Rider’s Corner: At the Heart of Dressage – by Meg Menkedick


In the Rider’s Corner, a guest writer discusses their experiences as a rider. 

In dressage, the goal is to strive for perfection; but of course, we usually settle for the best we–and our mount–can do at that particular moment.  It can be frustrating to dream of Grand Prix movements when we’re still working on a consistently decent leg yield.  This week, guest writer Meg Menkedick explains that the perfect moment in dressage is actually something we all can work toward.

What a happy realization it is to discover that the Holy Grail of dressage isn’t the perfect piaffe or passage, rather it is something that even those of us at Training Level can achieve: a beautiful, light connection with a horse that is “moving through” from the hind end. Everything else in dressage hinges upon the ability of the horse and rider to find and maintain this state of fluid, forward energy. And when you do find it, even for a few brief moments during some intense lesson with sweat dripping into your eyeballs, you’ll never want to ride another way.

How do you know if and when you’ve achieved such a state? The simple answer, (which may also be the least helpful) is that you’ll know it when you feel it. There is a quality to the feeling in your hands, and simultaneously the horse’s movement underneath you, that is distinctly different from what many novice riders think of as lightness of contact.

It is not a tentative feel of the horse’s mouth with reins that could, and often do, go slack when the horse moves its head a fraction. Of course, neither is it a heavy feeling like you’re holding the horse’s head up with your forearms. It is a feeling that you will instantly describe as “light” and the reason is because the horse’s body is engaged correctly–pushing from behind and lifting in the front, giving the rider who is holding the reins correctly and thereby catching the energy as it comes through the horse’s back, over the neck and into the mouth, a consistent, light, almost humming vibration in the reins that feels lighter than it did a moment before when the rider let the horse fall in on the corner, or whatever other myriad mistakes we riders make.

It is the beginning of true self-carriage for the horse and the rider must be there with hands that support the horse’s energy current. The rider’s hands close the circle of energy that the horse is putting forth, like an electrical conduit. Too hard of contact and the connection breaks with tension. Too soft of contact and the connection fizzles out into nothingness. But find the sweet spot and you become one with the horse with a connection that is marked by consistency and lightness. It is powerful and floating at the same time. It’s like entering a zone. When you get there you understand that this is dressage. You are now riding dressage.

So, how do you go about achieving this heightened state? Ride with a trainer who knows how to do it and knows how to teach it. You must have knowledgeable eyes on the ground to safely guide you and your horse into a correct contact. It is easy, before you have felt what a truly light connection is, to be deceived by that tentative, too soft hand. Conversely, you don’t want to pull your horse’s head down with the reins and think, “There, that must be it.”

When you ride with a skilled trainer, this process will not happen overnight, because it takes time to build your skills and the horse’s strength. So, be patient with yourself and your horse. Dressage is a lifelong process for both of you. It might take several years before you feel a truly light connection, but take heart in the fact that every rider on every horse must establish it every time they ride–even the rock stars of the dressage world. It might be helpful to ride a horse who already knows how to do it, but don’t fool yourself with “if only” thoughts of a “push button” horse, because there is no such thing.

When you have the right trainer, there is great satisfaction in learning dressage along with your horse. Participating in the process together helps to create a deep bond. The more you practice, the easier and more natural it becomes, and the more you understand the underpinnings of the higher movements. When you are truly committed to correct riding, even the lower levels of dressage are thrilling. You might get to half passes and pirouettes eventually, but you must find and develop the heart of dressage first–a freely forward, light and lovely, happy and trusting horse. And there is no better feeling than that.

Meg has been riding with Edgewood Equestrian for several years, and is currently embracing true connection with her lovely Georgian Grande mare, Kaliah.

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