Harmony and Balance

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.


8 thoughts on “Harmony and Balance

  1. This stuff is so important, and yet so subtle – and I’m certainly not there yet in terms of being able to consistently execute any of it. So many people ride the head instead of using their posture, relaxation and non-braced aids to help the horse carry itself from the core. Really nice post.

  2. Have you checked out photos of Heather Blitz riding? Your position is silghtly farther forward than most dressage riders these days… and nearly exactly matches hers. Now check out how her horse moves – so freely and easily, and she’s not constraining him. It’s NOT a coincidence.

    • It’s really funny that you say that. I have watched her ride, very very closely, as I was reading the Mary Wanless books. I had a hard time making MW’s method work for me while I was reading it, but I have felt a few times that I figured something out and had the “Oh! That must be what MW meant when she said xxx” moments. Some of the ideas do seem to work, but I had to find other ways of finding the feelings. Heather is probably MW’s most famous student, and from what I’ve read online, of a similar mindset as I am as far as placing importance on position and biomechanics and working kindly with the horse. I had not noticed the similarities in the position I came to compared to Heather’s position, but I might actually get some more footage and go back and study that, that’s pretty interesting! I am also posting that big trot (sitting THAT is a project for another day! lol) even though at the moment of the picture it might be hard to tell.

      • I think the other Annette and I need to number ourselves or something because we keep commenting on the same posts. 🙂 (Incidentally, are you the other Annette from Dressage for Adult Amateurs on facebook? I think so, but am not sure how to figure out from your comment here if you’re the writer of the blog I know that Annette writes.) Actually, I may put my name as Net instead of Annette to clarify…

        If you get a chance to lesson w/ a biomechanics instructor, I highly recommend it! The one I am trying to clinic with regularly does a bit too much “shorten your reins and hold them!” than I like, but my horse is ready for that sort of thing and responded by gaining elevation in his collected trot – and it’s the work with my body which needs help. I would not choose to ride and train my horse like this specific instructor had me ride in my lesson, but what she had me doing wtih my body has helped my riding beyond the lesson. In other words, I like her as an instructor but not as a trainer.
        I’m the one from the “rider bootcamp” thread on the Chronicle forums which I think you commented in (and also have pics of my TB in the before and after thread), and am basically rebuilding my seat as well, but in my case after massive amounts of chiropractic treatment which are changing my *ability* to ride correctly.
        I’m actually finding riding my mom’s Friesian cross who isn’t working as correctly/well (she’s a trail horse, that’s expected!) is helping me figure out my seat as much or more than riding my horse. Sure, he improves some when I sit right. But he’s going so well that it’s not as drastic as the change my riding can make in my mom’s horse.
        Mom’s horse, Bella, is typical of some of the worst when untrained tendencies Friesians can get – raised head, stiff and hollow back, not truly wanting to engage the back end at all. Perfect for pulling something, not for riding. She also has the pigheadedness apparently often seen in Andalusians, so she got the best of both breeds! I had an hour lesson yesterday and well over half of it was spent at the sitting trot. When I didn’t ride properly, she had her typical heavy movement, shorter strides, very much the “that horse will be lucky to get to second level” type of movement. When I did ride her properly and her back came up, she softened, rounded, lengthened and lifted. It was a more acceptable trot! Then her canter… this is a horse who naturally canters like an antelope. Or a jumper. Legs under her, and they stay under her as she gets quite a bit of air time. Definite 3 beat, but a long pause between beats 3 and 1 and she hops into the air. Yesterday I had her actually landing softly, and her inside hind leg was coming up about to the girth. It was much more comfortable to ride, that’s for sure! I still much prefer my fabulous TB canter, though. 🙂

  3. This was interesting and helpful post. Thanks for doing all that research for us! Sitting in my chair, reading your post, I slid my “outside” leg back from the hip and voila! they were perfectly in place. Awesome and a takeaway that I intend to use.

  4. I want to take lessons with you 🙂 Have been enjoying your last few posts so much. My girl is just 4 and I very much want her light and floaty – which is exactly how she looks when free lunged. Replicating it though…I have so much to learn!

  5. Well that trot IS gorgeous and looks so effortless (although clearly well studied and dissected).
    Not to rule out: the mental power of thought and ‘ask’ too! 🙂 Clearly you are doing that.

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