Mindset, Strategy and Exercises for Dressage Riders

Are Partners Really Equal?

Horses and riders in dressage are often talked about in dressage as being “partners” or “dance partners” or “co-equals.” Yet, as I stand outside the arena, I observe that all horse and rider partnerships fall into one of 3 categories:

  1. Horse dominates; passenger rider

In this arrangement, the horse has the greatest say. Although, to the untrained eye, this arrangement may appear “correct” and “harmonious” with little resistance, The presence of the horse greater than the rider’s is an indicator that they are mismatched. From the box at C, I observe a lot of timid riders who are fearful and unable to effectively influence their horse.

  1. Rider commands; horse obeys

This second arrangement is no better than the first and is so common in some areas, that it is perceived as normal. Although the horse may appear willing and obedient, they can appear to have “wooden” expression. Under this arrangement, riders commonly use force to get horses to submit and be obedient. In my experience, horses in these arrangements tend to be less confident and spookier, although that is not always the case.

  1. Horse and rider co-create

This is when the magic happens. Unlike the other two scenarios in which one partner exerted more influence over the other, here they are in constant dialogue with each other. Unlike in Scenario 2, in which the rider exerts the greater influence and the horse is expected to adjust himself accordingly, here, they both ask and adjust to each other. The rider may suggest something—and then sit back and wait for the horse’s feedback. This collaboration creates art and self-expression.

If you aren’t there already with your horse, here are some steps you can take to bring you closer to co-creating with your horse:

  1. Let go of the “shoulds,” “need tos,” and “musts”

Anytime you bring a sense of obligation to your ride—whether it is pushing to meet a deadline or a sense that something *must* be obtained right here, right now—you block the horse’s ability to co-create with you. Surrender it all.

  1. Prioritize partnership

Make your horse’s mental (and physical) well-being a priority. When the horse begins to feel safe to express themselves and learn at their own pace, you’ll be amazed at how they’ll start to work with you and offer new depths of expression. Training becomes much easier and more harmonious. Soon, you’ll be riding quality you never knew you had.

  1. Have fun!

When you’re focused on enjoying the ride, you’re naturally more receptive to partnering with your horse. You are also more likely to praise your horse more freely—which in term, helps them to relax, enjoy the work and encourages them to partner with you.

If you recognize that you are in an arrangement described in Scenario 1, talk to your instructor or trainer about your concerns. It is important for you to be well-matched with your horse for your physical (as well as emotional) safety. Many riders compromise their physical safety when they horses who are dominate, because they cannot effectively influence the horse when the horse becomes frightened or decides to be naughty. Your well-being is more important than staying in an arrangement with a dominate horse, no matter how pretty or talented or special he may be!

Should you recognize that you are the rider in Scenario 2 who expects their horses to be obedient and submissive and is not afraid to use force to get there—know that you can choose to have a differently structured relationship with your horse. That choice is always available to you. You simply need to decide that you want to experience harmony and willing cooperation with your horse. He is always waiting for you to give him the opportunity to co-create with you. The choice is yours. 🙂

Are you tyrannized by time?

There’s a scarcity mindset buried so deep in the consciousness of sport dressage, that many seem hardly bothered by it’s presence anymore.

Just like the White Rabbit in Alice and Wonderland, frantically running around with pocket watch in hand, there is a similar sense of urgency in the consciousness of riders, trainers, and owners everywhere.

The Olympics are coming! WEG! Pan-Am Games! Championships!

Unfortunately, to the determent of dressage—particularly the horses—this sense of not having enough time manifests itself in a variety of ways:

  • Pushing for more than the horse is physically capable of sustaining over a long period of time
  • Relaxing standards of acceptable training, so what once was considered unacceptable is now deemed acceptable, even to the point of fully embodying an ideal
  • Shifts focus from quality of partnership to what can be done
  • Can create a sense of stress, anxiety and “never enough” that permeates other areas of dressage, outside of the arena

For many years, I lived with a deep sense of not having enough time because I was always chasing competitive goals (NAJYRC, Brentina Cup, championships). It robbed me of a lot of the joy I had when I started riding dressage, because I was constantly concerned about whether I wasn’t good enough to realize my competitive goals and/or was falling behind to achieve them. This left me feeling stressed, anxious, doubting myself, and quite frankly, unhappy. I experienced major health problems from the stress and spent thousands of dollars on unnecessary things that I thought would help keep me on target to achieve my goals.

As you might have guessed—I didn’t achieve them.

In turning my health around, learned a few things about throwing off the tyranny of the White Rabbit and his ever-ticking pocket watch. Here’s what I learned.

  • It all comes down to priorities. I’m going to be blunt here—I see more professionals care about achievement than the horse’s welfare. I get it: no ribbons or accomplishments, no getting students to meet ambitious goals = no income. I’m pointing the figure at myself: I am a former professional and know firsthand the difficult balance between client’s horse/goals and income. It takes someone of exceptional character to keep the well-being of the horse above ambition and any financial concerns. Unfortunately, it also filters down to the JR/YRs who grow up to be professionals and serious adult amateurs.
  • The importance of goal/situation alignment. In a lot of the situations contributing to my experience of “never enough time,” I was not well set up to achieve the goals I wanted to achieve. I needed to have many more conversations than I did with my trainer, parents and other stakeholders about changing present situations to be better positioned to achieve my goals.
  • Scarcity of time meant that I was a slave to something. Rather than having my goals serve me by facilitating who I wanted to become, I ended up serving my goals.

If you feel tyrannized by a sense of not having enough time, here are 3 actions you can take:

Check in with yourself on your priorities. Goals and priorities tend to shift as time goes along. What you thought was most important may not be so important any more. That’s OK! Accept these changes and recalibrate.

Find a schoolmaster. Inexperienced rider + inexperienced horse + looming deadline is a recipe for White Rabbit tyranny. To free yourself of the White Rabbit, one of the three ingredients needs to change. If you goal is most important, find a schoolmaster so you can take the time to build your skills, experience and confidence at the level you want to ride or show at in a way that is fair to the horse. If one particular horse is more important than the show, than remove the deadline. If you are both there by then, Great!  you hit the jackpot.

Change your relationship to time. Gay Hendricks shares in his book, The Big Leap, a simple belief you can adopt to help you switch from having finite time to infinite time. That belief? “I am the source of time and I can make as much of it as I need.” To facilitate switching paradigms, Hendricks invites people to ask themselves “Where in my life am I not taking full ownership?”  If you think that time is outside of you and you must fit into it, then you are victimizing yourself (and your poor horse!) rather than owning the time that you DO have.

Bottom line: if you find yourself experiencing the tyranny of “not enough time”—you’ve lost the heart of what dressage is all about.

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?

Passion Matters.

At the end of the ride, what is the sweet spot for you?

What keeps you coming back to the barn day in and day out?

…is it what you want it to be?

Passion and obligation are intertwined so closely with the horses. What starts off as passion can quickly become obligation. You get the horse because you love riding, but somewhere down the line, the situation turns out a bit more than you bargained for and BAM! you’re required to be out at the barn 7 days a week, when you only expected 5 days.

With horses, it really doesn’t matter what “it” becomes that slowly takes your passion and turns it obligation– perhaps its training, or maybe its medical or dietary or the barn help quits or the trainer you loved moved on and the replacement isn’t as good.

Where exactly does your passion lie? Is it in riding a trained horse? Is it in your horse’s personality? The relationship you have with him? Is it in training a horse up the levels? Is it in spending time out at the barn? Is it in nurturing sick horses back to health?

Whatever it is, identify it.

Perhaps you keep riding because you love the feeling of your horse’s gaits and the peace of mind that his training level provides, but that passion will morph into obligation if it isn’t nurtured regularly.

Be honest with yourself.

If you are in an obligation situation, is there an end in sight where the spark of passion can be flamed again? If not, is there a graceful way to transform the situation to where your passion can be front and center again?

Being honest with yourself about how much passion vs. obligation is in your relationship with your horse can be an immensely liberating experience. After realizing I was in a situation with more obligation than passion, I was able to give myself permission to find a different rider for my horse. He ultimately moved onto his soul-mate situation and I was able to get back to cultivating my passion without feeling guilt.

What do you need to do to fan the flame of passion in your riding?

How Deeply Do You Accept Your Horse?

The most radical thing we can do as riders is to set aside all of our plans and accept the horse entirely as he is.

Set aside our timelines and ambitions.

Accept the horse’s physical limitations and mental learning processes.

The truest test of this is how you ride when things don’t go as hoped. Maybe the horse came out of the stall and is having an off day. Or perhaps, as you push up the levels, you start to lose the quality of the basics. What then?

Many hold onto their plans and use force–hence why letting the horse set the pace is an act of surrender.

It took a few horses to learn this lesson. During my JR/YR years, I was often behind the curve, which put timelines and ambitions in the driving seat and considerable pressure my horse to perform. By the time I realized it wasn’t going to work, I was aged out. The next horse did what I asked of him, but he preferred to schmooze in the cross-ties rather than prance in the arena. Once I fully accepted his personality, he was able to find a rider who adored everything about him, I breathed deeply, relieved that it no longer felt like a square peg being forced into a round hole.

The bottom line is that you cannot truly have a harmonious partnership with your horse if you are still holding onto your plans and ambitions.

Which is it– is your plan more important than your partnership with your horse, or have you made your partnership your priority? How deeply do you accept your horse?