The “Deadly Sins” of Dressage

Photo by Lance Wills

The ancient Greeks were among the first civilizations to stress the desirability of moderation, a virtue they called “sophrosyne”, as an antidote to the excesses of human behavior. They considered moderation, as opposed to the extremes of gluttony or sloth, as the key to a balanced, harmonious life. Furthermore, they felt that immoderate behavior planted the seeds of personal misfortune and failure, punishments they called “nemesis” or “retribution”.

What does this have to do with riding?

Immoderation is one of the “7 Deadly Sins of Dressage” because its behaviors stray from the balanced, considerate decisions of the intellect and instead give in to the appetites and impulses of base emotions. Since horse and rider work together in an interdependent relationship governed by subtlety requiring knowledge and frequented by misunderstandings requiring forbearance, success depends upon measured responses and considered choices. A rider must neither indulge in excess nor neglect responsibility. Moderation thus demands that the rider follow a middle path.

Photo by Lance Wills

Gustav Steinbrecht said that “The training process…must develop the horse’s natural gaits to their utmost perfection, but it must avoid anything that is excessive or unnatural.” And for some riders, that is exactly the problem. In their desire to achieve their ambition, some riders lapse into excess. They become overly ambitious. They let their competitiveness get the better of them, and they can’t leave well enough alone. They treat their horse like a machine. They think that by training the horse extra hard today, it will make him all the better tomorrow. If a little pressure is good, then a little more is better, and a lot more is best of all. But in dressage, that’s not necessarily so. Practicing harder doesn’t necessarily yield better results. In fact, the opposite is more often true.

You have to push your horse, but not to the point that you push him too hard. You want to push him to the limit, but not over. You have to challenge him to ascend through the levels of dressage, but you don’t want to overload the animal.

The art of dressage is educating the horse do as you wish and take pleasure in his work. You don’t want to sour him by making undue demands upon him. On the contrary, you want him to be your partner. Knowing when to quit is key.

General Faverot de Kerbrech (1837–1905), cavalry officer and pupil of Baucher said: “In training, there is always the tendency to proceed too rapidly. To arrive quickly, go slowly with careful, cautious steps. Make frequent demands; be content with little; be lavish in reward.”

Photo by Lance Wills

When you achieve a breakthrough with your horse you naturally become exhilarated, and you want to try it again. For example, a horse you’ve been working with finally does a flying change. Finally! A flying change! This wonderful thing has happened, and it’s only natural that you want more of it. But you have to control yourself. You’ve got to be considerate of the horse, and the horse has to feel that you’re being considerate of him.

Many riders respond to breakthroughs by demanding the horse repeat the breakthrough again and again. This mistake was noted by Seunig, who said, “Patience is equally necessary in order not to grow immoderately demanding, which always happens when we do not reward an initial compliance by immediate cessation of the demand, but try to enjoy a victory until the horse becomes cross or confused.” Nagging a horse is gluttony because it denies the needs of another being. When you over-practice on a horse, you place your own ambition above the horse’s need to be relieved of your demands. A horse so treated has essentially been reduced to the status of an object.

Take only what the horse gives you, and appreciate his generosity. It’s a mistake to slowly build a horse toward a breakthrough and then not back off and cease the demand when he complies. It’s a mistake because repeatedly demanding more of the horse will inevitably lead him to rebel, a setback that will require time to overcome. It’s far easier to maintain a horse’s trust than regain it. Instead, reward your horse when he’s obedient. A long pause “on the buckle” can do wonders in making a horse understand that you’re pleased with him. Caress him, or on occasion, give him a treat. But the greatest reward is simply allowing him to do what he feels best doing. And don’t nag him. If he is doing what you want, leave him alone.

And ask yourself: Are you guilty of one of the other six deadly sins of dressage?

This excerpt from the “7 Deadly Sins of Dressage”, by Douglas Puterbaugh and Lance Wills, is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books.

Trafalgar Square Books

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