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. 🙂