Dressage tends to attract a certain personality type. Of course this is a generalization but I am ignoring that fact because it does not suit my overall point. The bulk of dressage riders tend to be of a controlling ilk – perfectionists, hard workers, a little anal retentive. That is where the real irony of dressage comes to play – there is no such thing as perfection. We poor saps are going to forever be chasing a standard that is unattainable, and just when we feel we have mastered it, lo, there is another level that confounds us or another horse that throws a new set of issues our way. It is a cycle, but hopefully one that is shaped in a sort of upwardly sloping spiral. Everyone who is attracted to dressage yearns for the beauty, the elegance and the harmony that one sees in the highest levels of competition (not necessarily Grand Prix – I am referring to any dressage test done truly well). The beauty of these rides is that the combination makes the test look so effortless. Horse and rider flow from one movement to another and the onlookers barely see a thing.
With that appearance of effortlessness comes the idea that dressage is easy, an idea that is a dirty lie and not to be acknowledged. But truly, dressage is filled with converts from other disciplines who initially entered the ring with the idea that it would be somewhat similar to riding the flat spaces between fences or like trail in a little square box.
Also dressage is attractive to those new to riding altogether. A new dressage rider – let's call her Annie – has had her children move out of the house and found herself with some disposable income. She literally has a little more time and money and remembers back to those summers she used to take riding lessons as a little girl. She loved them and thinks to herself, “Now is the perfect time to pick up that hobby once again.” Annie finds a local dressage trainer because she wants to ride english but does not want to jump. HAHA! YES, ENTER MY LAIR NEWEST VICTIM!, thinks the dressage gods.
After a few months on old Dobbin the school horse Annie feels ready for a horse of her own. She can walk, trot and sometimes canter in both directions, so she has a handle on all her basics, right? Her trainer suggests that Annie purchase a schoolmaster that she might learn on, to teach her the movements. Annie agrees and out they go. After an exhaustive search and a substantial chunk of change the wonderful day arrives when Xavier, her silver palomino unicorn, steps off the trailer. He is beautiful! He is wonderful! And underneath that perfect white star on his forehead sits all the information to guide Annie to her top hat and tails.
Cut to a year or so later. Annie is despondent – she can barely hold the canter and Xavier is constantly changing leads. Annie secretly thinks he might be doing this on purpose. And his trot is so hard to sit! She feels like she has been beaten with a sock full of oranges after each lesson. A couple of weeks ago a friend came and filmed her lesson. With mounting (no pun intended) horror she watched herself on the camera screen bounce around like a sack of potatoes, arms in the air, looking less elegant and more like she was in the middle of some sort of seizure. Then her instructor gets on Xavier and around the ring they trot, like a centaur, beautiful, powerful, everything she aspires toward. Annie is frustrated, angry with herself and a bit embarrassed.
This, my friends, is the true beginnings of dressage shame. Annie begins to feel guilty about Xavier, limiting his full potential, not being worthy of such a beautiful silver palomino.
Now here is the essence of a schoolmaster – they do have knowledge of the movements stored away between their ears. They are the best way to learn to ride correctly within dressage, or any discipline for that matter, because when you put the correct aid on, there is a greater chance they will respond to what you are asking. I say greater chance because they are not machines. What also lies between their ears are all the bits that make them Xavier or Dobbin or your particular pony. There are some nice parts and some sneaky or lazy parts as well. Quickly they will discover the holes in your seat and take advantage of them. Even if they are kind hearted and would never do such a thing, you might be using an inappropriate part of your body to ask for a movement. And so you are not ever able to pick up the right lead canter even though you always get the left. Or can only get shoulder in one direction.
I often equate riding to dancing – you and a partner go through a coordinated series of movements indicating the upcoming steps using physical cues. But there are some huge differences – first we are going to take away the male dancer, the lead in almost all dances, and replace him with you. Great, that is still fine. The partner you are dancing with is very good and explains the steps to you, still sort of “sub leading”. Nope, sorry, that is not close enough to riding. So now we are going to make your partner a mute. She can no longer tell you what she is going to do or what is correct. She stands there blinking at you and occasionally swatting at flies. The knowledge is still in the female dancer's head but she cannot communicate and YOU are the one leading the dance. So you grab her and attempt to waltz across the floor. What results is a painful parade of stepped-on feet, some stumbling and perhaps a torn dress. You end up on the other side of the ballroom, but what you have just done is far from the waltz.
Enter your instructor. Using his or her experience they must describe to you first how to hold your body as the leader and then how to take her hand. Then they must describe where you put your feet and how to dance across the floor. Sometimes you will move your body and there will be unintended responses; you are hitting on moves that your partner knows and you do not, just by accident. Your mind is brimming full but you manage to do one or two of the four things your instructor is prompting. And the one of the two things you execute correctly the female dancer does not respond to because she is also confused at this point. And so you end the lesson having learned one piece of the huge puzzle. This is learning under the tutelage of a schoolmaster. With a green, or unschooled horse, you have a greater challenge because you have a mute who will not react. It takes a dedicated rider with much patience to teach themselves and the horse and without an instructor this task becomes monumental.
So what is my overall point in this rant? Horses live in the moment. They have no angst, they do not brood or sulk, not in the way that we humans have honed. This is not to say that horses do not get frustrated, or angry, or surly, but they are creatures that live in the 'now'. Though you might go home and cry into your pillow after a bad ride I can assure you that your horse is not doing the same in his stall. Horses crave security, structure and carrots. They are extremely claustrophobic. They will constantly be checking in with the hierarchy in their herd of two (you and him). No horse dreams of greater things. No horse has ambitions. Now is what is important to them- the state of every single moment.
So stop placing meaning onto your horse that exists only in your head. If you care for your horse well, treat him with respect and when you make mistakes under saddle, acknowledge them, you are holding up your end of the bargain. His job is to allow you to dance with him until you grow out of your two left feet. The bulk of dressage riders are adult amateurs so if you did not own your horse, odds are it would be another woman (or man) in a very similar position as you, thinking the exact same thing. Stop looking at the top hats and tail, only thinking of being happy at FEI, and start to enjoy the process of learning how to dance. That growth of communication between horse and rider is what makes dressage so special, and why I have dedicated my life to the sport.