In this excerpt from Ridden: Dressage from the Horse’s Point of View, dressage judge and classical trainer Ulrike Thiel gives us nine principles we must understand to communicate efficiently, fluidly, and understandably with our horses.
The fundamental mind-body principles of the dialogue of motion between horse and rider are implicitly incorporated in the classical dressage teachings, though not with any such terminology or labels attached. Therefore, I have given these principles names that have helped my students understand them.
1: The Arch Principle
As horizontally oriented beings, horses lift their backs when ridden correctly, and it is the curve of the arched back that lets us sit comfortably. As vertically moving beings, we humans must arch forward our chest-stomach-hip regions. The arch in horse and rider allows more to be accomplished with less (unnecessary and perhaps disruptive) movement. When horse and rider succeed in “tuning” their respective arch to the other’s, little movements can have a large effect.
2: The Independence Principle
The rider must be able to move all her body parts and muscles independently from one another, without losing balance, blocking the dialogue of motion, or disturbing the horse’s movement. Many body movements are naturally connected in our coordination system. We have to learn to first separate them in order to be able to intentionally employ them as individual elements. In addition, we must be able to tighten and relax specific areas of the body, either simultaneously or sequentially.
Appropriate exercises on the longe line can help riders learn how to do this, but there are also some that can be practiced in everyday life. The development of the rider’s independent coordination is comparable to the regular daily exercises required of a ballet dancer.
3: The Scales Principle
This principle is seen most clearly in the “relative elevation” that is characteristic of collection—the horse is beyond his natural horizontal balance and in an uphill balance, with his hindquarters a little lower and deeper (further beneath the horse’s torso) than the forehand, as seen when one side of a pair of scales is weighted.
The Scales Principle begins with engaged, forward-downward riding while stretching, and it ends with the levade. The scales are weighted by little more than a half-halt. The rider “holds” the horse with her seat and under her weight, the “rear scale” (hindquarters) automatically stays down while the “front scale” (forehand) lifts a little without the horse having to push harder off the ground with his front legs.
4: The Balance Principle
The horse can only balance the rider while staying true to his path of travel when the rider sits vertically in the saddle. If the rider cocks one hip or pulls one leg up, then the horse must step under the displaced weight. On a circle the horse will drift in, while on a straight line, he will have to change direction.
The horse doesn’t naturally turn while making good use of his hind end as we want him to in a change of direction. His weight tends to fall on the forehand. This causes many riders to ride turns using undesirable “secondary aids,” sometimes without even knowing it. Here again, lessons on the longe line can be of benefit as the horse teaches us to feel his movement on the turn, and the rider learns to correct herself in response to the horse.
5: The Anticipation Principle
The rider must look forward, think in advance, and give the horse enough time to incorporate her signals into his own movement plan. She must allow time for her movement impulses to be expressed through the horse’s.
When the rider just “goes along” with the movement of the horse, we miss a certain dynamic. It isn’t clear to the horse what should actually be happening and consequently he can’t prepare himself properly. When the rider thinks far enough ahead, her anticipation is translated through her body, and there is the feeling that she gives the horse a subtle suggestion, and then rider and horse complete the movement together.
6: The “Plug” Principle
Our two seat bones are the two prongs of the “plug” of communication. Only when they are in direct contact with the horse can the most important connection occur. The seat bones can only stay in contact with the horse when the rider sits straight with her vertebral column in a natural, neutral, S-shape. A helpful image is to imagine the rider as Donald Duck, with his tail stuck out behind him. (This position should not be confused with riding with a hollow back.)
The lower back musculature must be well trained to be able to sit the canter (for example) while keeping the “plug” plugged in.
7: The Dialogue Principle
Horse and rider both have their part to play in their dialogue of motion. Both are involved in the decision regarding what will be done next. Horse and rider listen to each other and adjust to each other. Every new individual movement is the result of a conversation.
8: The Concentration Principle
Only when the rider fully concentrates on her horse and her task can she expect the same focus on her from her horse.
On the one hand, this principle is simply a matter of courtesy. On the other, the complex mind-body activity of riding can only be mastered when energy is not lost or wasted on other, unrelated tasks. This goes for both the rider and the horse. When one of the two is distracted, the dialogue of motion suffers considerably. For example, shying horses are frequently the result of riders who aren’t concentrating.
9: The “Here-and-Now” Principle
When riding, the only thing that matters is the moment of moving together and what we want to achieve in that motion. Stresses, worries, and problems disturb this process and have no place in the saddle. Negative feelings and experiences should not be taken with us to the barn; they cause us to react unfairly to the horse, our partner.
Even when something goes wrong while riding, the rider shouldn’t brood over it while in the saddle. That goes for during competition as well as in daily practice. You can think about what went awry later. The next movement, and your horse, deserve your full concentration.