Is your horse a different person under-saddle?
Maybe tacking up is all good, but once you are ready to mount, he dances around a bit. But you’re athletic enough to grab on and swing a leg over, pulling on the reins to slow him down. Oh well, then his head comes up, but you’re no pansy. Sure, his trot is jolting and his neck counter-bent, but you can ride him through it. So he’s trotting hollow but you can just pull down and back on the reins to fix it. Now he’s braced as much as you are and the trot is really rough. It’s so uncomfortable to ride, that you move him to the canter. After all, you’re a committed rider, just push through it. And then, because it’s your intention to progress in your riding and not be at Training Level forever, you try a shoulder-in by pulling the inside rein and twisting him to a tense, hoof-dragging crawl. And maybe 45 minutes later, you get a bit of softness. Partly because you are exhausted and fighting less, and he’s taking the cue. You cool him out, give him lots of treats, and the next ride starts the same way.
Maybe you don’t notice you’re being adversarial at all. Maybe this kind of riding feels normal or even necessary to you. You know you’re being rougher than you want to be, but your particular horse requires it. It’s just who he is. You’re wrong. Maybe a trainer has told you that there is some dominance fight that you have to win by force, so your horse will respect you. Or some non-sense about not releasing until your horse does. (I am about to be very un-popular.) But they’re wrong, too.
You can’t reprimand a horse into happy work anymore than a man can dominate a woman into love. Fear doesn’t inspire horses any more than it does us. If a horse’s walk is tense and not rhythmic, that isn’t going to improve much at the trot. And if the trot is tense and hollow, then to be honest, his intimidated canter will be painful for all involved.
But it’s still the New Year and no better time to go back to basics to peel back another layer of understanding. When you see a more advanced rider it just means they have gone back to the beginning more times than you. Not so glamorous when you look at it that way, but nothing else about riding is glamorous, so here we are… all of us at the beginning together. Let’s walk.
Dressage training is built on a foundation that says–first and always–a horse must be relaxed and forward. That is square one; as true for Intro Level as Grand Prix. The small print says that we may not sacrifice forward movement for relaxation, and even more challenging, we may not sacrifice supple relaxation for forward movement. This is why Dressage judges have as many words for hollow and tense as Eskimos do for snow.
Reminder: We don’t actually ride this way to please judges. We do it for the well-being of the horse. This foundation is my favorite thing about Dressage. It’s a simple, and not at all easy, path to partnership if we persevere and listen. We can’t make a horse relax with a cue like a down-stay. Training relaxation requires a relationship where the language is more evolved than “Me–Tarzan, You–Jane.” This is where I remind you that riding is an art.
After this seemingly airy-fairy chat, do you want some practical advice? There is nothing more important than a good warm-up. It sets the tone for the ride. If you are riding a young, sound horse, it takes 20 minutes for the synovial fluid to warm in his joints and be ready for work. Give your horse time. By the way, your joint fluid isn’t any faster. Find a perfect recipe for warm-up (HERE!)
The secret to success with a horse is not mystical, it’s fundamental. How your horse is moving is always more important than what he is actually doing. It can take a long time to understand this. Riders want race ahead to the party tricks: flying changes or lateral work or piaffe. Those movements require an even more artful balance of relaxed and forward, with a profound and practical embrace of the fundamentals.
In other words, go slow. It’s like a pass/fail test. If your horse is tense, everything lacks rhythm and is a fight. But with the freedom of forward movement, balanced with relaxation, training anything gets easy and puts both of you on the same side. The miracle of Dressage is that to do it correctly, we have to evolve beyond domineering control. Ta-da, partners!
A horrible generalization: I sometimes think that the reason women compete so successfully in dressage is that we partner with horses naturally, partly because we share an understanding of the down-side of dominance. We don’t enjoy being told what to do either. Just an observation.
Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.
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