Q: I tend to be a perfectionist, and feel that I’m never able to live up to the goals I’ve set for myself. I’ve been riding dressage for 20 years, and am still not able to ride piaffe or passage, despite having decent horses, and I’m stuck at Third Level. I like to focus on my mistakes because I think it is the best way to improve. What is a helpful approach to become a better rider? —Name withheld by request
A: I am thrilled to have the opportunity to answer this important question. How we learn affects not only what we learn, but how we feel about ourselves, what we believe we can accomplish and how our horses feel in their work with us. Thus, your question addresses not only the ethics connected to how we treat ourselves, but how we treat our horse(s). The simple answer to your question is that it is nearly impossible to learn to a high level of dressage if you attend to only the negative either in yourself or in your horse.
You say you like to focus on your mistakes. Of course, it is important that we ask ourselves what we are doing wrong as we work with our horse(s). Clearly, it is only the rider, not the horse, who can make things either better or worse. Our horses, if left alone, would likely meander (or gallop) out to the pasture and graze. However, we cannot develop ourselves, or our horses, to the best of our abilities if we ask only what it is that we are doing wrong and focus only on mistakes. We also have to attend to what we are doing right and build on those gifts.
If we focus on what we do or the horse does that is right, we will be able to reward the horse for the right answers immediately. If, on the other hand, we focus only on our mistakes, we will constantly ride with feelings of tension, frustration and even anger. If horses have a genius (compared to human deficits), it would be that they are gifted sentient creatures. They feel everything. They feel a fly land on them and sense the slightest emotional shifts in their herd (even if the shift comes from acres away). Consequently, they feel even the most subtle emotion within us, even if we are trying to hide it from them. If we look at this in relation to the horse instead of ourselves, it might be easier to accept.
Many years ago I watched a well-known trainer work with a 6-year-old stallion on piaffe. His method focused on the negative. He would ask the horse for piaffe, wait until the horse made a mistake and then punish him for it. He did not focus on the positive piaffe steps and stop to reward the horse when he did it right. Can a horse learn this way? Yes, of course, but many horses wouldn’t be able to cope and would break down physically and mentally in the process. Is it an ethical method? No, it is not. It is not ethical to treat our horses, or ourselves, in this way. And it is not necessary.
Instead, it is important that we focus on what we do right and what the horse has done well and build on that with positive reinforcement. For you, as the rider, this means allowing yourself to attend to what felt right so you can repeat your success. This does not mean giving yourself or your horse recognition only when something is done exactly right. It means acknowledging the moment things are going even incrementally in the right direction. You should attend to and reward each part of the development of correct balance or the execution of a perfect movement.
I have taught hundreds of lessons where the rider did something beautifully, and I’ve complimented him or her on it. I make it a point to show riders how, when they did even a small thing well, their horse responded positively, i.e. with relaxation, cadence and expression, sometimes for an 8 or 9 result. So often the rider’s response will be to stop and comment on the one small thing he or she did wrong, and focus on that mistake. This makes it impossible for the rider to hold on to (both consciously and in his or her body memory) all the things he or she did right, and impossible for him or her to build on those correct aids.
If I don’t succeed in getting that rider to feel what she did right in her body and what her horse did in response, I will never get her to ride to Grand Prix level or to the best level her horse can achieve.
This does not mean that I don’t ask the rider to use a whip or spur when needed to get the horse to pay attention or build impulsion. Likewise, it does not mean I don’t sometimes explain what the rider did wrong. However, those aids for the horse and comments for the rider should be used sparingly and thoughtfully. I find they are hardly ever needed if the rider focuses on and rewards the positive as much and as immediately as possible.
Not only will this make your horse happier in his work, it will allow him to find that elusive balance of power and relaxation. Moreover, you will be able to build on your strengths, achievements and sense of accomplishment, and you will be able to ride with a sense of confidence, relaxation and full attention to your horse (as opposed to riding with all kinds of negative focus on yourself). When a confident rider sits on a confident horse, the results are unbeatable.
Jane Karol, PsyD, is a psychologist and a U.S. Dressage Federation (USDF) gold medalist. She has trained many horses to Grand Prix. Her main teacher and mentor is Gerrit-Claes Bierenbroodspot of the Netherlands. She works with children from ages 5 to 18 in equine-assisted psychotherapy and operates Bear Spot Farm in Concord, Massachusetts (bearspotfoundation.org).