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’?
Of course, this was not what was happening at all. However, my first impulse after a very painful and frustrating year of trying to show First Level was to listen when I was told that if I was going to pursue my dream of riding dressage I needed to get a schoolmaster.
Horse number two was much more glamorous and accommodating than horse number one. An imported warmblood who had competed successfully at the CDI level, he moved like he was on a trampoline and had the temperament of a saint. He was the holy grail of submissive horses: he never had an independent idea, and he never, ever, said ‘no.’
Armed with this new partner, I set out to acquire the knowledge I had been seeking about riding lateral work and flying changes. I learned some of this, but I also learned something else that shifted my path in a dramatic way. Having failed to protect himself when his previous owner drilled pirouettes while he groaned in pain, the horse who never said ‘no’ now had catastrophic damage to his hocks. I knew this in a general, uninformed way when I bought him; knew that I would have to maintain him with injections and that his remaining riding career would be limited. However, knowing about it in the abstract and watching the long-term effects on his quality of life as a result of bad training and human vanity turned out to be two completely different things. I retired him and returned to horse number one, an entirely unglamorous thoroughbred whose loud and persistent ‘no’ remained his defining personality trait.
Now, though, I thought about ‘no’ differently. I understood that the big, dramatic ‘no’ had allowed my thoroughbred to protect himself, first on the track as a young horse, and later as a hunter prospect. He had learned that no matter how nicely they might behave to him while they were on the ground, human beings in the saddle asked for things that were unprepared at best and damaging at worst. I also came to realize that I was as guilty of this sin as any of his previous riders. Well-meaning as I had been in endless lessons and clinics, my completely unnuanced attempts to ‘do dressage’ with him shifted weight to hind legs that were unprepared for what I was asking. His ‘no’ was not perverse disobedience, but rather a logical response both to his experience and to what was happening in the present.
I did not arrive at this epiphany unassisted, but with help, a lot of work on my own riding, and a systematic approach to training, I came to see that in this horse’s ‘no’ lay the possibility of dialogue. I also learned that ‘no’ could be a source of amazingly useful data that allowed us to progress and develop a relationship that—while never entirely free of ‘no’—was no longer frustrating for either of us.
For anyone reading this who has experienced ‘no’ and felt defeated, here’s what I discovered:
1. You have to understand where the horse is coming from. Unless you raised him and know that he has never been traumatized in any way, his behaviour may be a very reasonable response to past experience. I found that empathy and imaginative identification with his point of view allowed me to see ‘no’ as a potentially reasonable response, and to recognize that it might take time, patience, and skill to get the horse to change his mind about the need for self-protection.
2. ‘No’ often signals pain or discomfort. If you want a real partner, you have to listen and you have to understand that a negative response can mean injury, or sore muscles, or just mental overload. Assessing this response can be as dramatic as having a veterinarian examine the horse to determine if there are joint issues, or as basic as remembering that you’ve just started new work that may have led to muscle soreness. It can also mean that the horse is frustrated; that he is trying to process a new skill and needs some time to digest the lesson.
3. Once you’ve factored in 1 and 2, ‘no’ can become a training tool. One of the most helpful things I have ever been taught, and one for which I will be eternally grateful to Thomas, is how to reframe the ‘no’ as a positive sign. I was used to experiencing ‘no’ as a source of embarrassment, as an outward sign of my lack of ability—and in general I’ve noticed that dressage riders receive a ‘no’ response from their horses with a greater sense of humiliation than the parents of toddlers having tantrums at the grocery store. If you reframe it, however, ‘no’ can become the basis for real advancement. Thomas’s responses of “interesting” or “excellent, we’ve found the problem” when we had meltdowns in our lessons showed me that what feels terrible can, in fact, offer clues about how to diagnose and solve critical issues. To do this effectively you need a good grasp of theory and a toolkit you know how to use. Getting these takes sustained effort (you can’t buy it like a schoolmaster!). Moreover, recognizing what you don’t know and addressing the gap is a process that is not without frustration for the rider. However, it is a road that leads somewhere: a productive frustration that doesn’t end in the same old fight, and that represents an investment in your riding that will pay off when you wake up one day and realize that, while you still have setbacks and plateaus, you can’t remember the last time you had a knock-down-drag-out fight with your horse.
Much of the dressage world is anchored by the idea that the horse’s job is to do whatever you tell him to do, whenever you tell him to do it. It also assumes that horses who say ‘no’ are disposable and should be replaced with more accommodating partners. I’ve discovered that this is not my path, and that my riding life is richer—and more harmonious—when I treat the training process as a conversation rather than a monologue.