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The Power of Positive Teaching in Dressage - Dressage Today

The Power of Positive Teaching in Dressage

A learning approach that focuses on trust, challenge and the necessity of mistakes yields satisfying results for dressage student and instructor.
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Susanne von Dietze teaches her pupil, Shiori Shimoide, on the 12-year-old Dutch mare Kilda. (Credit: Shira Yeger)

Susanne von Dietze teaches her pupil, Shiori Shimoide, on the 12-year-old Dutch mare Kilda. (Credit: Shira Yeger)

From the moment a new rider first enters the stable, there are essential lessons to be learned: Don’t run. Don’t play with the whip. Don’t stand behind the horse. These are just a few. Then there are the instructions typically offered by a trainer to a rider seeking to acquire or improve her dressage skills: Don’t pull on the rein. Don’t grab with the knee. Don’t let the horse rush or respond lazily. And more. 

As important as all of these concepts are, the manner in which they usually are expressed fails to yield the most productive results. In my own experience, I remember riding dressage test after dressage test, telling myself each time, “I won’t let the horse do this or that,” only to fall into the trap again and again. It seemed the more I tried not to do things, the harder it became to avoid them. Then I began to study human physiotherapy, and I became aware of how the brain and body learn, create and coordinate movement. It was a revelation that transformed my approach to riding and teaching.

The Process of Learning

 Popular clinicians like Steffen Peters are good at establishing confidence in their students. (Credit: sjoert.com)

 Popular clinicians like Steffen Peters are good at establishing confidence in their students. (Credit: sjoert.com)

Learning and teaching riding is learning and teaching movement—the concept at the core of my physiotherapy studies. And so, as my experience demonstrates, the same criteria can be applied. The ultimate goal is to enable the brain to become creative and explore new ways of doing things. Let’s begin with the three factors that are integral to learning. 

1. Learning needs trust. All students must have confidence in their teachers and believe that the challenges they face in their lessons are appropriate for their level. Trust bolsters self-assurance and maximizes the opportunity to demonstrate ability and increase competence. I have learned this in the classroom as well as in the saddle. Years ago, as my father was giving me a jumping lesson, I became anxious and afraid of the course. Recognizing my apprehension, my dad stepped next to me. He said, “You are my only daughter and you can trust I will never ask you to do anything beyond what you can manage because I do not want you to get hurt.” From that moment on, I have been able to jump any course if I trust that my trainer knows my abilities.

In contrast, a student who is anxious or otherwise stressed isn’t able to fully appreciate or consider possibilities and so he can’t learn. He reacts only in automatic, well-trained patterns rather than respond to the particulars of a specific situation. For example, it’s common at a dressage show for a horse to behave one way in the warm-up arena and in an entirely different manner in the test arena. A stressed rider may have difficulty perceiving the change and so he rides the horse with the same pattern of aids that worked in the warm-up, but the harmony of movement in the test is gone.

Many riders work with a method called “mental training” to change negative performance stress into a feeling of positive awareness. In doing so, they are better able to maintain a clear channel of communication with their horses and ride their tests with greater harmony as they recognize and respond to their mount’s needs.

2. Learning needs challenge. Once a solid base of trust and basic ability has been established, it’s time for a student to act on his curiosity and begin to expand his horizons. In dressage, this usually means tackling more difficult movements and advancing through the levels. It’s the job of the trainer/instructor/coach to help the student settle on the appropriate challenge so he can develop rather than become frightened or overwhelmed. Consider, for example, that if a rider is afraid of losing control, he may never be able to ride a good extended canter because he hasn’t ventured to fully feel his horse’s power and speed. In a similar vein, if a rider can manage one flying change, she should not move right into performing serial changes, but maybe attempt two flying changes along one side.

A trainer needs to see a rider’s abilities—not just the mistakes—to be able to present a challenge that can be met. And he needs to give the rider the tools to systematically achieve the goal. Breaking a complex task into basic components that can be accomplished by a student in a step-by-step manner is the hallmark of a good trainer.

 Effective instructors like Cindy Ishoy avoid telling students “don’t.” (Credit: Shawn Hamilton)

 Effective instructors like Cindy Ishoy avoid telling students “don’t.” (Credit: Shawn Hamilton)

3. Learning needs mistakes. To challenge ability means to encounter difficulty. Yet when teaching, it’s best for trainers to minimize negative experiences and emotions that interfere with a student’s capacity to learn; no good comes from endangering a pupil or frustrating him. However, this does not mean avoiding errors at all cost. No one can learn without making mistakes, but being afraid of mistakes is a problem. Studies show, for instance, that children who are protected from ever falling when they are learning to walk grow up to be much more accident-prone than those who took their fair share of spills early on. Other studies show increased facial injuries in children who have not been “trained” to fall. Without sufficiently experiencing what it’s like to topple, they fail to reflexively put out a hand to steady themselves or self-protect. Essentially, these children’s parents, in trying to keep their youngsters safe, inadvertently made them more vulnerable.

Along the same lines, riders try to avoid falling off horses because of the heightened risk of getting hurt. But it’s necessary to experience some borders of balance to broaden the ability to move with a horse. Balance improves more by moving than by keeping still. Therefore, a rider who is afraid to move will always be tentative in the saddle. A good friend of mine had a fall from a young horse. She was hesitant to get back on him until she attended a judo class for a couple of months. There, she learned to fall and to protect herself, and this helped her regain her confidence. She has been able to ride her young horse without any fear ever since.

Picture How to Move

Master instructors like Lendon Gray present challenges their students can meet. (Credit: Mary Cornelius)

Master instructors like Lendon Gray present challenges their students can meet. (Credit: Mary Cornelius)

Once we understand the most effective way to approach learning movement, it is helpful to recognize how movement is created in the brain. For even the simplest task—say to move a finger—the brain forms a picture and then, like a supercomputer, formulates a highly sophisticated plan of action. At times, we are mindful of what’s happening, but at others the complex series of events transpires without our awareness. To be able to function in everyday life, it is essential not to have to actively concentrate on every single thing that your body is doing, but to be able to turn your attention to the tasks at hand.

This is especially true in riding, and it explains why some very good riders are less effective as teachers. They have a difficult time explaining how to accomplish some movement or another because they ride automatically—in other words, they are not aware of the many complex actions taking place in the body when they are in the saddle and so they can’t put what’s transpiring into words. In my experience, adult beginner riders often benefit from devoting some time to developing body awareness. But the ultimate goal is to be able to perform basic movements automatically from the saddle so it’s possible to concentrate fully on whatever task they are trying to successfully complete. 

Creating pictures, or visual images, can help a rider learn a complex movement without needing full control or awareness of every detail. This is one reason why Centered Riding, the first book by popular equestrian author Sally Swift, was so successful. It featured many and varied images there were helpful to numerous riders. Watching good riders and copying what they do, is another way to approach learning complex movements. I know for myself that I always ride better after I’ve come home from watching a good clinic or horse show. This explains the phenomenon of why some students are look-alikes of their trainers. They are unconsciously copying their movement patterns—including any mistakes. So my advice is to choose whom you watch and copy carefully. Then you’ll be sure to learn positive lessons that yield beneficial results.

Putting Words into Action

Don’t think of a pink elephant. Yes. Really. Don’t think of a pink elephant. It’s an exercise that will help you to understand how your brain processes instructions. 

When it receives any command, the brain responds not to the sequence of words. Instead, it first recognizes the word that specifies the essence of the action to be taken. In our example, that word is “think.” Then the brain picks up on the noun: in this case, “elephant.” Then the description: the adjective “pink.” Only at the very end does the brain process the word “don’t.” That’s why it’s likely you’ve still got the vision of a pastel pachyderm in your head.

To understand what this means in terms of riding, consider the command: Don’t pull on the inside rein. First, the brain recognizes “pull,” then “rein,” “inside” and, lastly, “don’t.” That means the brain creates an image of pulling on the inside rein and the body prepares to do exactly what it shouldn’t. Erasing the image can be quite difficult and replacing it sometimes impossible. I often notice less-skilled riders freeze when they are told “Don’t ….” Without experience, they have no idea what the appropriate replacement action may be, so they stop in their tracks—never a good solution in riding.

The most effective instructors always tell a rider what to do. In theory this sounds very logical and easy. But I often have to bite my tongue to stop myself from using “don’t.” I do try to notice, however, and I make it a point to tell my students what they should do. My experience shows that it makes a difference. Here is an example:

I was working with a Young Rider whose trainer—her mother—criticized the girl for her hands being too strong. We were at the rider’s first show with a new horse. Her mother was not present, but she had told me to make sure her daughter “stopped pulling” in every transition. Indeed, the transitions I saw in the warm-up were not beautiful, and the rider was slightly frustrated when she rode over to me to ask what I thought. I responded that the judges look at the horse’s fluency of movement during each transition. “Make sure you ride forward even in the down transition,” I advised. She smiled back at me and declared, “Then we’ll ride the transitions of our life!” And she did. When she was told, “stop pulling,” all went wrong. But “ride forward and fluent” conveyed information that helped her to understand and feel the correct aids for the transitions.

Susanne von Dietze is a physiotherapist, a licensed “Trainer A” instructor and judge for dressage and show jumping. A native of Germany, she gives seminars and lectures at the German Riding Academy in Warendorf and throughout the world. The author of two books on the biomechanics of riding, Balance in Movement and Horse and Rider, Back to Back, she lives with her husband and three children in Israel, where she competes at the international level. Find her books at HorseBooksEtc.com.

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