A good rider will know or has learnt that they must leave all the troubles of the outside world behind when they jump into the saddle and under no circumstance should they let their emotions take over during training. However some emotions can serve as a useful purpose in training and horse and rider can actually help strengthen their bond by each responding to their own natural instincts.
“Emotions at best are a multi layered appraisal of a situation and can be very useful,” says Dressage Riding Technique Master Richard Weis. "If getting a bit jittery on a dangerous horse helps me make sensible training decisions (get off now for instance) then being jittery has served me well. However, if an emotion becomes the master, for instance, if I feel jittery on a quiet safe horse, and that jitteriness forces me to make bad training decisions, like get off and don’t ride again, then the emotion is out of hand and thus extremely unhelpful.”
Dedicating her life to the art of Classical Equitation, Anja Beran agrees that emotions are a necessary part of training, but the difficulty lies in how to transmit only the positive emotions, to produce true equestrian art.
"We cannot say that an emotional rider is negative, as it depends entirely on his emotions," said Beran. "Of course, if someone is angry, nervous, or aggressive, he should not ride, or try to train any animal for that matter. On the other hand if someone has positive feelings, if s/he is happy and relaxed, it is a very good thing to ride a horse with these emotions!"
Training horses with lightness and great feeling, Anja knows the importance of creating a relationship with our equine partners and says this is crucial if we are to really dance with our horse.
"Only a rider with emotions can show the brilliance of the horse. The rider should be completely in love with the horse! A rider who is “empty” and cold can never present the horse´s beauty with pride. This rider will show just boring, not touching work!"
Aside from helping to draw emotion from the audience a rider, who feels and is sensitive in training, will also give the horse self-confidence.
"A horse should not learn to adopt the emotions of the rider, but trust them and trust who they are," Beran explained. "It can help a great deal if a horse can learn to trust us, and trust in our relationship.However, this will only happen when we are riders with stable characters in the saddle! If we are afraid of the horse, nervous, or insecure, it is better when the horse doesn´t listen too much to the rider. Through positive emotions, on the other hand, we can transmit all our positive feelings to the horse!"
Certain that horses have emotions of their own, Anja knows that each horse has a unique personality and the key to top training lies in getting to know each and every one.
"Some horses have more happy emotions, while others are always afraid of something and some feel always nervous," she admitted. "It is important however, that we recognize the horse's character, and understand that he does not use his emotions for or against us in training, it is just part of who he is. Horses are like they are! They don´t play games with the rider. We have to learn to handle them as they are."
Therefore, to be a rider of an elite level, we must learn to understand the horse emotionally and physically, so we can train with him as equals, not be all the time acting as his master.
"That is what makes the quality of the rider, the ability to go deep inside of the horse's personality and to listen to the horse. A rider of this ability will try to get influence in a positive way and it means they are a rider that is sensitive and understands his horse," Anja explained. "Only when a rider starts to understand, can he work with, and try to get the best out of, his horse."
Training revolves around this concept, as the way we can motivate a horse depends on his emotional type, and it is up to the rider to find the key. Some horses might have a personality that makes the training difficult. For example when they are always nervous and very spooky. Other horses are always attentive, happy and self confident, and thus make it more easy for the trainer.
The key to emotions is finding the balance, the middle ground, about compromising on one thing, but knowing when to really pursue another.
“Riding at its best is a tool for getting to know ourselves," Weis stated. "To harness the horse's power we need to be able to harness our own, like not reacting with anger, not taking things personally. The antics of our own mind are constantly referred to as like a wild horse. Once our own mind is trained it serves us, once the wild horse is tamed it can serve man. The fundamental mind training tool is dispassionate / non-judgemental observation."
So only when we ourselves can achieve this level of concentration, can we possibly try and incite this sort of mentality in our dressage partner. Sometimes we may need to compromise a part of ourselves; asking that the horse also gives in a little, but at the same time, a rider who truly knows her horse will also know when the compromise must stop and when we must wait for either ourselves, or our horse to mature into the connection. Finding that common ground is about knowledge, and feeling, and having our own mental strength to harness our abilities.
Furthermore a rider’s personality can not be put aside during training and during all the time spent with the horse on the ground a horse would surely pick up on a rider's psychological state. Depending on the horse, it may or may not take this on board.
So does a tense person make for a tense horse? Have you ever seen those horse and rider pairs who are so alike they seem almost related? We have all seen it, watched the rider shy well before the horse does! And is it any wonder? We spend day after day trying to get the horse to trust us. Trust that we will relax the rein when he softens, trust that we will take care of him, feed him, not pull him in the mouth, or ride him into danger!
So then shouldn't he trust that if we are expressing fear, he too should be scared? If we are trotting down the long side and we hear a loud noise, or we see the dog rush out across the arena and we tense up in fear, a reflex to what may come, shouldn't our horse trust that we know something is wrong? Reacting in response to what we have told him.Isn't he just doing what we tell him to do everyday?
I know that there are horses that shy regardless of whether they were picking up on the emotional reflex of the rider. Yet I would say that a great deal of a horse's reaction to foreign things is determined by the trust he has in his rider, believing that if you are worried, he too should display stress!
If you are an experienced professional like Edward Gal or Isabell Werth you are able to focus your mind with such precision that you would never be distracted or emotionally reactive to the outside world. But for those of us who know our horses are waiting for an excuse, we often focus too much of our own attention on our surroundings, telling ourselves that if we see it first we can prepare!
In truth if we see it first, it is our preparation that tells the horse something is up. We should instead try to engage ourselves wholly in the work, hoping that if we can block out the outside world the horse will trust us enough to do the same. This doesn't mean that we can't produce brilliance on a horse that doesn't match our personality, just as you may have best friends that don't like the same things that you do. The key is in the depth of understanding and our ability to decide just who our horse really is.
"A really good rider should be able to handle all types of horses, regardless of their personality, or emotional state," Anja stated. "He should be sensitive and disciplined enough to help every horse, and not only to use the horse that fits to his personality!"
by Sarah Warne for Eurodressage
Sarah Warne's Classical Training articles