The Best of Both Worlds - When Dressage and Natural Horsemanship Combine

Karen Rohlf
Karen Rohlf

Can dressage and natural horsemanship really combine? Aren’t they completely opposite? Yes and No! ‘Yes’, they can combine and ‘no’, they are not completely opposite. I felt compelled to share this article because there is a growing interest in finding our way to the ‘happy athlete’. Because of that, many students of dressage are becoming increasingly curious about how natural horsemanship may help them get to that goal. For many years I trained under and next to Anne Gribbons (International rider, trainer and ‘O’ judge), then I spent several years immersing in natural horsemanship with Pat and Linda Parelli, and other of their instructors. I was the only dressage professional to immerse so deeply in their program. After decades competing, teaching, and training in dressage, I ended up with a unique perspective, and found myself in a position to bridge the gap between these two seemingly opposite worlds.

For the past decade I have been helping students of dressage learn how to incorporate natural horsemanship principles, and natural horsemanship students how to enjoy the knowledge of healthy biomechanical training. The goal is to create stronger partnerships and healthy biomechanics by combining the principles of natural horsemanship with the art of dressage.

The Object Of Dressage is described as: The development of the horse into a happy athlete through harmonious education resulting in a horse that is calm, loose, supple and flexible, but also confident, attentive and keen, thus achieving perfect understanding of his rider. That is the object of natural horsemanship also!

If you look closely at the words in the Object Of Dressage, they speak mostly to the mental and emotional state of the horse, so it only makes sense to study that subject as deeply as the physical. But in order to combine natural horsemanship and dressage one must look past the individuals, the branding, and the outfits...and get to the heart of what we are all trying to achieve. The key is to let go of the labels. All excellent horsemen are looking for basically the same thing. Natural horsemanship is ‘for the horse’ and the basics of dressage are also supposed to be ‘for the horse’.

Within dressage is the genius about the physical aspect of the horse...Within natural horsemanship is the genius about the mental and emotional aspects of the horse...

Broadening my resource base by studying natural horsemanship, I feel, can bring us even closer to the object of dressage. In studying both, it is possible to more easily diagnose what is a mental, emotional or physical issue, decide which should take priority in any given moment, and have separate strategies for each. It helps keep the horse’s entire experience in the front of our awareness, and keeps our human predatory tendencies minimized. The natural horsemanship state of mind keeps our priorities straight, even when we have specific, specialized training goals.

Photo: Dana Rasmussen
Photo: Dana Rasmussen

One of the key premises of excellent dressage is that the horse builds confidence and calmness through being balanced. If that is true then we also must realize that a trusting, calm, motivated mind will create a posture that embodies that and that is the posture we are looking for in dressage!

In this world of specialization, competition, and labels sometimes the universal truths become lost. I don’t believe that combining the resources of ‘natural’ and dressage is strange or conflicting. We just need to understand the strategies and what they are trying to achieve. I think it is a shame that, in reality, it can be challenging for students to be able to study both. The language used to instruct, and the difference in priorities during training within the two systems can present an obstacle for most students wanting to cross train in this way and so few individuals are familiar with both systems well enough to see where the other is coming from, so many students are stopped from enjoying the benefits of each.

It is a shame because the information taught in each is something that great horsemen throughout the ages have known and it is time to share the knowledge again. No matter how fancy or how expensive, a dressage horse is still a horse first! Egon von Neindorff is quoted to have said that it is ”Important to realize that the horse’s specialized schooling can only begin when its education as an “all around’ horse has been completed.”

Dressage always comes down to the basics. I believe that our dressage can only be as good as our partnership, communication, biomechanics, and riding skills combined. Sometimes the basics we need to develop are the basic relationship, communication, and trust we have with our horses. It is those little things that can change everything. I tempt students of each to exercise their curiosity and take some time to explore these two areas of knowledge.

For more information on Karen Rohlf, Dressage, Naturally, or to order her book/DVD go to or email her at