Jec A. Ballou

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My student’s husband said it best when he quietly murmured, “You guys are insane,” before climbing back into his warm truck and pulling away from the arena. We, meanwhile, watched him drive down the road to a warm office somewhere as we stood in a combination of rain/snow, wind/hail, and frigid temperatures.

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After several years of traveling around giving clinics in which I teach riders to use ground poles in their regular schooling, I have arrived at a fact: most riders quickly understand the gymnastic benefits of group poles, but they will not incorporate them on a consistent basis. It’s not because they are rebelling against my advice but because poles can be a hassle to drag out and set up every day.

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The image of dressage horses prancing sideways might just seem like fancy footwork, but in reality these lateral movements are akin to physical therapy for the horse. From a conditioning standpoint the dressage exercises of shoulder-in, haunches-in, and half-pass prove highly advantageous for improving neuromuscular coordination and proprioception.

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Believe me when I tell you that I love freedom as much as anyone. I love trimming away boundaries, living widely in each moment. And yes, I love to watch a beautiful horse running free across a meadow with his legs surging and his expression content. That, to me, is a wonderful sight. On the other hand, a horse careening around a round pen with his neck twisted sideways and his body misaligned disgruntles me.

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When Western Dressage first established itself, we instructors struggled to describe the requirements of a “working lope” clearly enough for students. We wanted to be sure to differentiate it from the stilted gaits seen in the Western Pleasure discipline, and yet it was also not the animated jumping-across-the-ground canter of the traditional dressage world.

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Optimizing how a horse uses his body often relies on making the most of every chance you can to observe him. For me, training plans benefit enormously from noting how horses stand at the grooming area and while roaming around the pasture. This can be the purest time to evaluate how they are using their bodies during a given phase of training or life. It allows me to maintain an ongoing report for how they seem to be doing or where I might need to shift the emphasis of their training.

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It sounded like one of those Zen riddles intended to puzzle my 13-year-old brain until it staggered upon some flicker of enlightenment. “Forward does not mean faster,” my dressage instructor annunciated, her exasperation rising. And then with the next breath she waggled her longe whip towards me to assist in creating a forward-but-not-faster movement.

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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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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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