Riding To Music: Making Dressage Fun…or More?

Wouldn't it be great if riding to music could help me achieve a trot that looks like this?  Illustration by Lindsey Kahn Wouldn't it be great if riding to music could help me achieve a trot that looks like this? Illustration by Lindsey Kahn
If it were possible, I think I’d live my life to a music. One of the first things that I do after I wake up is pick out a song to cue up.  It’s a great way to start out a day, really. In my experience, a single song can set my mood. Music can help me wake up in the morning, or unwind at the end of a day. It can help me get energized so that I feel ready for anything, or help me relax if I’m a little on edge. Music can even help me to pickup my mood if I’m feeling a bit down, or keep me focused if my mind starts to wander. And after doing some reading, it appears that study after study has led many a scientist to the same conclusion–music has the ability to influence your mood, which I don’t think is a surprise.
Let’s face it…I’m a bit of a music junkie. So then, it shouldn’t really be much of a surprise to tell you that also have come to enjoy riding to music. Some days, there is nothing better then spending some time in the saddle, while hearing birds chirping and a gentle breeze in the background.  Along with your horse’s footsteps crunching in the sand and the sound of their steady breathing, that is. For me, those are the sounds of a perfect day of pure riding bliss. Other days though, I just need a little pick-me-up, of the musical variety. Especially when practicing flat work is the order of the day. Having a solid foundation on the flat with your horse is important…and well, we all have our dressage tests to practice. Some days though, it’s just a little hard to get in the proper mindset. After all, that’s why we are eventers, and not pure dressage riders, right? On more then a few occasions, I’ve found myself having trouble keeping a steady rhythm while riding. Whenever that turned out to be the case, I started to count in my head. One, two, one, two, one, two. Up, down, up, down, up, down. It was seemed to be a little too easy for my horse to slowly edge me into slightly faster working trot than I was asking for. Kudos to him for doing it without me realizing…until I started counting my beats.
Now, I don’t want to spend my time counting out my rhythm in my head while practicing my dressage. I mean, where’s the fun in that? That’s where music comes in for me. I’ve personally found music to be a great tool to help me keep a consistent rhythm while riding on the flat, but it has the potential for so much more. Depending on my goals for a particular day, I feel like I can potentially leverage music to help both myself and my horse reach them. Since I can’t actually talk to my horses (wouldn’t that be great for solving training problems though?), I can only speculate at the fact that music can influence their mood as well. What I can say for certain is that slow melodies, soft music, and even humming have had a drastic impact on the training of my oldest gelding. Ripley was my very first horse, and he came into my life over a decade ago. I certainly got a project when my parents bought him for me…a western trained basket case of an abuse situation…I definitely had my work cut out for me. During my time retraining him in dressage, I found that he responded to me humming or singing to him while riding (not at all well, of course). Ripley was typically very hot, and waiting for his rider to pull a fast one, but leveraging slow melodies seemed like it helped to take the edges off, and calm him down enough that he was more receptive to listening to me. To this day, Ripley is still very receptive to me riding him to music, which I do frequently.
Here’s the part that becomes a bit of a gray area. Various studies tend to have differing opinions on the effect that music has on horses (since again, they can’t actually talk…where’s Mr. Ed when you need him?). Since a horse is a prey animal, part of their state of being is to listen for potential dangers in their environment. Some scientists assert that playing music can actually stress a horse out, since you are blocking them from listening to their surrounding environment, and assessing potential threats to their safety. Another study, conducted at Hartpury College by Clare Carter, BSc and Linda Greening, MSc (both of Hartpury College), studied the impact of different genres of music on horses, including jazz, rock, classical, and even country music. The study was performed using the help of eight Thoroughbred geldings, and was conducted by exposing the horses to different types of music in thirty minute intervals, while observing them to see if they displayed certain behaviors. While I’m a bit of a rock girl myself, this particular study concluded that music such as jazz and rock is shown to cause horses to exhibit a number of stressful behaviors. The horses did not exhibit the stressful behaviors, however, when listening to country and classical music, and they was actually suggested to have “an enriching” effect on them. So cross rock music off the list if you have a horse that gets stressed out easily.
I guess no one can really be certain how every horse will respond to music, since they are all individuals. I certainly like the concept of using upbeat music to help motivate myself and a lazy horse, or soothing music to help relax and focus myself and a nervous horse. Personal experience has shown me that at least in my horse Ripley’s case, music seems to calm and focus him for dressage work. And all that aside, turning on the radio while schooling dressage helps makes my session both fun and interesting. My mind stays engaged, and ok, maybe I start to sing along a little bit (I do apologize to anyone standing around the arena when that happens). While I won’t be trying to arrange my own musical freestyle any time soon, I do feel like appropriate music, with a well defined beat helps me to keep my horse to my rhythm…rather than me keeping to my horse’s chosen rhythm. And who knows, maybe one day my dream of someone busting out a radio by the dressage ring at a schooling trial will help me realize my own dream of riding a dressage test to music. Or maybe not.  But you have to admit, that would be a little awesome. So readers, so anyone else share my penchant of riding to music? If so, how does it help you or your horse?
Go Dressage Beatz.  Go Music Therapy.  Go Eventing.

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