In the new book RIDDEN: DRESSAGE FROM THE HORSE’S POINT OF VIEW, Dr. Ulrike Thiel—a clinical psychologist, psychotherapist, sport psychologist, dressage rider, riding instructor, judge, and Xenophon Society classical trainer—gives readers an eye-opening tour of what it is like to be a “ridden” dressage horse.
“How we talk with other humans says a lot about our relationship with them,” explains Thiel. “The same goes for horses…Since horses can’t speak as we do, riders must communicate with their mount in another way. The ‘language’ that we choose, meaning the training method and the riding style, shapes the relationship between our dissimilar beings.
“In a conversation, it is not just what is said that is important, but also how it is said, including the attitude one assumes when delivering a message and the overall atmosphere surrounding the conversation.”
Here’s a simple exercise Dr. Thiel provides in her book RIDDEN, which you can do with a friend to help clarify the different attitudes and atmospheres that can play a role in the “riding dialogue” you engage in with your horse:
1 Standing side by side, press one hand against one of your friend’s hands. Determine which one of you will be the “leader” first. The leader must request movement from her partner only using signals you can give with the palm of your hand.
2 If you are the leader first, using only signals via the palm of your hand against your partner’s, ask her to move to the right; then to the left. Keep contact steady between your hands and stay aligned with each other.
3 Ask her to move forward, then backward.
4 Switch roles, so you can feel what it is like to have requests made via signals through the palm of your partner’s hand.
You will find that when you provide signals in a respectful and courteous way, your friend will understand what you want more quickly and move as indicated more readily. When your attitude is disrespectful or demanding, your friend’s body and mind will react by stiffening and “blocking.”
When you, the “leading dance partner,” are hesitant or you aren’t concentrating on the directions you are giving, your friend will become uncomfortable, insecure, and will do what she “hopes” is correct.
The lessons from this simple exercise are directly applicable to how you work with and ride your horse. We transmit signals via various points of contact, and the kinds of signals we use, our attitude when we transmit them, and the overall atmosphere during our act of communicating with the horse, impacts how well our horse understands and reacts to our requests. The more fluidly and courteously you can communicate movement to your human partner on the ground, the better able you’ll be able to engage in a fruitful, meaningful dialogue with the horse when you are in the saddle.