This next idea is a hard one for the horse world generally and specifically for the dressage world. There are a cluster of ideas which surround this and so there are levels upon levels.
Training the horse has very little to do with the body. It is not to deny the connection to the body, that is not it. The body connection is most certainly there, This, however, is more about the order of approaching the work. The mental aspect must always be put first.
The only way to approach the training is with tremendous generosity and compassion. Complete openness is not only needed, but one must give up seeing the horse as a project or the object of some scheme.
When a horse presents itself, it never does so with the deliberate intention of being “incorrect.” The horse’s carriage is a complex sum of its physical and psychological world. A horse must never be punished for presentation nor should it ever be forced into any posture other than the one that it chooses. This results in always the simplest of bits, loose cavessons (or none) and absolutely no side reins or any other form of mechanical restraint.
The “trick” is to supple and guide the horse into its best posture by exploration of the range of motion available to it and in particular to focus always on the extensions of the muscles and their relaxation. This is started with the greatest slowness and weakness possible.
Properly done, at the very start of this work, it may appear as if nothing happens. The most gentle of touches are used. This creates an event. An event is a mental focal point. Once created, this mental focal point has a pulse. The pulse is the inward focus of mind which is followed by a release and then again contracts either on its own (as it does in a trained horse) or in the case of an untrained horse it contracts by another gentle touch. The event is shaped by this cadence until physical movement dawns. The intensification of the event occurs over time by the horse itself and is assisted with the greatest gentleness by the trainer.
I have taken extensive amounts of time without a single indication that the horse is even paying attention to my efforts. This is most difficult for people to get, when all that they need is one solid whack of the stick to make the horse do something, but such aggression is always a mistake. The goal here is to engage the horse’s intelligence and not to create a “trick.”
As a result of this most gentle way, there is no order of training or perhaps, it might be said that the order of training arises of its own accord and is unique for each horse. Having done this with hundreds of horses over many years, I might note that there is a general order, but it is not always the same from one horse to another.
All training/dressage is a manifestation of a human dream. There is no solid “this and that.” There is only tender connection in which we work with a slow appreciation for the sensitivity of the horse (if we wish to do this well). Painfully slow at the start, one quickly realizes that this is the fastest way to advance a horse to the most advanced work and that at sometime, sooner or later, one comes to this place.
At this point, the only result that matters is a gentle drawing the horse out. Preliminary actions may occur, but as of yet, little of any value occurs. This leads eventually to training and what are called the basics which are none other than regular, symmetrical and cadenced flows of energy. The energies circulate through the horse and rider’s skeleton and form the foundation of movements which eventually manifest as reprises and finally produce a dressage or a program of performance.
Training is always uncomfortable. If it is not, then, it is not effective training, but that does not mean that the horse is violently jammed into the discomfort. Rather, we flirt with the discomfort until it subsides. Here is where the skill is. We seek to have the horse itself regulate the degree of discomfort that it is willing to withstand.
The skillful means of training has two aspects to it; generosity and compassion. Out of the consideration of these two attributes other attributes arise. The reward of any effort is always appreciated and with careful application the horse will set the direction for all the work. The horse is never punished unless it demonstrates deliberate aggression directed to the human and even then care must be used in punishment. One strike is punishment or a correction, more than that is you venting.
Our generosity is in the physical care of the horse, certainly, but we also extend our generosity in creating a place of safety for the horse and last, but not least our generosity is in that we provide a path to the cultivation of the spirit of the horse. We train the horse’s mind which provides greater self expression and joy.
Both human and horse who choose to follow this path of noble dressage open themselves up to a greater mind. We work beyond the movements. This greater mind allows both to rest in a greater state of peace and compassion.
The extension of our generosity and compassion extends itself on every level. Our generosity brings us to a place in the training where our attention is not so much on what is done, but simply allowing the horse to train itself while our attentions are focused purely on the harmony of the aids. To come to learn to work like this is a pretty incredible process for the human as well as the horse. Showing and experiencing this way of gentleness is game changing on so many levels and yet writing about it is not so easy. It is most assuredly counter to what the world would do, but if you were a horse it would be what you would want.