How Pretty do You Ride?
In that moment, it did not feel like the kind of dressage test to be proud of. In fact, it was more the type that tempted me to run and hide in my trailer afterwards. The young horse had been a bundle of angst-filled tension all the way through our final salute. She punctuated a few decent movements with loud whinnying and high-headed glances outside the arena. We drove home disappointed by the onslaught of show nerves she experienced and hoping nobody at the barn asked me how things went.
When I got home and read the judge’s comments, though, I felt a flicker of pride. For as marred as many of our moments in the test were, the judge’s impression offered the kind of feedback that validates and fulfills trainers. Under the Rider evaluation in the Collective Scores, the judge underlined “effectiveness of aids” and beside it wrote an exclamatory “yes!”. In other words, even in the midst of my horse trying to meltdown, my aids had been effective in guiding her to the best possible performance. I beamed. Years of priority shifting just culminated in those comments.
In my early 20s, a coach with a barbed delivery told me that I had taken too many equitation lessons, that I needed instead to work on getting results from my horse. I spent more time focused on the position of my leg than whether my horse responded to its cues. She said dressage riders can be pretty riders or they can be effective riders. In her assessment, I was picture pretty but fairly ineffective. I worked so hard to keep my hands quiet and my back straight that often I did not feel the horse’s subtle shift in balance or attitude under me. And sometimes, she pointed out, I hesitated to to influence my horse with a big aid because I did not want to wobbly out of my textbook posture, so I was missing moments to improve my horse’s training.
I disputed the coach’s remarks, lobbying for the belief that a rider can be simultaneously elegant and effective. This coach might have been talked in to agreement but not to the acceptance that I was that such rider. In all fairness, she had a point. In an industry where trainers are constantly scrutinized by those watching, it is easy to fixate on looking good because to some extent our living depends on it. When a trainer gets on a horse, even one with scores of problems that need to be worked out, the lookers-on begin to analyze what they see. Whether or not they are privy to the training issues being addressed, those leaning against the arena fence begin to form an assessment based largely on how good things look, but maybe not on how influential and effective the session is. They note that the trainer’s upper body is leaning forward or maybe his heels are up or he holds his reins a little wide.
There is a pervasive belief in dressage that if a rider sits perfectly in balance and aligned, the horse will move and perform as it should. Granted, there ARE times this is the case, and this belief does hold a lot of merit. However, there are ample times when it is not the case. When a rider prioritizes herself (position,alignment) over feeling and responding to the horse, it can lead to ineffective riding. This is not to say it is bad riding, just not influential. Our challenge as riders lies in mastering both elegance and effectiveness.
All those years ago, I chafed at the notion of being elegant but not fully effective. Then I started to pay attention to the moments during lessons and training that supported it. I began to notice times when my horse’s performance would be vastly improved if I were to move out of my posture for a moment for an aid. For instance, I sometimes needed to allow my leg to move out of textbook alignment in order to get my point across to a horse. Or I needed to incline my body forwards or backwards to clarify a cue when a horse was plodding along becoming dull. When lookers-on were gathered, though, I found myself reticent to make these big, less-than-perfect moves in the saddle, not wishing to deal with a student’s analytical commentary afterwards. Eventually, of course, I got over this and began prioritizing my influence from the saddle as much as my dressage alignment. Purposeful riding necessitates this.
The goals of classical riding remain the same as they have always been: ride as quietly and softly as possible with your aids coming from a balanced and aligned position. But when you’re in a training role, your responsibility also includes guiding the horse to his best performance every moment which sometimes includes a quick and clear, not-so-elegant aid in order to carry on in a beautiful manner. For me, the aesthetic pleasures of dressage are the real joy of this sport. And yet I have also learned the deep satisfaction of being plain old ‘effective.’