Jec A. Ballou

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It took me longer than it should to respect the necessity of lightness when giving my horse a cue from the saddle. “If I can see your aids, you’re doing too much,” my mother barked at me, to which I usually replied by rolling my eyes. Granted, devotion to invisible, gentle aids ran deep in the company of classical dressage students and teachers we kept. My mother was not the only one pushing for more refinement. Still, though, I assumed it had to do with keeping a certain aesthetic ideal.

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Somewhere along the path of their learning journeys, many riders including myself became conditioned to constantly observe and correct the horse’s head and neck position. We were taught that if the horse’s head/neck was in a desirable frame, it meant everything about our ride was going well. This led to over-prioritizing the front end of the horse, often at the expense of addressing all the other critical components of a horse’s body mechanics. Without realizing it, we spent the ride fidgeting with the bit above all else.

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Since I advocate strongly for dressage horses to also ride trails regularly, I found myself years ago implementing a rule or mantra that applied to any time spent in either of these experiences: on-the-buckle OR on-the-bit. Essentially, this boils down to riders keeping their horses in one of these states at any given time.

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Teaching is a funny business, especially when one endeavours to teach something as elusive as horsemanship. It’s a cruel pursuit of seeing students achieve success for a few seconds and then fall apart just as quickly.

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Cavalletti schooling became popular when the late Dr. Reiner Klimke used them to train his dressage Olympians. His daughter, Ingrid, has continued to use cavalletti to develop her international dressage and eventing horses.

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Interestingly, the average riding lesson never delves into the skills necessary for a maneuver that faces nearly every equestrian at some point – the emergency dismount. Sometimes also called the unscheduled dismount, this rapid exit from a horse’s back includes a moment of urgency, a little terror, and a brief heroic belief in one’s superhuman capabilities. In a nutshell, it involves voluntarily flinging yourself off the back of your horse – most often at high speeds – onto the hard ground.

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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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