“My horse hates dressage”
Recently someone told me: “My horse hates the arena, he hates dressage”.
It’s not unusual to hear this. Though of course, it’s usually not the arena or ‘dressage’ that a horse dislikes, but more likely about how the horse is worked, and the methods used. Or, commonly, the owner may not like or understand what they are asking their horse to do. When we feel out of our comfort zone, we lack confidence because we don't have the tools we need to find solutions. Rather than making assumptions about what a horse likes or dislikes, I think its much better to just get curious.
What we see in a horse can be a reflection of the rider’s understanding, or misunderstanding, of what dressage involves. A horse may repeatedly show undesirable behaviour in an arena from an association made between a place and the memory of experiences there (i.e. as a place where confusion or conflict happens, or as a place where positive outcomes happen).
In addition, if we have a negative mindset – blaming ourselves or the horse for being stupid or difficult or thinking the horse should ‘know better’ – it’s easy to become frustrated and demanding.
Whereas with a curious mindset we are more likely to approach problems in a compassionate way, looking for reasons, with understanding and education. Why is my horse tense? When did it start? Is there a pattern? Am I asking too much, or not enough to keep his interest? How do I feel emotionally when I ‘do dressage’? Am I tense? Can I let go of this tension?
When things are not quite right, there are numerous considerations. Perhaps the horse is habitually confused or overtaxed with the work, or had stressful or painful encounters in arenas. The horse could be unwell with ulcers or joint pain. The saddle could be pinching or restricting movement. The rider may ride differently in a dressage arena, send mixed messages, or be unbalanced. Or it could be a case of separation anxiety. These are all common problems. Though often, and more likely, it’s the rider losing confidence in their 'approach' to dressage, acting with a half hearted - "its not going to work anyway" - attitude. Simply, it never works when we are unconvinced about what we are doing. Horses pick this up immediately and will respond according to our confidence. I'm convinced horses know us better than we know ourselves.
A Demilitarised Zone
Horses do their best to understand us – and to work out what we want. We must accept that it’s rarely their fault. Nor is it about looking for someone to blame. Riding another species is an incredible gift and privilege. Sometimes you just have to be blatantly frank with yourself.
· Do I need to change what I’m doing?
· Do I know what I’m doing and why?
· Is my knowledge adequate to bring positive outcomes?
· How can I make it physically easier for the horse?
· Does my horse understand what I’m asking?
· Can I break it down into smaller chunks?
· Am I being too demanding? Or too erratic?
· Could I be more clear, calm and consistent?
Dressage can be interpreted in so many different ways, and sadly also in many destructive ways. When there are difficulties and resistance – and we start to wrestle with the horse – it creates more tension and angst for both. Horses are very forgiving, but they rarely forget. The willing consent of a horse is a precious thing – we should take care not to lose it.
To enable ‘dialogue’ you need to seek feedback. This means having a constant curiosity about how the horse is responding and learning from each action you take, or don’t take. Everything you do means something to the horse. Even doing nothing – means something to a horse. They constantly assess and learn from our behaviour.
To bring a mutual understanding and oneness to our work, we need to keep the arena as a peaceful ‘demilitarised zone’ where we ask questions, and seek agreement. This way we can solve problems with the confidence of a greater empathy and perspective - for the horse’s needs.
In situations where we’re unsure what to do, or how to proceed, we need directions based on logical principles, and with clear signposts.
Your horse’s personal trainer
As riders we are not only our horse’s keeper, but also their personal trainer. The horse is like a gymnast, and one that may or may not be motivated to go to the gym. The job is to know how to keep their ‘will to work’ while developing their strength and flexibility. Understanding and respecting their abilities and limitations – what they can and can’t do - is an important part of the job. You can’t become a personal trainer without an interest or at least a little understanding of anatomy and physiology, functional movement and biomechanics.
Principles and points of view
In considering various training approaches, I search for clear and logical concepts of how different elements fit together in progressive steps. From broad principles it’s easier to evaluate how practical ideas and techniques fit into the bigger picture.
Whatever broad principles we take on, they must be adaptable to all horses, and to different horses, not only expensive or talented ones “designed for dressage”. Good dressage is “for the horse”. The aim of dressage is to bring out the best in every horse - to prepare it for a lifetime of being worked under load, willingly. Unfortunately, some methods make life more difficult for horses, and some can ruin them.
Everything is interconnected
Everything is related and interconnected. Small things can have a huge effect. Knowledge is the greatest gift we can give ourselves and our horses. Guiding principles based on the nature of horses are necessary to understand a range of practical situations.
It’s easier to solve the smaller problems when we understand the bigger picture. Otherwise we can keep chasing our tails, searching for a quick fix for every little issue, haphazardly jumping from one idea to another without knowing where we’re going or how to get there.
Do you have any experience with these ideas ? Was there something you discovered along the way that particularly helped your training? Your comments are welcome. :)