your knowledge. And then the tests slowly begin layering one question after another onto your knowledge base. Can you canter? Can you lengthen the strides at canter and trot? Can you perform a ten meter half circle at trot? What about a ten meter full circle? Can you leg yield? These questions continue into the final level of dressage – the Grand Prix. Can you execute a full pirouette? Can you passage to piaffe to passage? Can you perform eleven one tempis? All of these questions test the quality of your basics – the balance of your horse, his strength, his responsiveness, his suppleness and submission. Notice all tests require you to do each movement each direction – this is a test of the strength and balance of not only the nose to tail balance of your horse but also the right-left/left-right balance. And YOU are the trainer of these basics: stop, go, left, right at walk, trot and canter in balance from front, back, left and right. THAT is dressage. Now I write it in that manner because for many patience is fleeting, but here is the true beauty of dressage – as you learn and subtle communication is borne between you and your horse, turning him with just your seat at the posting trot on a circle can be a truly joyous experience. Please remember this as you ride. The goal is not the movement. The goal is learning the language of riding and building a vocabulary with your horse.
If you enjoyed reading this, you might also enjoy Adult Amateur Dressage Shame.