When aren’t we seeking a breakthrough? That “aha!” moment when the lesson clicks and we and/or our horses not only get it but can do it (whatever “it” might be—square halt, lead change, rollback, what-have-you) from here on out? The thing is it isn’t fun, for us or our horses, when we rely on countless circles, spins or transitions to reach a current goal. In fact, as much as repetition can create muscle memory and drill home aid sequences or movements in a test, it can just as likely wreak havoc on your mental state, psychological drive and physical health. Oh, and newsflash: your horse probably hates it, too.


Photo by Keron Psillas

In his book The Alchemy of Lightness, written with Dr. Maria Katsamanis, classical dressage trainer Dominique Barbier explains how really, all this repetition isn’t at all necessary to achieve our riding and training goals.


As a clinician I have a short period of time to work with horses and riders, and I oftentimes do not have the luxury of systematically gymnasticizing each horse in the usual physical ways. This involves rethinking how horses learn.

The basic system of training that currently exists, and the one that most people are convinced is the only way, holds that repetition and association are the main routes to teaching the horse. Well, I do not think this is true. Yes, horses can learn through repetition. But are they able to learn in another way, without repetition and in a more sophisticated teacher-student relationship, as people do? True, we can teach people by simply repeating an exercise, but we can also explain what the exercise is first, and the complementary understanding of the task allows for faster learning.

A simple example can be had in the way we think about riding in general. Do we consider it an entirely physical act of physically repeated aids and the horse learning from his physical response to the repetition? Or do we send a picture to the horse, a visualization to help him mentally understand what we want as well as to provide a visual guide that we can then try to reproduce?

When we ride in the way of the former (purely physical), we probably consider our horse a “stupid animal,” while when we ride in the way of the latter (incorporating visualization), we show that we understand that the animal can think, create, both receive and send mental pictures, and communicate with people as well as his fellow horses.


Photo by Keron Psillas

The general assumption about education is that most humans are probably unable to understand the nuances of a lesson, and so they have to be taught the “hard way” (repetition, repetition). Luckily, some believe in the benefits of “art school” or other alternative learning environments, and in these places, learning is different. There we learn ways of expressing ourselves in the course of absorbing the lesson—and it has been shown we are perfectly capable of acquiring new skills and knowledge in this way.

In the animal kingdom, education can work in the “art school” way. Horses have the ability to understand a lot more than the physical aspect of a lesson. This is why visualization is key to equestrian art: It leads to “molecular thinking”—an interaction on the mental and molecular level that allows the horse and the rider to understand his or her partner and feel as though they’ve become one.



This excerpt from The Alchemy of Lightness by Dominique Barbier and Dr. Maria Katsamanis is used by permission from Trafalgar Square Books.