Dressage in Lightness: a frog in the pan?


western dressage world show

Western Dressage world who 2014

dutch warmblood dressage

Paris at her first rated dressage show

One story told often during my early dressage education stuck with me partly because it was amusing but also because it became a cornerstone. And lately with observations of modern dressage, it has become a refuge. As the tale went, an older gentleman who was quite a master of dressage liked to show how light his horse’s rein contact was. To demonstrate (and –who knows–probably to show off to friends) he would buckle the ends of his reins behind the buttons of his vest and proceed to ride several dressage movements hands-free.

I learned to ride with my instructors reminding me of this ideal, wondering if I would ever embody this image as eccentric as it seemed. Aboard my wiley pony Sheba, it felt like it would take a lifetime. My feisty mare would have ripped off every button on my vest had I attempted such a thing. Nonetheless, this lightness of contact became an ideal illustrated by stories about and writing by other dressage masters. A rider’s reins should never hold pounds of weight. Even as a kid with unsuccessful achievement of the goal, I understood this to be an inarguable cornerstone of dressage.

Much as I love the vest button story, it has been eclipsed lately by the parable of the frog in the pan. This is the premise that if a live frog is placed in boiling water, it will jump out. But if it is placed in cold water that is then brought to a boil slowly, the frog will not perceive the changes and will be cooked to death. It illustrates how things can change permanently at an imperceptible rate.

It seems to me that we dressage riders have gradually accepted the disappearance of achieving lightness. Several years ago, I audited a clinician who taught the necessity of a brief period around Fourth Level during which the horse makes a heavier contact while he is sorting out the demands for increased impulsion. But that phase should definitely end within a few months, she said.

I was not entirely sure I believed there should be ANY phase of heaviness (were we not always striving to help our horses move with lightness and ease?), but I was willing to at least consider the clinician’s point for a moment. At a recent clinic, however, I could not allow so much. As I watched the satisfied clinician and riders, many who appeared to hold ten pounds on each rein, I could only think that some of our classical ideals have been excused so often that they have disappeared. Lightness became the frog in the pan. We have a new norm.

The horses I watched were indeed talented, fancy, exquisite in many ways. They were all FEI horses working on skills like tempi changes and refining their half-passes, which were already pretty dramatic. They displayed confidence in their riders. But what about lightness? As the horses criss-crossed the arena, their neck muscles bulging against the reins, their mouths gaped open, a few ground their teeth. Riders’ arms became sweaty with effort. Some of the riders acknowledged the heaviness, others seemed to not care. Truthfully, I doubt the excessive rein contact affected their scores at dressage competitions. But what I found most peculiar was that the clinician never mentioned the rein tension, the horses pulling against the bit.

I left the clinic disheartened, but mostly perplexed. How and when did this new norm establish itself? Was I too keen on keeping alive my childhood stories of classical masters with vest buttons to see how irrevocably dressage ideals were shifting around me? I was puzzled whether the instructor kept quiet because 1.) he genuinely did not notice or care, or 2.) he cared deeply, but did not want to ruffle any feathers. I thought of my own students, and how it becomes difficult to instill in them the values of lightness when everyone around them is gripped on to the reins as if being towed by the horse’s mouth.

To be clear, it is not my intent to whine or lament or point fingers. I bring up my concern for the new norm because I have faith. I have faith in us riders to pedal the norm backwards, back to training that creates a horse moving with such balance and symmetry that he does not lean against the reins. I have faith that we can restore the crumbly cornerstone of our sport so that we do not even tolerate a “phase” of heaviness.

Sure, I’ll concede that this task can require obsessive perseverance, skill, and resilience. But it’s the right thing for the horse’s body. It’s the right thing for our sport. Let’s take the frog out of the pan while we can. Let’s ride like our buttons demand it. Who’s with me?

Dressage: to show or not to show?

petaluma clinic 006


Dressage magazines often surprise me. Flipping through their pages, a reader would assume that the vast majority of students spend most of their time preparing for and attending dressage shows. Page after page offers articles about fine-tuning your performance at the next competition, tips for higher scores, and interviews with celebrity trainers gearing up for the Olympics.


At least by my calculations, only a tiny percentage of riders have any serious interest in showing. I can count on one hand the few I encounter amongst the hundreds of riders I meet and teach while giving clinics around the U.S. Our governing sports bodies and organizations would do well to recognize this and to offer a lot more articles and information that appeals to these hundreds of other riders. But I’ll hold off on that rant for now in favor of acknowledging why the large majority of riders pursue dressage at all if not to show.


Most of them are committed to dressage for the same reasons I am: its role as physical therapy for the horse. Some have made their way to dressage out of necessity to repair a horse broken by poor training; others have become besotted after witnessing how much it benefits horses of all abilities. Done correctly, dressage makes sound horses out of lame ones. It fixes gait abnormalities; it provides the horse a healthy body and a relaxed nervous system. It allows him to age with ease, alleviating joint strain, inactive muscles, or disturbed circulatory systems.


My optimism for the merits of dressage training owes to the evidence I have accrued over the years. As a kid, I watched my parents “fix” numerous horses who showed up at our barn. In some cases, this meant turning unsound ones in to solid riding or driving horses. In others, it meant creating calmer, focused horses from ones that were wired and skittery. My parents never waivered in their confidence that dressage training could ameliorate a range of challenges regardless if a horse’s intended job was distance trail riding, carriage driving, or all-around recreation horse.


Since those early years, I’ve added my own list of success stories. I have helped endurance horses with stiff backs regain mobility, watched cranky riding horses become balanced and willing about their jobs. I have helped rehabbing and aging horses maintain soundness. These results have been so gratifying that if dressage shows were to disappear from existence entirely, I have no doubt that my daily passion and focus for training would be completely unaffected. Granted, I enjoy the goal-setting and accomplishment of taking a horse that trusts me in to a dressage arena and navigating a test. But in my professional life, this is a very small side note. I have made my living, and continue to do so, from the multitude of students whose hearts and souls are directed only at helping their horses live better lives.


Maybe this is all boring stuff to put in the glossy magazines, or maybe not. What it does tell us, though, is that the roots of dressage—to train the horse in the best physical manner—still run deep today. The purpose of this sport has perhaps never been stronger.

What Did You Call My Horse?



What Did You Call My Horse?


Our barn visitor offered her comments good-naturedly, but still I bristled. She had chuckled at one or another of Corazon’s antics and then called him a male diva. A what? I didn’t share her chuckle, puzzled as I was that anyone could see this leggy Andalusian as anything but majestic and regal, maybe even brawny.


Her description was meant to be warm, not rude. And yet it rang around my ears as just plain inaccurate, borderline insulting. At the same time, I noticed that I was over-reacting, and this worried me. I have worked with horses long enough to know that most equestrians will at some point succumb to Barn Blindness, or a condition of losing objective perspective about their own horses. Now maybe it had happened to me.


Over the next several days, I allowed a very narrow sliver of concession. Maybe our visitor had observed Corazon in a light I had become blind to. I noted his chronic preening for attention, his dramatic flinging of enormous mane and forelock. I clocked his luxuriant flat-on-the-ground naps at no shorter than one hour. I admitted that he will stand motionless for hours on end so long as someone—anyone—brushes his coat and coos at him. His eyelids fall shut, lower lip droops open with a threat of drool dangling. On the rare occasion that something spooks him, he turns a mild reaction in to a large, dancing affair.


I had to admit that he seemed most wildly satisfied when he was the center of attention. Did that make him a diva? Maybe or maybe not. I was, however, seeing him in new light, accepting that he was in fact not 100% brawn and courage. There was actually considerable neediness under his large physical exterior. He was prone to occasional episodes of drama and, yes, probably a little in love with himself. This confession may or may not change my approach to training him every day, but it’s useful to have in the background. We all need these reality checks from outside voices.


Without them, we all too easily lose touch with reality. We trick ourselves in to believing our horses are more broke, more beautiful, more sound than they probably are. Detaching from reality never bears good results. Our delusion will trickle over to setting goals, or our lack of them. Or it sometimes creates a narrow bubble in which we deal with our horses. In some cases, it leads to assuming our horses like or trust us a whole lot more than they do. Staying grounded in the facts will always prove more fruitful, and sometimes this means opening up to an outsider’s perspective.


It took a couple of months, but now I’m pretty fond of Corazon’s description. It takes nothing away from his majestic, muscled status. It actually summarizes that quirky edge that makes him special. So, I’m taking off my barn blinders and owning it. Yes, my lovely Andalusian is a male diva. There. I said it.


Now I challenge you: what description of your horse from an outsider have you bristled against that might actually be true?

Of Saddles and Forelocks




My friend looked at me blank when I replied, no, I could not hand her the leash. Surfers and dog-walkers use leashes, I said. Equestrians use leadlines. Of course this was picky on my part, since I knew more or less what she meant. A few days earlier, though, she announced a commitment to buckle down and advance from an interested novice to a competent horsewoman. That included proper employment of the lingo.


Since I had the fortune of starting with horses young, I’ve forgotten how perplexing the name of equipment and riding maneuvers can be. It still surprises me when new riders exclaim that they were trotting on the correct lead. Or when they ask if the saddle’s belly strap thingy should be tightened before they ride. Admittedly, few pieces of horse equipment have an intuitive name. Why do we not call a browband a forehead strap? Or a cavesson a nose ring? Sure, there are some obvious ones: hoof pick, bucket, stirrup. But there are plenty more that sound like a foreign language: billet, longe, latigo, concho.


For those who enter the sport later in life, it means acquiring a whole new language. My empathy for these struggles remains fresh by my own foray in to sports with specialized lingo. While the vernacular of equestrians is mostly second nature to me, the terms of my bike hobby often elude me. Aside from the basics like pedal, seat post, and brakes, I usually default to calling parts “thingamajigs,” or “thingies.” Luckily, several of our friends who are bike experts can usually sort out what I mean.


Trepidation hits, though, when I go to the bike shop alone to describe a malfunction or broken something-or-other. It involves much gesturing with my hands, sound effects, and vocabulary that probably sounds to the bike mechanic like a six-year-old. I’ve observed similar scenes in my barn aisle when novice students describe a ride that did not go so well.


The saddle slipped because the belly band was loose, they’ll say. And then the horse was not listening to their squeezes (cues? aids?), and he wouldn’t gallop (canter? Trot?) on the right diagonal. And did I have an idea what his problem might have been? The first part of my job here involves getting a translation. This is where I sympathize with both my bike mechanic and students new to any sport with complicated equipment.


I handed my friend the leadline. She took it, and reached up to pet the horse’s face below his forelock. “This horse has nice bangs,” she said.