Jec A. Ballou

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Dressage magazines often surprise me. Flipping through their pages, a reader would assume that the vast majority of students spend most of their time preparing for and attending dressage shows. Page after page offers articles about fine-tuning your performance at the next competition, tips for higher scores, and interviews with celebrity trainers gearing up for the Olympics.

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My friend Carmen’s adorable daughter Simone is, against all logic, horse-obsessed. I, too, suffered horse obsession as a child, but unlike Simone, I lived on a farm, so my craze seemed mostly normal. Simone, however, lives in a condominium in a high-density neighborhood in a populated metropolitan area. Neither her parents nor friends share her equine enthusiasm; it developed in her apparently out of the blue. This charming little blond-haired girl now has horse pajamas, pony colouring books, Breyer models, a wooden stable, horse-themed Valentine’s cards and cookie cutters, etc. She is afflicted so severely that all the non-horse people around her can only scratch their heads.

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The more we learn about horses’ anatomy and body mechanics, the more it becomes clear how riding and training can alter their bodies, and not always in positive ways. As we observe just how fragile and delicate these animals are beneath the surface it can be tempting to question whether we should be riding them in the first place.

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It is a conundrum that many riders have faced in the midst of consistent, focused effort: despite hours of invested time and exercises, the horse’s fitness and athleticism show no improvement. Even the most wisely chosen exercises do not seem to be working. One explanation for this might be due to the precision with which they are executed. Research from the past few years, though, has revealed an alternative — and surprisingly non-physical — explanation for some of these cases.

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If you have spent any time trying to train horses to accomplish physical goals, like moving more athletically, chances are good you have discovered that some individuals are more willing than others. Much as I would like to offer science-based explanations for this, I believe a lot of it owes to a less scientific trait that we’ll call “personal space.”

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My conversation last month with renowned trainer and veterinarian Gerd Heuschmann did not lead where I thought it would, having started with muscles but ending with books. He said he believed many of the disappointments in modern training are due to students no longer being committed to the scholarship of dressage. In addition to physical practice, he wishes for them to read and study and think deeply. But most riders don’t see the point, he lamented.

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Gulp. I tried to work up the nerve to let the reins out another inch or two as we cantered around, but I was having a really hard time doing it. First of all, my horse might run off. Second, if I got lucky and she did not run off, she would definitely fall on the forehand and careen about like an untrained plodder.

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