After doing tons of reading and thinking about how to ride correctly, I did some more research, and came to the realization that dressage is so complicated because there are so many conflicting opinions about everything. Whatever one person stated, I could find another who directly stated the opposite. And, these are all statements of fact, of “the way it is” from experts in the field.
I turned to the one place I figured I could count on to give me the real scoop: the old masters. If anyone knew the real secrets of dressage, it had to be these guys. And they had to be right, or we wouldn’t still, many years later, refer to them with such reverence. So I had a glass of wine with Charles de Kunffy and Arthur Kottas, reviewing Dressage Principles Illuminated , Training Strategies for Dressage Riders, and The Athletic Development of the Dressage Horse. Another night was spent on Google reviewing the theories of Gustav Steinbrecht, Nuno Oliveira, Walter Zettl, Phillippe Karl, and Francois Rabichon de La Gueriniere. As I reviewed the French Classical Dressage ideologies, I pulled Dominique Barbier’s Dressage for the New Age off my shelf and jumped in head first, hoping to find my missing piece. Then I reread another favorite of mine, Dressage as Art in Competition by John Winnett. Patterns began to emerge.
Each author said the same things in different ways, and each contributed a piece to the puzzle. Suddenly words I had read in the past took on whole new meanings, and even simple descriptions now seemed to contain a new depth of wisdom, as if I now began to understand what the author meant rather than just what he said. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a feeling is beyond description. All these masters were trying to put feelings into words, and with each additional description I came closer to understanding the feeling until finally, I began to feel it.
I was obsessed, my social life was on hold and I lost sleep, but I was determined to REALLY understand the how’s and why’s of dressage. And piece by piece, it started coming. Everyone knows to ride “inside leg to outside rein” and “on the bit”, two of the most famous yet vague-enough-to-be-useless concepts in dressage. I began to break them down. “Inside leg” seems simple enough, until you consider how many muscles and joints are contained in your inside leg, and the myriad ways to combine tension and relaxation in each muscle and joint to produce different effects, let alone the effects each of those combinations has on the rest of your body. Now when that is combined with the long list of possible ways to use the outside rein, it’s no wonder no one can tell me exactly how I am supposed to accomplish all that we can agree I should be accomplishing.
“You need more bend in your haunches-in” I was told, and I agreed, but then when I asked how to achieve that, I was told simply “Bend him more”. Well, shoot, if it was truly that simple, wouldn’t we all be riding Grand Prix by now?? But after Racinet explained to me how to supple the jaw and the poll, and de Kunffy told me how to bring my outside leg back from my hip and not from my knee, which effortlessly positioned my inside seatbone in front of my outside seatbone, I no longer twisted my body up trying to position each part while “sponging” my inside rein endlessly in my effort to add more bend, while my horse cleverly opened his mouth and let the bit slide through. I’m so glad I didn’t just go ahead and crank that noseband tighter, or I would have missed out on an important lesson. When all the pieces came together, it really wasn’t so hard after all. Even on Remy, who’d never done a haunches-in before, when I just positioned myself correctly the movement just happened on its own. I supposed if I’d “just positioned myself correctly” for years, I too would tell my students you ride a haunches-in by just asking the horse to do it!
When I was sitting in a correctly balanced position, my aids were effortless in their application and the horses’ correct responses were harmonious and instinctive. I was riding with the horse and not against him. It was all falling into place, and I was thrilled. But best of all, my horses eagerly approved, and both rewarded my efforts by offering me access to another whole level of possibility.
Here Remy offers me a wonderful trot that floats over the ground:
I never would have gotten this trot by simply shortening the reins; doing that actually produced the exact opposite of this trot. But by balancing myself in a way that I could use my core to lift his back and tuck his back end underneath him, my balance helps him discover a new balance quite naturally, and he carries me on a soft contact with his nose in front of the vertical. No pulling, no kicking, no whipping, and in a rubber bit. The dressage ideals that first drew me to the sport are coming to fruition. Harmony, lightness, and beauty. My horse is my willing partner, my friend not my slave.