Updated: Jun 1, 2020
I found this quote from Daniel H. Pink and thought it applied perfectly to dressage. Is your horse autonomic? No, I didn’t say automatic. Do you give your horse certain responsibilities in life? Can you trust your horse to do the simplest things under saddle? Like, maintain gait and direction. Working with a one-thousand-pound animal isn’t exactly easy, but it doesn’t have to be so hard. Horses are capable of being responsible for themselves. How do they manage free range in a herd of other equines if they aren’t? Always, let your horse be a horse.
Even if you think your horse has a hard time understanding autonomy (or he’s never had the opportunity), it can be taught. Regardless of discipline, isn’t our ultimate goal self-carriage? Self-carriage implies responsibility, it shouts autonomy. Think about your human relationships. Do you have better partnerships with those people who allow you the space to think, speak, and act or do you enjoy being micromanaged? Be a partner to your horse.
While being a partner to your horse; remember, he doesn’t think like you, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t capable of responsibility. Take the time to understand horse behavior, not the anthropomorphized version most of us were taught learning to ride. Learn what makes your horse confident, what makes him insecure, and what he really feels good doing. Then, start by asking for slow and small bouts of independence. Take this time to micromanage yourself and leave your horse alone.
As your horse gains confidence with these small bouts of autonomy, increase their duration. Don’t increase your aids, learn to decrease your aids. Now, can you be autonomic? Can you sit still and enjoy the ride? Expect to sit still. Expect the horse to carry you. Expect your aids to be quiet. Use these moments to engage your brain. Concentrate on where you want to go next.
Did a funny thing happen? Did your horse start to go in that direction? If he did, great! You’re tuned in and he autonomously made the decision to follow your lead. If he didn’t, don’t worry, just keep going. Relax, breathe, check in with yourself. Did you notice what happened? Did your horse just keep doing what he was doing? Great! That means he was responsible for carrying you both, even if it was just for a few seconds. Keep going, expect more, a little at a time. If your horse gets anxious, take a few steps back. Be a partner, not a boss.