True listening, like the art of using the aids, is a skill we acquire in good dressage. It is not always easy but is it is more important than learning the use of the aids because without the relaxed harmonization with the horse’s movement, even “correct” aids block the flow of energy when the horse needs to move. The question of the aids is not just how, but also when and listening is what is what is necessary to answer that question properly,
We have to come out of our own insecurities and self-absorption, which takes confidence and relaxation to find and feel each moment when we are with the horse. We have to care about another being, the horse, which takes a maturity and a degree of sensitivity.
The idea of releasing the aids (descente de mains et descente de jambes) may be fundamental to the discovery and timing of correct aids, but it still takes a mind actively listening and willing to listen. Listening also requires bravery, patience and compassion thus, the noble qualities of a good listening can overcome many of the faults of a poor use of the aids. Even though listening is a receptive act, it is a simultaneously a dynamic endeavor that allows the horse and rider to grow together.
In order for listening to occur, we have to relax. When, we do not listen well, there is tension in the body. This kind of tension is related to aggression. Something is preventing us from truly listening. Perhaps we do not fully trust our experience or education and so we are not psychologically ready to be receptive. It may be that we do not respect the horse’s wisdom; we are not ready to be submissive to the horse’s movements.
Education in linking to the horse physically and mentally can relieve this blockage. It can be helpful to inhale or exhale, pause or fix the seat, release the arms or legs, or touch and feel the place of tension in our body. After reconnecting and properly linking with the body through our posture and breath, we may find ourselves relaxed enough to listen and hear the horse.
This is the point of seat training which links us first to the earth and then to the horse itself. Only the educated seat creates the circumstances in which listening can properly occur.
It is most important to understand that the seat is not a physical appearance of the horse, but natural relaxed connecting which is unique to every individual. It is beyond mechanical placement and, in fact, any attempt to pose a rider no matter how good the instructor’s eye may be only results in a rider who is incapable of properly listening.
Riders spend hundreds of hours on longe lines and riding without stirrups and never learn to sit correctly simply because of mental rigidity and a failure to appreciate the nature of proper relaxation. Even though they may attain appearance which looks right, there is an inability to listen to the horse and even though they demonstrate sophisticated control, they spoil their own work.
The act of listening, the cornerstone of good dressage, is a sublime way of being present in the moment and with the horse. It takes keen attentiveness, relaxation, and respect. The receptive state of listening is a way of learning, a way to gain wisdom and insight, it is the path to the goodness in dressage and is a meditation on the joining the horse through harmonious sensuality.
Learn to listen, say “what” to the horse and find good presence. Command over the horse only occurs after the skill of listening is perfected. Control without listening is only a parlor trick and while you may successfully ride dressage tests, you will never fool the horse. Be the rider who puts the horse first; listen.