“The most important part of the aid is the release of the aid.” I’ve seen that quote attributed to Germany’s Olympic gold medalist Klaus Balkenhol, but I know he isn’t the only dressage great to speak those words. In fact, most of the top riders and trainers I’ve listened to echo some variation on that idea: The most important part of taking is letting go. And you know what? It’s not a coincidence that this is a common theme among the best in the world.
Intellectually speaking, I understand the concept: When you apply an aid, such as your leg, seat, rein, spur or whip, the part that is most educational to horses is when you release the pressure upon their correct response. That’s the reward, and that’s what horses learn from. Otherwise, you just desensitize them to a nagging aid. I’m sure there are many trainers who would have lots to say on the subject, so as an Adult Amateur, I’ll leave that for the pros to elaborate on.
In contrast to my brain, my body and reflexes have yet to really embrace this idea. For better or worse, my personality is intense, obsessive and “unrelenting” (as a favorite trainer once told me), and my body reflects this. I’m continuously squeezing with my legs, driving with my seat and shoving with my hips. Let me assure you: Pretty riding this does not make. There is absolutely nothing harmonious about a rider who is huffing and puffing and nudging and shoving to manufacture every single stride. Retraining my body has been a continual work-in-progress. I think the habit comes from internalizing the importance of “Forward! Forward! Forward!”—another phrase we often hear in the equestrian world. However, it appears as though I—once again—took things too far.
Want to know the funny thing? Life with horses has a strange way of making us confront our flaws. For me, those lessons have been in releasing, in letting go, in giving.
If you’ve read any of my previous rants and rambles, you might know that I have owned a senior horse (“Fenna”) with kissing spine that—despite my best efforts—was diagnosed only in the twilight of our partnership. After we learned this and explored treatment, my trainer sat me down and gave me one of those talks that everyone dreads: You know, the heart-wrenching, soul-crushing one when they explain that you and your horse are no longer a match.
Rationally, I understood that a 19-year-old horse with grade 4 out of 5 kissing spine and some deeply ingrained physical resistance under saddle was probably not the ideal partner for an amateur rider with FEI aspirations. But I wasn’t ready to accept that. I loved this horse. Not only was she my partner, she was also very much a part of me. That little black mare with the kind eyes gave me my sense of purpose and identity. I knew her inside and out and could literally pick her out of a herd with my eyes closed. And I was just supposed to … let her go? And move on … to something else? And even if I was, who would want a 19-year-old horse with a known physical issue?
Luckily, my trainer knew the answer to the last question. He gently told me about another client, Robin, who was looking for a confidence builder to learn the basics of dressage. He assured me that she could guarantee my mare a wonderful home. Better yet, Fenna could still live at the same barn, go out with the same herd and stay under the care of the same trainer and vet. After taking some time to process it all—and cry, a lot—I opened my heart to the idea of seeing if Fenna and Robin got along. Afterall, I’m an average person playing in a rich man’s sport, and I understand the importance of being practical.
We set up a day for Robin to come try her in a lesson, and I sort of dreaded it. Wouldn’t it be like seeing an old boyfriend with a new girlfriend? Or maybe like watching someone else move into your childhood home? I wasn’t sure, but it didn’t seem like something that would sit well with me. I’d never sold a horse before, and this was unfamiliar territory.
When Robin eventually swung a leg over Fenna’s back, I watched carefully from the corner of the ring. When they picked up the trot and Robin lost her balance, Fenna slowed right down to a walk until her rider was more centered. Her ears were forward. She was willing and relaxed, with hardly an ounce of tension in her body. And in that moment, I knew I had my answer. This was what this horse was meant to do. It was time to let go of what I had been forcing—with muscle and willpower—for so long.
In hindsight, handing my beloved horse over to someone I knew would love her like I did was far easier than I had expected. Seeing my partner bring joy and confidence to someone else helped me re-experience those very same feelings through a new lens. Instead of stealing those feelings away from me, it was like they multiplied. As the saying goes, lighting another’s candle does not dim your own flame; it just makes the whole room brighter. And so, the giving moment that I thought would devastate me ended up filling my heart with a new kind of joy.
I’ve come to peace with that decision, and it’s made me reflect on other moments I’ve found unexpected beauty in letting go of something I love.
I think about the time I sorted through old equipment and found my first dressage saddle. I knew that despite my emotional attachment, it needed a new home. I eventually gave it to an enthusiastic teenage girl on a budget and now I smile every time I see her post a new photo with it on Instagram. My favorite was a picture from her first dressage test ever. I love knowing that I played a small but significant part in another young rider’s journey. Eventually, she’ll outgrow that saddle, too, and I hope she passes it along to someone else who will experience her own set of firsts with it.
I also think of the day I held my best friend’s 31-year-old horse for the vet when it was her time to go. I had never seen a euthanasia before, and I imagined the worst. Instead, it was peaceful and quiet. The mare left us on a sparkling blue day with her tummy full of carrots, taking her final breaths in her favorite place to graze. Before walking away, I knelt next to her body and cut off a lock of her tail for her owner—the last moment of giving and taking between horse and human.
Whether these moments of letting go are big, like saying goodbye to a horse, or small, like rehoming a sentimental object, they are not without pain, fear, uncertainty or sadness. Although Fenna went to a wonderful home, I still miss her as the partner that I knew. Our time together is over, and that is worth mourning in its own way. But I find that dwelling on what comes next for my sweet retired horse and her new owner gives a greater redemptive purpose to my sense of loss.
Life feels different without Fenna at the center of it, but I’m adapting. Robin is kind and lets me ride her often, plus I still get to spend time with her when I do barn chores. I’m not really sure what horse will enter my life next, but I know the right ones always seem to find us when we’re ready—and only when another rider chooses to let go.
About Lindsay Paulsen
Lindsay Paulsen was Practical Horseman’s managing editor for Dressage Today and DressageToday.com’s digital editor for several years. She’s a USDF bronze medalist and competed her mare, Ulita O (“Fenna”), at Fourth Level. She currently trains with Grand Prix dressage rider Jeff Lindberg near Saratoga Springs, New York, and spends time with her retired event horse, Femme Fatale (“Kat”).
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2021 issue of Practical Horseman.