Sometimes we don’t realize how much we have already learned and how much we have improved. Our quality standards and our awareness have grown faster than our skills, and so we feel like we are riding worse than ever, although in reality we are riding better than we used to be, just not as well as we would like.
But maybe we should ask ourselves what “through the back” actually means, how it feels, how it looks, and how you get there. Does the horse really automatically go “through the back” just because the head is down? What is the relationship between form and function? What do I do when I release the reins and the head stays where it is, i.e. the horse doesn’t stretch forward and down? What do people mean when they talk about “the back” anyway? Who knows?! Sometimes everyone means something else, depending on their level of understanding and experience, and you have to translate their words into an objective, systematic, structural framework.
In one of our Facebook groups someone asked a question about elbows and hand position. She had been told by a trainer that she should keep her hands forward, close to the withers of the horse. Since she is not very tall, she has to round her shoulders or tip forward with her torso in order to put her hands where the trainer wants them to be. That compromises the integrity and the effectiveness of the seat, of course.
What? How? and Why? are the three big questions that every rider asks herself constantly and thatoften seem to be very difficult to answer. What should I do? How should I do it? And why should I do it? The reason why this information seems so elusive is on the one hand that many good riders make these decisions on a purely intuitive level without being able to render the decision making process transparent or to explain it. - That was not really part of the traditional teaching paradigm, because it relied very much on the schoolmaster horses. In the old riding schools the trained schoolmaster horses were the true teachers. On the other hand, these decisions are often not that easy to make. Since we usually don’t have well trained Grand Prix horses as lesson horses nowadays, we have to find other solutions.
By now you are probably well aware that enrollment is open for our What, Why, How Online course, and I am sure you expect us to tell you all about the things the last students learned in the last course. However, they’re not the only ones that learned something. We came away from this course with some really interesting observations, which I’d like to share with you here today.
There are 5 mistakes that happen very frequently and that make it almost impossible for the horse to perform the leg yield correctly. Many riders struggle with the leg yield, especially in the trot. So I decided to discuss the subject in a newsletter article in the hopes that it will be of interest to others as well. You can apply this discussion also to the “real” lateral movements. Most of the points I address are universal and tend to occur in all lateral movements.
Everybody has heard the instruction “Shorten the reins!” countless times. And many riders get in trouble when they try to execute it because they take it literally, and their teacher doesn’t elaborate on the how and why. So they shorten the reins from front to back, and many horses resist more or less vigorously against their hand. This is one of those cases where the instruction maybe perfectly correct, but too incomplete to makes sense to many students. "Shorten the reins" is one of those instructions that need to be translated into practical action steps because it has to start from behind. Otherwise, you can get into an ugly fight with your horse.
This week I want to share a few thoughts on something that most dressage riders are familiar with and that many of us embrace: perfectionism. It’s something that is taught to students from the very beginning, and it’s something that is demonstrated by teachers and role models. Many dressage riders even pride themselves on their perfectionism.
But perfectionism is a double edged sword. It can lead some to excellence, while it causes a great deal of pain and frustration to others.
In lessons I often see that riders start a movement or a transition without any noticeable preparation for the horse (or themselves). As a result, the movement or transition doesn’t turn out as well as it could. Since this seems to be rather widespread, I thought I would turn this subject into a newsletter article. It’s an important topic that doesn’t seem to be addressed in a systematic way very often. There are some simple strategies, however, that will help you to improve your and your horse’s performance quite significantly.
In riding we often spend a large amount of focus on establishing and polishing the suppleness of the horse's body. We even often refer to the necessity for suppleness of the rider's body.
What is often, however, not mentioned or considered is that we also need to develop suppleness in the horse’s MIND, in his way of thinking. How flexible and resilient he is. How he adjusts to new circumstances or new exercises or new ways of doing the work.
And this also applies to the rider. As riders, we need to develop our own suppleness of thinking so that we also can become more flexible in our thinking, creative in our work, adjustable to circumstances, and resilient to circumstances.
So what does this look like?
Traditional riding instruction was often very rigid and inflexible. Disharmony or disagreements with the horse were usually framed as discipline and respect issues. That’s why you were told to prevail and insist that the horse carry out your orders at all costs - which can very quickly lead to fighting with the horse. The possibility that the horse was unable to comply due to a misunderstanding, a lack of balance, a lack of body awareness, a lack of suppleness, a lack of strength, or due to pain was rarely considered.
The thing is, every training problem can look slightly different, so I can’t really outline every possible problem and the process I go through to fix each of those problems. Not right here, anyway. But what I can do is share with you my own personal process for dealing with any problem and bringing it to a successful resolution. For the purposes of this article I must be quite general, of course, but I do give a couple of brief examples of how the process can look in certain scenarios.
Anna writes that when she chooses an exercise to ride she sometimes gets stuck on one detail and continues with the exercise for too long. She loses track of her original plan and of the big picture. When she gives up her expectations and goals for the exercise or the ride, things start to improve. She also says that when she tries something for the first time on the spur of the moment she often succeeds, but when she tries it again it she can’t recreate it. This used to happen to me as well in the past. Everyone who is very passionate about their riding and who defines themselves through their riding is at risk of seeing every mistake as an “existential threat”. As a result, you get tense, you try harder, you use more strength (perhaps involuntarily because you feel pressured to get it “right”). This makes the horse tense. Instead of getting better, things get worse.
Everybody who studies anything seriously is familiar with frustration. Especially when you are an artist or an athlete, and especially when you are a rider. This frustration can have several sources. It can be due to impatience because we are not progressing as quickly as we would like or as we had hoped. A very common cause for frustration is when we compare ourself to others, whether they are our peers or our role models, or some arbitrary standard of excellence. I used to think: “What is WRONG with me? Why can’t I ride like so-and-so?” I would for instance expect myself to be able to ride as well as my teachers, although they had many more years of experience than I - not to mention the talent issue.
We all know from experience that we can’t get everything at once, especially when we are teaching the horse a new movement, or when we ourselves are learning a new movement. It’s very difficult to have all ducks in a row. Often we’re lucky if they’re even all on the same lake. This means that we have to make a decision as to what elements of a movement we want to establish first. Which aspects are the most important ones? Which aspects are fundamental? Which ones are peripheral and can be fixed later? In other words, we need to set priorities. We need to start with the most central, most important ingredient, and then work from the center to the periphery.