Explaining Dressage: the small print.

WMsibeyebestFirst 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 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.

38 thoughts on “Explaining Dressage: the small print.

  1. Sandy Filippi

    You are so right! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen this scenario: rider buys horse after horse and never acknowledges where the real problem lies.

  2. Now that I’m on the other side, listening to clients explain to trainer how the wonderful horse isn’t capable of doing it right, or worse, arguing with trainer that rider doesn’t need to fix that rigid outside hand because it’s NOT rigid, it’s the horse…all I can add is amen to what you’ve said. My personal policy is when trainer corrects me: say “Thank you!”, and immediately change my behavior. (Even if I feel misunderstood, lol.) No one can see their blind spots. That’s why they’re called ‘blind’.

  3. Sharon

    Perfect! Now I like Dressage… because I know I have so much more to learn and then there is the fine tuning that my Great trainer’s eye helps me with. Yes, my horses aren’t perfect… but neither am I. When I tell people I have a lesson this weekend they ask if I give lessons… Oh no, I say, I still have way too much to learn before I could feel confident to assess someone else. The continuing journey :O)

      1. lucile hirsch

        Anna, I am lucy Hirsch, a 63 year old competitive trail rider,(11,000 miles judge, horse in the hall of fame, ) who now mostly foxhunts, whipper in. have taken intermittent lessons for 30 years. Dressage as a foundation for having fun with my horse outside of the arena. I have decided to sell my horse (with tears) because occasionally at the hunt , when things are quite exciting he will throw one big effective yahoo( or maybe it is a ‘oh help’) buck and dump me or even a couple of other much better at riding a buck type riders.( we always get surprised by the buck as though the horse didn’t even think about it first) He doesn’t do this alone or in an arena. I’d love to keep him, Do you think there is something I can do to MYSELF to fix this?(without getting hurt in the process) He has wonderful self carriage is very athletic, a great mind , lots of training, everything I want in an equine partner. But( here I list the problems as you say) I don’t know how to get around the occasional buck when out hunting. I hunt ,I need my horse to hunt.The problem seems to me that I am too old! and did not ride nasty bucking ponies as a kid, I don’t get to do my youth over or get younger, nor will I give up hunting yet.Am I redeemable enough to keep this horse? or am I grasping at straws? .

      2. Hmmm. First, without seeing your horse, I can’t even guess. I’m going to guess, but I shouldn’t. Without seeing you, I can only answer your questions with more questions… here goes. First question is always soundness. In my experience, when a horse gives a buck-ish sort of movement so fast that it seems without cause, it’s a reflex to pain. I am guessing here, but it seems possible that the footing might somehow challenge out of the arena differently than in. Anyway, if selling the horse is one of the options, I’d sure be positive that my horse didn’t have problems first. To the larger question of being too old. (fyi, I’m 61.) Now the hard questions… Is your horse hot or does he have anxiety? Hunting is your passion, but is it his? If you think it might be anxiety, then yes there is much hope. Relationship can always be improved on and I would agree that dressage is the answer. No horse will ever be bombproof and your horse sounds like a great mount. Riding is still a dangerous pastime and I surely don’t bounce as well as I once did. And finally, (I am channeling my mentor decades ago) is your love for your riding discipline or your horse? Sorry for the bluntness!! You clearly have a long and rich history with horses, I don’t doubt your skill or commitment. Speaking for myself, I have made some adjustments for age. I want to be riding for another 20 years, so I take extra care of myself now, as I watch so many contemporaries retire from riding. I’m willing to be more cautious about what horses I ride, and how. Everything about horses and riding is a negotiation. Good luck, and keep me posted. This is a question so many people are asking. Thank you.

  4. eremophila

    A wonderful description of dressage Anna, and immediately I recognised the behaviour of people I knew who spent big dollars on new horses instead of recognising their own faults.
    May you have a lovely warm Spring.

  5. Elizabeth Turnbull

    As an amateur equestrian and professional classical singer/teacher, I appreciate the misconceptions surrounding dressage, as they are the same ones that surround classical/operatic singing. There is a lack of understanding that the technique sets you free to be expressive (both in the tack and on the stage) – and the devil is in those details! The human voice is capable of extraordinary things when we set it free, and the ‘operatic’ voice is what the un-amplified, strengthened, natural and ‘free’ voice sounds like! In the same way, the horse – in its most free, yet well-trained and strong form should react like a well-trained dressage horse – responsive, light, balanced, strong and willing. Dressage is the foundation of all good riding, no matter what the style, in the same way that a ‘classical vocal training’ is the foundation of all healthy singing – again, the rest is a style choice. We do not change our larynx when we switch between pop and opera! Certainly, some horses are bred/build to be more successful within a certain style of work, but ‘dressage/training’ can help each type become more adept. As singers and riders, we must constantly question ourselves and look for new and better ways to achieve our goals. As a singer, you cannot just throw away your larynx and buy a new one. Working with what you have, and working through your problems is your only choice. In the same way, we must question the desire to buy a new horse when what we have is not necessarily working at it’s optimum. The horse is simply a reflection of our own state and our own abilities, and the voice does not lie either. We are students of our art form(s) forever, and it is the pursuit of ever greater freedom and ability to express (and on the horse, to ‘join’ with our partner) which drives us each day to strive for more! Infinity. : ))

    1. Thank you for this elegant and perceptive comment. I so agree with you, it is discipline that sets us free. True for music, riding, art, and writing… might be just true. Thank you so much for sharing this thought. I appreciate it.

      1. Elizabeth Turnbull

        Agreed – discipline is the way to true freedom in the pursuit of excellent in all forms!
        Now that I have found your blog, I look forward to following more of your interesting and insightful writings!

  6. Elizabeth Turnbull

    Ha ha – should also be more disciplined in my typing… it should read the pursuit of EXCELLENCE!

  7. terrybg

    I’m helping a friend find her next horse (her current horse, after 15 years with her is being retired.) We both do dressage, so I was looking at the dressage horses for sale web sites. I came across this ad: “for sale because this horse doesn’t have the work ethic I expect from my competition horses.” How’s that for blaming the horse? I think that the horse didn’t have the tolerance for repetitive shoving and being ridden into the ground… I have to say that the ad made me sad.

    1. Gosh Terry – to put it in B&W is sad. I agree with Anna, so many times I have gone to see a horse for a client, and as working with him recognised him/her BUT so different in themselves after leaving stables like this!! Good luck with your search – Another great blog Anna.

  8. Great post and timely as I look to start my 3 year old this spring and am bringing my 14 year old back into work afer the winter off. I will add though that with my 14 year old a few years ago I was having troubles and trainers kept telling me I wasn’t being firm enough and/or coordinated enough. Fair enough, I don’t think I’m brilliant but I do know that I try very hard. So I had a vet out because I was sure something wasn’t right and I was right. The exam showed some serious issues with his spine (most likely arthritis). A year off and he’s returning to light work. So I guess I’m saying that if things aren’t going well look to the horse too but not for ‘attitude’ but for medical issues.

    Oh and you need to take another look at curling. I love this sport – it requires patience, precision, accuracy and a tolerance for chaos. Much like horse sports. 😉

    1. I feel like I should write the “first make sure the horse is sound” disclaimer on each blog. It is the first check in my training circle. People don’t want to hear it, but horses are so honest. They do tell us where it hurts if we listen. Good for you trusting your senses. (My favorite uncle was a Curl-er but he would have quit if he had to wear those pants! It does have a strange beauty.)

      1. lol sorry about adding the disclaimer. I knew that it was implied. It just can be so tricky sometimes to figure out what’s a training problem and what’s a physical problem. I had massive amounts of guilt for not riding properly and then later for not trusting my heart that kept saying that something was wrong.

  9. Patricia

    “The horse is your mirror” -Nuno Oliveira.very well expressed article,thanks from an averge rider with an exceptional horse (:-)

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