When I returned to riding as a middle-aged person, my first horse had a very loud ‘no.’ He was cheerful enough about doing the things he wanted to do, but my goal—to learn dressage—prompted a storm of tantrums and hissy fits of truly epic proportions. This, of course, felt horrible. He was treated well, I thought, and the requests I was making were not very difficult. So why did he spend his time looking for ways to make my life hard? Why did he keep saying ‘no’?
It happens to all driven and focused riders at some point. We get so focused in on what we are trying to work on that we lose perspective or we forget to add in enough variety of other things because we want to “fix” this certain issue (and we want to fix it TODAY!).
On the one hand it is important to have a level of perseverance. Giving up at the sign of the slightest resistance or problem is not a path to success, but there comes a point where our dogged perseverance can backfire and make the matter worse. In those circumstances, we need to shift our gears, pivot in our approach, and shift our perspective.
To become a great rider (hell… to become great at ANYTHING…). You have to fall in love with the process. Because that is what it is about. It is ABOUT the process. In other words, you have to be willing to do the work. You have to want it bad enough to endure the struggle… to get back on the horse when you’ve come off unexpectedly… to come back the next day after a bad ride and do it all again (hopefully better)…
I vividly remember one riding lesson that I had in my early days. My teacher told me: “Your horse needs to be more on the bit.” I was painfully aware of this because on the one hand it was hard to overlook, and on the other hand it was the one problem I was struggling with more than anything else. I would have loved to ride the horse more on the bit. But I didn’t know how. I wasn’t riding the horse inverted on purpose. I needed more practical, actionable information in order to be able to do a better job. Over the years I researched this subject in depth because it was so difficult for me for a long time and discovered many factors that are involved in riding the horse on the bit.
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.
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?
This is a subject that is interesting for students and teachers of dressage as well. We all want to learn to ride. That makes us curious. Curiosity leads to questions like: “How does this work?”, “How do I need to sit?”, “How do I ride a shoulder-in?”, “How do I teach a piaffe?”, etc. In pursuit of these questions, we take lessons, read books, and watch videos in the hopes of finding answers. Over the last 30 years the amount of equestrian literature has vastly proliferated, so that you can find many different publications to choose from on most topics. So far, so good. The danger is that there is a long tradition in the history of dressage to believe that there is only one true and correct way of riding and training. Everyone believes that THEIR way is the one and only RIGHT way, and that everyone else is, therefore, wrong.