Explaining Dressage: the small print.

First of all, the reason Dressage needs some explaining is that the there are some misconceptions about this riding discipline.

Some people think that Dressage is a hyper-correct, micro-managed, soul-killing, brain-numbing and sit-bone-driving sport with all the drama and thrill of curling. But with less cool outfits: (see Norwegian curling pants here). It kills me to admit it, but these boys do seem like thrill seekers, comparatively speaking.

Other people think that dressage is a bliss-ninny riding discipline that uses yoga breathing and astral projection to create just the perfect vibration of molecules when alternate calf muscles flex and release in rhythm the horse’s rib cage and then, if the horse is a Taurus and the rider is a Virgo, and the moon is waxing, and there are 4 ounces more weight in the outside sit bone, a light canter depart is inevitable.

And these differences of opinion come from inside the dressage world. Who knows what jumpers or ropers or trail riders think? There is something we like to say when we see people with an irrational fear of white breeches or a paranoia that we will put two bits in their horse’s mouth.

We make it simple: “Dressage is a french word that means training,” (see Small Print at Bottom of Page.) “-that’s all.” The rider exhales and is visibly relieved. How hard can that be? (*Muffled laughter*)

Dressage is a classical curriculum of training that encourages a horse become strong, supple, and responsive to cues. It begins with the horse and rider moving rhythmically in a relaxed, ground covering gait. I could write another 20,000 pages describing Dressage, but I will spare you that, if we can just assume good intention and go with this brief description.

I’m an equine professional, meaning that sometimes I train the horse and sometimes the rider, but my favorite is to train a horse/rider. More inclusive that way. When a rider hires me, they introduce themselves by telling me they have a great horse and then list his problems. He’s lazy, or spooky, or disobedient. Worst, sometimes people say their horse has gone about as far as he can, or they’ve outgrown their horse and have to move on.

Just an opinion, but unless you have a Shetland Pony and you just had a wild growth spurt between 8th and 9th grade, you haven’t outgrown anything. It is possible that you have reached the end of your training grasp. Listening with trainer’s ears to a horse’s problems usually says something about the rider, too.

Right now, your horse goes the way he does because that’s how you’re riding him. If you want him to improve, riding differently comes first. In other words, maybe you don’t outgrow him so much as you reach the top of your communication and riding skill. You don’t actually know if he can go farther or not, because you don’t know how to ask him to go farther. (Your horse is grateful to hear this part.)

(Small Print at Bottom of Page.) Yes, Dressage means training, but although we imply that it’s the horse who gets trained, strictly speaking, that is less than honest. Or maybe more precisely, it’s just not true. It’s the rider who gets trained.

If you are thinking that your horse isn’t up to the task this year, or that it’s time to find a partner with more skill, or even if you are thinking you want to start a new horse instead of finishing the one you have, please reconsider. The rub of ambition you feel could inspire a leap forward in your riding skill and perception. Maybe instead of asking what level your horse is, we should ask what level the rider is. And not just in dressage, but any riding discipline. I’ve seen some upper level trail horses, the riders were inspiring.

. . . I should like to remind every rider to look to himself for the fault whenever he has any difficulties with his horse.” Alois Podhajsky, of White Stallion fame, is blunt. Maybe the quick cut is less painful, but he’s right.

A student of the art of riding has to acquire enough good-natured humility to diffuse self-blame, while mustering the confidence to try again. Dressage riders see themselves as students of the horse forever. Several Dressage Masters have said old age was exciting because after decades in the saddle, they were finally starting to learn to ride.

If you’re thinking of investing this spring, maybe the investment in yourself will yield the best return. This is my advice: Hire a good trainer. This stuff is hard to learn from books and videos that don’t have eyes and can’t actually see what your horse/rider is doing. If it's truly is time for a different horse, all the more reason to invest in yourself as well.

The birds are coming back to Colorado and even if the snows aren’t done for the year, the time change happens this weekend. Us horse-crazy girls are as itchy as our shedding horses. Let’s pretend it’s Spring.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

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Comment by Anna Blake on March 7, 2014 at 11:34am


Comment by Darla McKean on March 7, 2014 at 11:31am

A horse  twitching from a fly landing on him tells us that even a suttle impact will generate a response if it is the correct impact we will get the correct response. A whisper yields more than a roar.

Comment by Anna Blake on March 7, 2014 at 11:26am

Nice listening. All the technique in the world dosnt work, unless you listen and adjust. Good for you.

Comment by Jackie Cochran on March 7, 2014 at 10:59am

Most humbling time of my riding life:  I had tried and tried and tried to get my first horse to flex his poll.  Fortunately I realized it was not HIS fault.

And the very first time I asked properly?  There it was.  He cheerfully flexed his poll and champed on the bit. 

A dressage rider had leased him and stopped riding him because she would not get "on the bit", so dressage riders (one teacher, a trainer, and the leasee) could not do it either.  But when I learned to do it right I got the flexing of the poll from my first horse and from a totally green mare I was riding.

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