Positive, Proactive Thinking And Riding

In my clinics and in our online courses the participants and myself make observations on a regular basis that are both interesting and significant. One such observation is that my exercises make not only the horse more supple and relaxed, but also the rider.

In my youth it was customary to have the students ride only 20m circles and whole school on a single track with the occasional leg yield or turn on the forehand on the spot sprinkled in. And the students were told exclusively what NOT to do and all their mistakes were pointed out. This constantly drew the students’ attention to negative things, which does not exactly further relaxation or the joy of riding in horse and rider. If you constantly think only negative thoughts, you will soon come to believe that you will never learn to ride, and you will only become tense and frustrated.

I try to give the students exercises to ride that consist of certain arena patterns, movements, and aids combinations that build on each other and lead to clearly visible improvements in the horses’ gaits and posture. These exercises are a certain challenge for horse and rider, but they are manageable with their current skill level, so that horse and rider achieve some success and progress during their ride. The goal is not to attain perfection - perfection is impossible to achieve, anyway -, but rather to make incremental improvements and gain valuable insights into the inner workings of “equine gymnastics”.

These exercises are effective on several levels. They mobilize and strengthen certain muscle groups in the horse, they improve his balance, his body awareness, his understanding of the rider’s aids, and his coordination.

But in addition they also have a certain effect on the rider. The turns, transitions, and movements require constant adjustments of the seat and the weight distribution, as well as new and different aids combinations, so that horse and rider are constantly in motion and can’t easily brace against each other or get into a “tug of war” with each other. Mobilizing the muscles and joints prevents stiffness in both partners.

The horse can’t use the ground against the rider and the rider has to frequently release the leg and rein aids on one side to be able to apply them on the other side.

The rider’s pelvis becomes more supple and the rider’s seat finds the center more and more because the exercises require moving the horse’s hips and shoulders to the left and right of the center all the time. This contrast helps the development of the rider’s feel. The weight also has to be shifted from one side to the other frequently, which helps the rider find her center. In other words, the exercises have a straightening effect on the rider, and they supple the hip muscles.

Stirrup stepping exercises get the rider to release her legs because it’s impossible to stirrup step with gripping knees, thighs, and calves.

The frequent changes of direction and bend require constant adjustments of the rein length. The often unconventional combinations of arena patterns and lateral movements draw the rider’s attention to the line of travel and the horse’s legs - which also means they distract the rider from the horse’s head and neck position. She has to look where she needs to go next and think about how she can help the horse best. She has to turn the horse’s shoulders, ask the haunches to yield, change the bend, connect different horse legs with the ground and the weight, etc. This leaves little time for negative thoughts and makes the training session more interesting and varied, and therefore also much more enjoyable.

Mistakes give rise to interesting new observations that increase your understanding of the inner workings of dressage, and they become the inspiration for new exercises. This way, mistakes are no longer framed in a negative way and therefore depressing, but they become learning opportunities. The students also realize that mistakes are not the end of the world, but that you can quickly recover from them by changing something in your seat and aids. This frees the students from the fear of ruining the horse, which was omnipresent for myself in the past.

Horse and rider become mentally and physically more flexible through the new and constantly changing combinations of exercises, and the riders learn to observe and to analyze.

I wasn’t aware of many of these effects in the beginning and only started to understand them over the years, in part based on the feedback of the riders.

In case you have come to look only at the mistakes and the negative aspects as a result of past lessons, try to focus on the positive in your next ride, i.e. focus on what TO do instead of what NOT to do. Ask yourself: Which arena marker do I want to ride towards next? Where are the shoulders and hips of my horse? Which leg is supporting the majority of the weight? How can I facilitate the next turn, the next transition, the entrance into the next movement? Don’t think: What am I doing wrong again now? If a mistake happens, think: What can I learn from this observation? What can I do differently next time? This makes the entire ride more relaxing, more enjoyable, and more positive for both horse and rider.

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