Dressage Horse Training: The Tools in Your Tool Box

Dressage is a fickle mistress indeed.  Once you are lured into her charms, you realize that you must give yourself over very fully or you will never get to experience the depth and feels offered.  In Abilene Texas as a new C-130 pilot, I decided to look for a trainer to take some “English-type” lessons to get a little better at riding.  I met Michie Cavouti and my first encounter was Michie riding, Donji, her warmblood down the long side at a canter slower than I was walking.  At that point in my riding I had two primary gaits, hand-gallop and walk and I was hooked immediately—although I had no idea what I was getting myself into.  Over the next ten years I worked on dressage between deployments with various trainers depending on my location.  My partner was my quarter-horse, Red, who was ready but not necessarily willing but he did work hard for me at the end of the day.

As an autodidact my education was varied—books, videos, auditing clinics, etc.  So I find myself now almost 15 years later with a tool box full of all kinds of exercises, biomechanics, training processes, horse personalities and not a clear understanding of which tool I should reach for in a given moment.  For example, I can teach any horse the basic aids for moving away from pressure to affect a leg yield or haunches in; but, what do I do when my horse is out of the blue being very rude with his head, not pulling but bobbing up and down?  What is the correction?  In the toolbox analogy do I reach for a screwdriver, a hammer or a pair of pliers?  I have all the tools available so which tool is the right tool for the job!?

This year I’ve taken a step back and revisited what I wrote in my book, Out of the Saddle: 9 Steps to Improve Your Horseback Riding.  It’s funny I had to take the time to go back and listen to my own advice.  I started analyzing what was causing a plateau in my progress.  I am still physically capable and have not reached an impasse in riding requirements (not counting the constant development of core strength).  I am a good student.  Once challenge is I am very literal and do exactly what I am hearing the instructor say.  I receive information in almost a digital manner and individual bytes of data.  Writing is one way I integrate the new information into my knowledge as a whole.  Many rider/trainers are kinesthetic learners and do not process information like I do so I need to keep that in my “cross-check” (pilot term for the scan of all the airplane instruments used to keep the plane flying straight and level) as I am learning and ask pertinent questions.  The trainers I have been working with are all top-notch and experts in their respective niches and I have many good tools in my tool box.  My assessment is my communication needs have changed.  It does seem logical looking at my plateau from this perspective. I am in the process, growing, changing and learning my communication style is evolving.  I’m in the phase of “I don’t know what I don’t know.”  Just like at a clinic when the clinician points out something your trainer has been telling you for months and all of a sudden the light bulb moment happens, I’m giving six weeks of immersion in a new environment (bucket list Florida trip) a try to see if I have movement in my riding progress.

I have ridden with Judy Farnsworth a few times in Colorado and had the rare opportunity to sit on her schoolmaster for a few lessons.  Sitting on the schoolmaster was invaluable because Judy knows her horse and could more easily parse out what was me and what was the horse.  In my lessons we have been on a 20 meter circle doing very basic work, honestly, nothing new in terms of the aids but the timing of the aids has been creating a self-carriage I’ve been lacking.  The horse always tells the story. Judy has been able to see where I am right now and apply the correct instruction.  My job is to keep my ego in check, be a good listener and do what’s being handed to me.  As I remain open to the instruction, I can play with the tools already in my tool box and see how they flow into the ride.  When I select and use a tool in an additive way, the ride becomes better, the horse rounder and softer and Judy says, “Yes, like that.”  If I try out a tool and it is not the correct moment for the tool, Donzer will let me know almost immediately as our energy flow shifts like a water hose with a kink in it.

Writing is a wonderful tool for me to process and integrate new information.  I am going to keep a running blog during this trip and hopefully by reading this you will have some personal “aha’s” and jumps forward in your riding.  My goal is to get to Grand Prix as long as I am physically and mentally able to keep moving forward.  Like I said, dressage is a life-long pursuit and the constant dynamic of, “I have time and no money and now I have money and no time.”  I’m getting old enough that I added to this is I cannot wait until I retire to start!  Please share any insights you have as well on my face book page because we all learn together.


Good Riding

Tara, Author, Out of the Saddle: 9 Steps to Improve Your Horseback Riding

Out of the Saddle

Out of the Saddle

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