Mindset, Strategy and Exercises for Dressage Riders

Self-Expression is Magic

The moment when a horse finds self-expression in dressage is magic.

It is one thing for the rider to go around the arena, using a combination of exercises and figures to teach the horse the principles of dressage.

It is an entirely different matter when something clicks for the horse, and instead of just going through the motions, he begins to express himself, to add his own artistic flare to the exercise and figures.

One cannot simply ‘teach’ the horse to express himself, much in the same way a beginner dancer cannot be taught flare and expression. It takes a certain level of familiarity with the dance steps and environment– a feeling of safety– before a dancer will begin to experiment with creating their own style. Feeling safe is key to self-expression.

Horses need the same sense of ‘safety’ and familiarity. They need to trust the rider and the strength of their hindquarters before they will start offering a glimmer of pizazz to the movements and figures.

There is no formula to get there– only consistency and repetition in asking the horse for the same thing in training. When the thought of self-expression comes, the rider must be there to quickly fan the flame: not to force or demand it, but to quickly encourage and channel it.

The rider must be careful not to squash the thought of expression when it comes; dressage is as much of an artistic expression for the horse as it is for the rider. Snuffing out early glimmers of expression only makes it more difficult to develop in the future.

Is your horse going around the arena doing the exercises and figures, or is he as much of an artist as you?

Riding Sloppy…or Not?

Art emerges when we accept the horse as he is and begin to work from there.

Creativity begins when we take the training work and make it into a little game for the horse.

Someone once told me I was a fun rider to watch. For a few minutes there, I stood there, not understanding where the compliment came from. The horse I was on was a lower level horse, just starting to play with Second Level lateral work– so it couldn’t have been from riding the “exciting” moves or from all of the power and precision that upper level horses have. Then it dawned on me– that particular ride I had ridden like a little kid on their pony at a gymkhana.

As I juggled trying to have a productive ride while navigating the arena traffic and around the jumps in the small arena, there were many unexpected maneuvers. Instead of simply staying on the same circle, I made the most of the situation by adding in serpentines, leg-yields, lengthenings, all the while trying to add in travers and shoulders-in. It almost became a game.

Fun is infectious.

That ride might have appeared sloppy to an onlooker because nothing was percise.  To me, I did my best to make the most of an otherwise aggravating situation. To my horse, the ride was a game, not work.

Mixed in the spontaneity, our turns became smaller, collected gaits more confirmed and balance refined.

By having fun–and a sense of humor– I accomplished more through the chaos than if I had been the only rider in the arena.

What situations can you take advantage of to infuse your ride with fun? How can you make training be like a game to your horse?