Why is Dressage so hard?

Artwork by Anna Noelle Rockwell entry in the 2013 USDF Arts Contest

And, where is the easy button?

By Sally O’Dwyer

“Dressage is incredibly hard, and in the beginning, it’s difficult to really understand what it is you’re supposed to be doing in the first place. Beyond that, it’s even harder to get your brain to make your body do what it is that you want, even once you know what that is. The added difficulty of our sport is that then we have to make the horse, another species, also understand what to do and then we must get his body to do it, too.”

FEI trainer and instructor Eliza Sydnor Romm

Not trying to be a downer, but it is important to acknowledge that dressage is hard.  Understanding this truth helps us manage expectations, and better prepares us for the natural challenges we encounter as we pursue our dressage dreams.  If you are like me, you began your dressage journey wide-eyed and in love with the idea of dancing with your horse.  We want to experience the beauty of dressage, yet we are blissfully unaware of what it takes to master.  So, exactly what is it that we are trying to achieve?  We know that it is an equestrian discipline, and a sport.   But, dressage is so much more….it’s art.

The great master, Nuno Oliveira, speaks to the art:

“Equestrian art involves the complete harmony between horse and rider, and that makes the rider feel that there have been moments of beauty and greatness which makes a flight possible from all that is ordinary and mediocre. Art is the sublimation of heightened technique, and art is only possible if the person in question forgets vanity and searches only for beauty and is enthusiastic and loving. It is akin to other arts and the rider may be subject to influences of artists in other domains.”

from Notes and Reminiscences of a Portuguese Rider

To the amateur rider, Nuno’s words are beautiful, but not fully comprehensible.  To me, the art begins with a loving relationship with our horse, our efforts to learn how a horse thinks, and in discovering our horse’s unique character.  We listen, are fully present and attuned, working tirelessly to communicate effectively with them.  We do everything we can to ensure our horse has the best care possible and is happy in its stable and in work.

The Basics and The Art. As we begin our dressage journey, we struggle to achieve the full expression of the art because we must first come to grips with the basics, which can take years to achieve.  We must trust the process, the principles and theory, and have faith that we too can achieve artistry.  According to Conrad Shumacher, “the basic techniques, or what they call the basics, are more difficult than what comes later.  This is the trap of dressage.  Correct basics are more difficult than the piaffe or passage.”  These basics are based on dressage theory, which, on paper and even in the ancient tomes, sounds practical, step-by-step, methodological, and even scientific. The geometrically designed training pyramid makes complete sense, depicting skills building upon one another.  We can conceptualize the pyramid, but dressage terms, such as “impulsion, collection, activity, suspension, self-carriage, engagement, and alignment” are not easily quantified, are amorphous, and left to the interpretation by the rider.

Dressage is not unlike other artistic pursuits. A violinist who wants to play a concerto must first learn the language of music, violin basics–such as where the notes reside on the instrument and how to hold the bow.  The violinist must master music theory, phrasing, scales, and put in the practice. And the violinist is not really making music that we want to listen to until they can play with expression and feel.  Like music, dressage demands that we make art by riding with feeling. 

Developing feel is experiential. As an amateur rider, I want tools, facts, and concrete, measurable tools.  I want my trainer to give me the “easy button” and just tell me precisely what to do, and exactly to what degree. But we can’t ride dressage like we’d paint a paint-by-number picture, dictating what colors to paint where, and can hardly be considered art.  As I approach Third and Fourth Levels, I am learning that art is in “feel,” the awareness of the delicate relationship between horse and rider. A feeling rider rides every step, adjusting the aids in a flow-state, natural way. While it may feel magical, it is not actually magic. It is that sweet spot when we are in harmony, or in sync with our horses.  At first, we catch fleeting moments of this experience. It is thrilling, addictive, and feeds our desire to be better riders.

Dressage challenges. Feel and balance comes from learning over time, and is a lifelong pursuit. We must ride in complete relaxation using the lightest of aids, knowing exactly what the horse’s body is doing at every moment.  The feeling rider is constantly refining the aids and perfection seems just out of reach. Developing independent aids that our horse can clearly interpret are difficult to learn because the rider must master body control, requiring core strength, and flexibility.  We also cannot learn by isolating one aid, as we must master the coordination of using multiple aids simultaneously.

The enthusiastic amateur, like me, often gets stuck by “trying” too hard. The more we push, the tighter and tenser our horse becomes. Over aiding our horses causes them to become dull and unresponsive.  We want to maintain connection and roundness, so we try to pull the horse into what we think is a good neck/poll position, which closes them up, causes them to contract, get stiff, and brace. Humans are naturally “handy,” wired to resort to using hand aids when they sh 

Finding the right partner. While all horses can learn dressage, horses with natural talent for the upper levels are in great demand, and thus expensive, and financially out of reach for most of us.   Most of us also cannot afford a schoolmaster, which leaves us with riding green horses when we are green ourselves.  According to Stephan Forbes, “it takes a very special horse to make it all the way to Grand Prix.  They not only have to have the physical abilities that lend themselves to succeeding in the sport (an ability to collect for example) but, perhaps even more importantly, they need to have the right mental characteristics too”.

We grossly underestimate the time that is required to reach proficiency in dressage, and we are much too impatient. We live in a world of instant gratification: amazon.com, fast food, microwave dinners, 7-Elevens, movies on demand, fast cars, and rapid transit. We know that accomplishing the basics in dressage is paramount, but we want to practice the “tricks.” We are eager to move up the levels, but we need to understand that as artists, we must be patient, that progress comes at a snail’s pace and is often not linear—thus hard to see. It’s like watching paint dry—we know it’s happening, but we can’t see it.  And, when we see amazing riders, we are looking at a finished product, not the many, many years of arduous work and training that individual spent to get where they are today. When we compete, we want to win.  When things don’t go right, we become frustrated and are tempted to seek quick fixes and remedies, like getting a different horse, finding a new trainer, or a new barn. We wonder if there is a better “on the bit” bit, or we search for a training gadget to fix our latest challenge.  Moreover, we need a good learning environment, and there are not enough well-trained, experienced trainers available.  Some regions of the US have more learning opportunities, but there are many areas where there is a dearth of top-level trainers.  It’s also hard to learn by watching upper-level riders because they ride with the subtlest of aids and it can appear that they are not doing anything.

Be the artist. Okay, so dressage is hard, but maybe that’s why we love it so much.  We don’t want an ordinary relationship with our horse.  Know that the pursuit of the art is life-long, as we are always seeking to improve the refinement of our aids to become as subtle and light as possible.  Even though we may earn a gold medal, there is no end point in dressage; we are always perfecting, asking ourselves if we can ask for a bit more…

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