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.