For the sake of argument, let's say you made a riding error (humor intended...). You were focused on your seat bones and not leaning forward in the canter transition and that worked great, but unfortunately, you forgot to also pay attention to your hand position. One flew up and forward (the outside one, of course) and the other landed back and down on top of your thigh.

Not surprisingly, your horse drifted off over the outside shoulder, sped up, and either landed in the wrong lead or just trotted fast while you started jamming hard on his back until you got him slowed down. There it is. A bald faced error.

The question becomes, now what? This is a most critical moment in the training of every horse and every rider because it becomes a bit of a Pavlovian situation. If you overreact right now, if you tighten your thighs and seat, lean forward, get dismayed, crumble to the walk, entirely lose your confidence, stop thinking and chase the horse into the canter anyhow, you are conditioning both you and your horse that errors are a BIG DEAL.

If 'reacting' is how you tend to react when you or your horse make a mistake, then these position faults and communication mishaps will slowly condition both of you to expect that after an error things necessarily get a lot worse. Before long every little error is followed by disproportionate tension based on the expectaion of an over reaction. Fair enough, the repetitive training worked like it always does, just not to our advantage!

I propose a new four letter word to replace the one you were likely using and that word is "oops." I would suggest you follow that word with a quick chuckle and a little smile. Oops has a wonderful way of cutting out the judgement we impose on ourselves and our horses when things go wrong. It's quick and light hearted and helps to remind us that this impossibly difficult work of coordinating ourselves and riding a magnificent and large horse will involve mistakes.

WIth a little oops, you can move on and return to your training quickly. And let that chuckle bounce right through those spots of tension and disappointment. I swear, your horse will chuckle too and then you can both oops and chuckle and smile your way towards glory.

Your Posture Has Power

Your posture has the power to convey a variety of moods to your horse. I have found that I can pick a mood and use my body to communicate that mood to my horse. For a horse that is anxious and insecure, I can be easygoing. For another horse, I can be more strict and edgy, to make sure that they don't try to take advantage of my boundary system. 

I've always just called this concept 'mood riding' and I use it all day every day. It goes along with my last post about becoming a different version of my trainer self depending on the needs of my horse. But the question I thought I'd throw out there quickly is, what do you think that a mood and posture of insecurity and a lack of confidence convey to your horse? Posture and mood don't distinguish between the rider and the horse; it is not possible to say to your horse with your body, "I am stressed about my inability, not yours buddy". So if you are insecure in yourself or lacking confidence in your ability to do something correctly, or worse yet, if you are mad at yourself for not being a good enough rider, imagine how your horse interprets this!

One of the most important lessons of my life was when I realized that I wasn't communicating "I love dressage. I love riding. This is fun. Thanks for playing along. You're the best." to my horse. I wasn't saying those things because I was so disappointed in my own riding skill at the time. So my body was saying, "Not good enough. You are failing. You will never get this." I thought I was only saying that to myself, but oh no! posture tells the whole story and horses are listening and internalizing that story.

Try switching gears. Try telling your horse through your posture, "We got this. This will be fun even though it's going to be tricky. We better stay focused. Let's have fun while we do this." I promise your horse will like this new story way better. After all, who doesn't want a happy ending?

Inexplicable Moments of Pure Harmony

I have the good fortune of having several students who ride more than one horse with me. We all know that there are a variety of benefits of having more than one horse to ride, but I want to draw out one of things that seems to come up repeatedly and is an important thought for all riders. When you ride more than one horse it doesn't take long to realize that you ride them very differently. This one likes a lot of seat bone, this one a very light seat. Steady contact for this one and a more vibrant connection for the next. Some even require strict attentive focus and others don't like to be in the spot light of your attention.

Riding a variety of horses helps you realize that something you read in a dressage magazine or book might really apply to one of your horses with his or her character and conformation and lead you down a frustrating path with another. Same rider, same exercise or philosphy, different horse will often equal a different outcome. This truth, that we bring horses up the levels--up the same dressage scale--from different starting places means that the roads we take will be similar, but not necessarily the same.

The implication here is that you, as the trainer/rider, must accept that you may have to change your riding style or approach in order to help your horse become the best athlete he or she can be. And this truth, that we don't always get to ride like we want to ride, but must ride to pull out our horse's greatness, is really a radical thought. Radical, because this implies that a lot of the movement towards becoming a harmonious pair really needs to come from our side.

What this means is that in the process of training and shaping our horse into an athlete, we are shaping ourselves as well. Maybe that means we are softening a hard edge in our personality or just as likely strengthening something that is too soft. We might have to learn how to focus in. We might have to learn how to relax back. The process of stepping towards the horse and towards harmony is the process of leaving your comfort zone. Exactly like the process of calling a horse from the forward balance of their natural posture to the uphill balance of a dressage athlete.

Dressage training, than, is a sort of meeting-in-the-middle of two beings that are doing one thing. And like any worthwhile relationship, this is hard hard work. It takes time and sweat and tears, and some miscommunication and lots of frustration. And since dressage is training, that is really what we are doing. We are sculpting two creatures to look like one effortless dance pair. And we are doing it all for the inexplicable moments of pure harmony. A feeling that no words will ever be able to describe.

Accurate Figures

One thing true of all young horses is that none of them have ever read a single book about dressage. Not a one. Perhaps because they haven't done their homework, each and every one of them seems to think they are the first horse to ever be ridden and also therefore the first to ever try any evasions from work.

Your average trainer has had this conversation with young horse after young horse: 'Nope, that won't work either. Try again. Nope, not that either. Try again. Good! That's it! Do it again.' Experience has taught us that horses learning things get confused, don't like the work because it's hard or they don't understand it, have an objection to sweating or feeling their muscles burn, think that straight lines are impossible or turning is impossible... You get the idea.

Evasions, no matter what their source, need to be identified and not permitted, so that we can positively reinforce the behavior that we are looking for and steer them away from the wrong behavior. This is where confidence comes in. In order to positively direct horses, we need to know what our goals are so that we can clearly give the horse signals. 'Yes, that is right.' Or 'No, not that, try again.'

Riders that lose confidence when their young horse gives them the wrong answer seem to always believe that they asked wrong. Or asked too much of their horse too early. It never seems to occur to these riders that your horse didn't understand, or even, did understand and answered with 'no thanks, that feels like work.' 

I already said this and I will say it again: If you know how to walk trot and canter than you know how to walk trot and canter. If you can do a 20 meter circle you can do a 20 meter circle. It is your horse that either doesn't know yet or said no. Remember the learning tension from the last post and take a deep breath.

Now we need to clarify. So the first part of clarification that I want to talk about (yes, this seems to be stretching into a multi-post topic) is related to accurate figures. The very first thing you need to do with a horse that has accepted a rider is to very diligently, and with the repititive dedication that you used to teach your child the alphabet for the first time, teach your horse the arena figures.

This is not glorious work. But it is vital. Straight lines are ridden on the track and through young horse corners. Circles are round and of appropriate size and in the correct locations. You change directions using long or short diagonals and you begin to teach them to change bend through figure eights and then serpentines. You pick up the canter in the corner or on a 20 meter circle without letting the horse trot faster.

And what if they can't stay straight on the track? Or ride the circle without falling in or out? Or run through your canter depart aids? Perfect!! Because you have committed to riding correct and accurate figures, you now know exactly where your problem is! You know what aids are misunderstood and/or ignored and you get to practice clarifying. You absolutely do not get to give up and blame yourself or say better luck next time because you are teaching your horse the alphabet! It is vital that they learn to do this correctly right now. And it is to be expected that it will take multiple multiple attempts before they can do it well.

And still, every single time they do it incorrectly, you clarify. And every time they do it correctly, you reward. Every time.

When it is time to clarify, that means you need to reassert your aids. It means use your proper posture and core strength and support your aids with a whip or spur when necessary. And it means, do not give up. Ugly, tension, hard work, confusion -- still do not give up. It will work.

Because you do not give up, you teach your horse that you are the leader of this herd of two. And because you are a cool person, they will learn overtime that this leader makes things obvious. This leader tells them what is correct and what is incorrect and so it becomes easier and easier to pick the correct answer. This leader expects the correct answer, and fortunately is willing to teach them how to get it.

And so, thanks to your great teaching skills and confidence, eventually you teach your horse how to get a young horse A+! Good job, you. I knew you could do it. :)

The Teacher In You

I have been thinking about the topic of young horses (insert: green horses) and their need for rider confidence lately as I have been preparing to write this post. This one is tricky because there are some real risks when it comes to starting and bringing along a young horse, which is why people typically and rightfully seek professional help.

For the sake of this post, let's discuss the adult amateur and her young horse who is safely under saddle but has minimal knowledge. I am also assuming that the rider in this case is basically fit and capable of riding a made horse in the walk, trot and canter on both leads. The fear of 'confusing' or 'screwing up' the young horse is usually the most common concern brought up in this scenario.

And to be perfectly honest, these are valid concerns. I often tell people that when you are teaching a young horse, you are teaching them the alphabet they will be using for their whole lives to come. With these letters they will be spelling all of the words and sentences of the advanced work. So it is a bit intimidating when you think that if you screw up their education at the beginning, it will stay with them throughout their careers.

But I think what most people misunderstand is that the most common way we 'screw up' is by being unclear and inconsistent with the young horse. Lacking clarity and consistency are first and foremost confidence issues. I am going to divide this post up over the next few days to make it a more maneagable read.

So for tonight, I will quickly discuss learning and tension. Anytime true learning happens it is accompanied by at least some tension. Learning new things is hard. It is hard and it takes lots of repetition. Lots of practice. Of course the good teacher breaks down difficult concepts into smaller more maneagable ones that are built upon in order to lead their students to success. And the balance between easy and hard tasks, fun and relaxing versus challenging and difficult has to be carefully navigated. We have to be sensitive to whether our students are getting bored or whether they are being over taxed and somehow ride the line between these things. But we should not try to, or expect that we can, avoid all tension in the learning process.

Letting horses confront what they don't understand and learning that you, their leader, will not challenge them more than they can handle, is a huge part of the long term partnership you are building at the beginning. So before we discuss clarity and consistency and how they relate to confidence, think a little about what training you have been avoiding in your horse because the tension they exhibit as you get close 'to their soul' has caused you to back off and not reapproach.

Typically this pattern in training is based on the classic fear that tension in your horse means that you have done something wrong. And maybe you have. But maybe you haven't. Maybe you were approaching education based tension and the teacher in you, not the mom, needed to lead the day.


I have finally figured out the topic of the book that I will (might) someday write. It will be about developing confidence in female dressage riders, particularly adult women.

This is a topic I have been thinking about a lot lately as I have been reflecting on the common issues I see in my students, most of whom are adult women. Lacking confidence comes in many forms and seems to rest at the base of most problems my students face. The most common phrases I hear out of my students when up against an issue are "I don't know what to do," and "I don't want to hurt the horse."

Yesterday I had two very capable students with many years in the saddle use both of those statements immediately upon failing to pick up the canter on two of my horses. Ah, the canter depart and its ability to turn talented balanced riders into either a ball of mush or an iron rod.

There is a book to be written about learning to pick up the canter with confidence, but let me just say the one thing I know for sure is that falling back on these two phrases will not help you learn to canter.

First, you have cantered before and it worked. It wasn't magic. If you know how to canter, you know how to canter. Yes there are levels of subtlety and finesse that will improve as you gain skills and experience, but that doesn't mean you can't pick up the canter.

Second, an error in timing is not going to 'hurt' the horse. The more likely thing to hurt the horse will be you dropping their balance when you slouch into a giving up ball of mush or jabbing them in the back with your iron seat bones when you tense up because it didn't immediately work.

If the canter depart doesn't work immediately, please, for the sake of horses and instructors everywhere, continue to ride well, regroup and ask again.

And why did that canter depart that you have done before not work this time? Is it possible that the horse has learned that if I ignore the rider, they will give up? In the old married couples of horse and rider pairs that have been together a long time, this is most common. The horse has learned how to shake the rider's weak confidence by not answering at first, trusting that with a little delay, the rider will give up, probably need to regroup in the walk for a few minutes, try again, fail, regroup in the walk again... and the horse won't do the sweating and the rider will blame herself.

And the horse that has taught lessons is of course the other most skilled at the delayed response. They have to figure out what level of capable is this rider? Should I respond? Was that an accidental aid? Does this rider follow through or can I take a nap now?

And here is the thing, horses have the right to check. They are smart to check. They aren't mean or naughty with this little trick. They are just street wise. And I love them for this character trait because it means that they aren't machines.

But, ladies. Please! You know how to canter (insert flex, bend, down transition, half halt)! So instead of immediately blaming yourself, doubting yourself, feeling embarrased or incompetent, try smiling at your smarty pants equine partner, say 'nice try' along with a quick tic with the whip or something that confirms your intent, and canter on!

The Giving Scale

These fairly philosophical posts seem to be writing themselves as I reflect on my teaching and training lately. My own progress in the saddle, the unbelievable progress of my horses over these last few months and my total pride and pleasure in the work of my committed and talented working students and students keeps me reflecting on the meaning of dressage in my life.

As I reflect and grow as a trainer, I expect more such posts to spill forth. But this evening, the technical trainer in me wants to respond to yesterday's post. As I was riding today I realized I couldn't leave yesterday's word 'give' alone. That word is beautiful especially since it calls to mind things like generosity and gift giving.

But, of course, as an instructor it is also a very dangerous word. Often when I say 'give' to a student it is interpreted as 'drop' or 'abandon' or 'disconnect'. In an effort to clarify what we are looking for in a give, I thought I would try to add a few more layers to it.

In my last post, I implied that giving was different colors and shapes and sizes and I think it might work best to think of 'give' as existing on a scale. The mildest form of give is what I am going to call, AIM. To aim is give your horse's energy a direction and a plan. Aiming jumps energy forward in a positive way. Horse's respond to aim by willingly sending their energy with you.

ALLOW would be next. In allowing, we let the energy we have aimed come through our bodies. We allow by moving in the same pattern as the horse in the direction of our aim. This allowing is positive reinforcement for the horse who has followed our aim.

Next we SOFTEN. This is an often used phrase and we are often talking about softening our forearms or fists or backs or knees. In softening we decrease the positive and/or negative tension in a group of muscles. Like taking the kink out of a hose, when we soften muscles we are allowing the energy that we are aiming to flow in a specific direction. The horse feels the freedom from restriction as an invitation or an open door that they may flow through.

The next word I thought might be helpful is OPEN. I was specifically thinking of opening your fingers into the posture that would allow you to cup water in your hand, but it might also mean to begin to draw your calf away from the barrel or your thigh off of the saddle. In opening we are creating a very clear but small space for the horse to inhabit. We are saying come here, there is room for you. I will catch you, but I will not come and fetch you. This is a larger risk than the others as this is the first time, depending on the size of the opening and the clarity of your aiming, that energy might have to jump through space to stay connected to you.

The next step, RELEASE, should be the first time that position changes. A smart rider doesn't release her position, as in moving her entire rein aid forward by allowing the elbow to reach towards the mouth, unless she has had positive feedback from the open step. If the horse can't stay in connection in the opening than the release will be a disaster for sure. But the open step went well, so the rider releases her elbow and possibly shoulder. Or she creates a space between her seat bone and the saddle or takes her leg off of her horse's side. Sometimes this is a reward, sometimes this is a test to see if the horse is following our aim and is independent enough in balance that they can manage for a stride or two with very little physical contact from the releasing area of the rider's body. Release is what most riders think of and perform when they hear 'give'.

I think it is also worth adding the concept of YIELD. To yield is to allow a horse's pressure to move our posture. We yield the rein in a stretch to the horse (yes, we ask them to take it first). We might accidentally yield our leg to a horse that is avoiding bend or yield our balance forward to encourage a horse that has gotten contracted in his or her back. Yielding is sometimes deliberate and often accidental. It is a big decision with large consequences for the horse's balance and therefore his or her sense of well being.

In this little scale of giving, I would like to mention that I find that I almost never use opening, releasing and yielding aids of more than one of my systems at a time. Meaning, if I am opening in my receiving aids (think rein aids), I am not opening my balancing/directing aids (think seat and back) or in my creating aids (think driving aids). This is just as true if I am releasing my seat aids or yielding a leg aid. My other two systems are in support and are still aiming energy.

Perhaps you can take this scale and turn it into your own palette. Add colors and mix them together and let me know what beautiful paintings you ride.


It seems as if we are ever searching for true connection and harmony with our horses. Moments of disconnect or tension are disappointing at best and often can better be described as devastating by a lot of us. Many a significant other has experienced (with bewilderment) both their partner's exhilaration after a great ride and their deep depression after a poor one.

What can't be understood by non-riders is the joy you feel when your horse chooses to join the dance with you and the pain you feel when they choose not to dance. Learning the technical skills of this sport are not enough for most of us. The craving for harmony with our equine partner pushes us past technical accuracy into the realm of artistry.

For sure, without technical proficiency, we don't have the skills necessary to become artists. But as we transition into the realm of art, we also need to recognize the risks we are taking, particularly since we are working with another living creature who has his or her own preferences.

The joy and artistic expression of dressage is most often found in that moment after we ask something of our horse. We must give. Give space, give room for our horse to answer; to perform for us and with us. And when we give them room to respond, we also give them room to refuse.

Why dressage can be so beautiful when well performed is that one can see in a harmonious pair that the horse is choosing over and over again to say to his or her rider, I choose to stay with you.

At one level, that choice made by a willing horse feels like a gift, but most of us committed to this process understand that the horse has made the choice -- and will make it again and again -- based on the fact that we have taught them that they can do what we are asking. They choose to stay with us (in self carriage, in focus...) because we have taught them that we believe in their ability to say yes.

We believe that when we give, they will perform. I think the risk of this art form is that so often we give and they say, no. Or we give and they say, I can't. Or we give and they say, I don't understand. This happens to the artist as well as the mechanical rider, because this is the reality of our horse partners and how they learn.

I think that perhaps the difference is that somehow the artist learns that giving comes is so many colors. It is not one size and one shape. It is not one length of time or one particular aid. Giving might mean giving more support. It might mean asking louder or not asking for anything at at all.

But most surely, it means feel for their response. Talk with them. Listen to them. And do it again. And try again. Choose again -- despite the risks -- to dance with them.