Great Learners Make Great Riders

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By Sally O’Dwyer

There is a process to becoming a skilled dressage rider. It is not the same for everyone, but there is a definite path.  We lose sight of the path when we do not truly understand our “why.”  We are eager to jump on and ride so we can begin dancing.  Unfortunately for us, without understanding what dressage is really about, we miss the dance floor altogether.

“Learning to ride well is a mammoth task-larger that most riders realize. But, paradoxically, skillful riding is also much more possible than most people’s experience suggests.” -Mary Wanless.

I know for myself, I struggled to understand why being able to ride a 20-meter circle, and not a 20-meter oval mattered.  Without knowing its purpose, I was just going through the motions, wasting valuable time and energy.  Lacking the appropriate intent and execution of a movement, I was just allowing my horse to develop bad habits that would later have to be unlearned.

Of course, “you don’t know what you don’t know.”  Once a rider diligently begins to search for answers by studying dressage, the haze starts to lift.  Even so, each horse is different, and every rider comes with his/her own skills, abilities, and understanding.  Progress is slow, and usually not linear. We can end up frustrated and seek shortcuts.  But there are no shortcuts in dressage.

When we begin to realize that dressage is about harmony with our horses, we start to see that pushing, nagging, clamping, nudging, pulling, kicking, forcing, shoving, and just trying harder is not really dressage.  As the great Greek philosopher Xenophon said back in ancient times, “Anything forced and misunderstood can never be beautiful.”  (You can learn more about Xenophon, and his impact on the earliest forms of dressage, in my article “Thank You Xenophon, for Dressage,” which is also available on YourDressage.)

USDF illustration

As we learn more, we start to appreciate a good circle, and a straight line. We take the time to learn the training pyramid and return to it constantly to analyze our work. We start to ask the right questions such as do we have rhythm? Is my horse relaxed?

Being a great learner trumps natural talent, owning a fancy prancy warmblood, access to the best training in the world, a life history steeped in horses, wealth to “buy” a way to the top, or having a fabulous barn.

Great riders:

  • know the value of training with a professional
  • listen to their horses
  • see themselves as lifelong learners
  • are humble and look for feedback
  • take responsibility for their learning
  • have an unending curiosity, question what they have learned, and are constantly searching
  • are explorers of new ideas
  • apply what they learn in any situation in life to dressage
  • journey alongside others

Joy is not found in outcomes, winning ribbons, riding a fancy movement, levels, or medals.  No, the thrill is found in discovering our “why” and truly connecting with our beloved horse.

About me: I am an amateur dressage rider living in Boulder, Colorado.  Passionate about dressage, I hope to motivate others to get out and enjoy the sport.

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