6 Rules to Ride by in Dressage

Yvonne Barteau shares a unique look at what a horse might ask of his rider.
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yvonne barteau gp delano

The best trainers in the world are not only “horse whisperers,” they are listeners and readers. They can read horse body language and behavior patterns. They listen to what the horse has to say. They are calm and they stay calm under pressure. How did they acquire this skill? By studying horses—lots of them. They learned by paying attention. Over time, the horses told them how to be horse trainers, and they listened. 

 The goal of my book is that we all come to recognize that because horses are not all the same, any training program—whether it has competition at its heart or not—needs to reflect the unique needs not only of the rider but of the horse, too. Horses do not all share the same personality traits. Nor do they have the same physical abilities, energy level or intelligence. If we try to figure out and factor in their differences and their “voices,” when it comes to our daily rides, I believe all involved will benefit.

Rules to Ride By 

Here I share—through a 13-year-old Arabian stallion’s voice—the six rules to ride by:

1. Be fair. Every rider, regardless of her discipline, has a basic responsibility when she gets on the back of one of us and that is to be fair. Being fair can be achieved only if the rider has an understanding of who each horse is as an individual. 

Good riders and trainers know horses. It doesn’t take them long to figure out that some of us are social, some fearful, some challenging and some aloof. They may not use these exact words to describe our personalities, but they understand who we are from the inside out and, because of that, they have a pretty good idea about what our reactions to certain information might be. Good riders and trainers study their horses objectively but with compassion. They know that many of our actions are based on our past associations with similar circumstances and then what happened to us, based on how everyone else reacted. And so whenever possible, they like to know where these memories came from. Along with the difference our personality, energy level and intelligence plays, how we have been handled and trained—and our associations with that—says volumes. A horse’s security, confidence and success lies in the hands of those who hold his ropes or reins. Many good horses go by the wayside because their handling is inappropriate or downright incorrect.

Fairness—whether those we are interacting with are or are not—is a constant and continual issue for horses. If our riders and handlers could keep that in mind, our lives and our trust in the people who work with us would be more secure. For example: Reprimanding a horse before he has done or started to do something wrong—just because he made the wrong choice in a similar situation before—is simply not fair. But waiting until the horse starts to get out of line and then giving an appropriately timed and dosed correction is fair.

This doesn’t mean that you need to be a pushover or not set reasonable training goals and help your horse achieve them. Quite the opposite: All proper training happens when the horse understands his job, step by step, piece by piece, and he can physically perform the tasks he is being asked to do.

2. Identify the individual. I am similar in some ways to one or two horses in my barn—out of almost 70—but no other is just like me. Our many differences, in preferences and actions, are easy for all of us to see, but I often wonder if the humans in our lives really notice. 

It is my tendency to let inept or insecure riders get away with their mistakes—I do not take advantage of them. It is my tendency to show up for work each day, interested in how I can interact with my rider even better than I did the day before. I am motivated by the moments when my trainer stops, scratches me on the neck and lets me feel his satisfaction through his relaxed state—when his body and being are quiet and doing nothing. My rider does get it. He knows me. I wish that for every horse.

Before you handle, ride or buy any horse, ask those who know him best a few questions, and not just about vet and farrier records or feed preference. Ask about who the horse is—how easy or difficult he is to handle, train and generally interact with. The people who groom him, handle him or train him will know if he is any good at his job. I am social, and you can pretty much tell that by looking at my face. I am interested in things, mostly happy most days and I like to interact with both people and other horses. When I was younger I was easily distracted, but I am much more focused now. Social horses like me are probably the easiest to work with. You will get away with more mistakes. 

This is also true with some of the aloof types of horses—they’re usually not paying that much attention and so they aren’t very reactive, making them quite user-friendly. That said, aloof types are harder for many riders to figure out, and often the best way to do it is to simply notice they are not much like any of the other types. Many horses have a mixture of two temperament types, one being louder or more on display than the other. We are all as individual as you are—we differ from each other just as you differ from your family members. Even if it is only in small ways.

Fearful types can be tricky. We have some fearful horses here and they are always assigned to people who can handle them best—calm people who have patience and who are not fearful themselves. That works best. Fearful horses worry, needing constant reassurance and a thoughtful, accommodating guide through the entire training process. When handled well, these horses sometimes don’t act or look fearful at all, but that is a credit to their relationships with their trainers. This “act” can be fragile if disturbed, so you need to have your eyes open when cultivating a partnership with this kind of horse.

Challenging horses like arguing with everyone about everything. Of course, this is true for some more than others, but this tendency is their thing. Arguing. Saying no. Testing you, trying you, pushing the envelope and behaving in an opportunistic manner. They can be good performers as well as good riding horses, but they need skillful handling and they are not for everyone. 

The bottom line on horse types: Open your eyes. Look at the horse. Ask questions, but be sure the answers you get match what you see with your own eyes. Horses don’t lie. We are who we are.

3. Earn respect. We want you to be in charge and we want you to be good at it. We want you to know what we need, even if what we need is discipline. We want you to be a nice, fair, quiet leader. On the ground and equally so under saddle, you need to earn the respect of every horse you work with or ride. Sometimes it is easy to earn this respect, especially if the horse has been well handled prior to your meeting. A simple introduction may be all that is necessary. 

It is important when approaching any horse that you do so in a quiet, uncluttered frame of mind. Look at him and let him look at you—although he may not. He might be aloof or he might be paying attention to something else or he might be afraid. Do not let that put you off. Notice his reaction to your presence. He will get a sense of you if you just have a quiet moment with him. Make that the pattern of your behavior around us.

4. Control your emotions. This brings us to a very important point: You need to control your emotions around horses. Try not to go overboard—don’t gush, fuss and fiddle about. It is unsettling to us. Be quiet, polite and still inside and out. Clear your head of all that troubles you and give me—or any horse—your undivided attention. Stay relaxed. I will probably tolerate it if you do not, but it is just not the way to succeed with most horses. If you are insecure we can tell. Angry, belligerent, testy—we will sense that instantly. Distracted and unfocused? Got it. You must be a voice of reason in the storm. We look for that leadership. When you can be that for us, then we will be there for you.

kim barteau arabian nights

Tension, fear, temper and ego are traits that many inexperienced riders display. If you are someone who is worried or tense around horses, find good support from an experienced instructor and a well-trusted horse to ride. Listen to them both. Try really hard not to invent things you think your horse is planning on doing. Find a way to relax and enjoy the riding process even if it is on a longe line at first. When our handlers or riders succumb to a lack of confidence, it makes us uneasy. We do not have any way of knowing why or what you might be afraid of or what you may have read or seen or gone through in the past. We just know we need you to be there for us, and if we sense we cannot rely on you to guide us when we need you to, then, well, game over. 

Temper in any form is unsettling to horses and has no place around us. In the barn where I live and in the arenas where I have been trained, temper is never allowed—either on the ground or on the back of a horse—and that is an ironclad rule. Let it be yours as well.

Ego is a little harder to identify, and I have been exposed to plenty of it! Folks who think we are just vehicles for their own goals and dreams often have an insensitivity toward us that, in the end, is the very thing that limits those same goals and dreams. We really do not know what your goals and dreams are, nor do we have a particular interest in achieving them, regardless of however many sappy horse movies you may have seen that imply otherwise. We want you to listen to us, to be fair and appropriate with us, to stay in real time (the here and now) with us and then, yes, we are capable of great things together. Make sure that the you who shows up at the barn is consistent in action and worthy of a horse’s trust and be that person on his back as well. We all love routine, consistency, calmness, quiet discipline and, of course, food. 

5. Make your aids go away. All training systems do not need to be the same in order to work. They just need to be consistent; we just need to understand what is expected from us. Here is a training tip from the horse’s mouth: The timing of the removal of the aid or signal a rider uses is what actually trains us. This is super important. Whatever aid you use for whatever it is you want, our step toward understanding your communication will be associated with what made it go away. So make your aids go away at appropriate times. This should not be a random cease and desist. We all hate indiscriminate, erratic aids. Everything you ask for needs a reason for us to react as you’d like, and if you are careless with your signals, we will soon ignore more important aids and also lose our trust in you.

6. Care for the horse you are riding. If you ride, you should care about horses and especially the one you are riding. Read about, study and educate yourself in basic horse care. It is the little things that a person does when she cares and is paying attention to her horse that set her apart. Believe me, good grooms and handlers are worth watching and emulating because they are their horses’ best friends. 

In my time I have observed a horse learn to kick a beach ball, spin a rope with his mouth and answer complex aid sequences that would appear sentence-like to you. I’ve seen horses do this complicated work happily, day after day, due to good training that follows these rules. Good training is more often about the human involved than it is about the horse. I have been lucky in that regard. There is much more for you to learn, but my part is done for now. Good luck and remember to be calm, quiet and fair. 

Yvonne Barteau, author and career horsewoman, started categorizing horse personalities in her 20s, eventually writing a book on the subject—Ride the Right Horse. These personality assessments helped her retrain problem horses and deal with everything from bucking and rearing issues to bolters and runaways. She eventually entered the equine-theater business, becoming the director of entertainment operations, principle trainer and a feature performer at the Arabian Nights Dinner Theater in Orlando, Florida. After the theater, she devoted the bulk of her riding and teaching to dressage. In The Dressage Horse Manifesto Barteau hopes her words—which are written in the horse’s “voice”—address everything from understanding the basic equine temperament types and how they relate to daily training and riding to how a horse wants to be ridden during certain movements. In the excerpt published here, she uses the voice of Makismo, a 13-year-old Spanish Arabian stallion used in equine theater and dressage to explain the six rules every rider should consider when working with his or her horse. Used with permission from Trafalgar Square Books. The book is available from www.EquineNetworkStore.com.

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