Horse Boy Dressage is stress-free Dressage. There is no difference between Horse Boy Dressage and Classical Dressage. So why the name? Because the Horse Boy Method – originally designed for working with autistic children and horses – not only incorporates dressage but works on the principal that stress makes learning next to impossible. This is certainly true when working with autistic children as their propensity to stress is very high but the same principal applies to all of us. If we are stressed, if we are suffering our bodies are tense, our minds full of the white noise of anxiety and our bodies are compromised in their abilities.
When stress is removed and mind and body can relax, anything is possible.
For many people, the experience of dressage is one of continual stress of never riding well enough of the horse never going well enough, of endless destructive rather than constructive criticism and the kind of assumption that if one is not perfect from the outset then one is somehow substandard.
The same is true for horses – it’s not surprising that many dressage horses go sour because their efforts are seldom rewarded – for the most part dressage riders and trainers tend to be so overly critical of the horses performance that the horse itself eventually loses heart. Of course this is not true in every single case, but sadly for most horses and riders dressage is synonymous with ‘stressage’.
Why is this? Because dressage has become a sport first and a general system of riding second. In a sport the judges the win/lose concept is there from the outset. The stress is there from the outset. Also, dressage for sport inevitably becomes a specialist pursuit aimed at pleasing a small circle of top judges – clearly this does not suit the temperament of most horses and riders, but only of a select few ultra-competitive athletes and most of these athletes inevitably fall short of a mark, no matter how high up the ranks they get.
With sport and the win/lose ethic comes a massive rise in ego. When the ego is overactive, psychological suffering is the inevitable result. Even when you reach your pike performance this is only a pike from which a fall is inevitable, so as long as one is pursuing dressage or any activity in this win/lose manner, one is shackled to an emotional roller-coaster of highs and lows and little lasting joy.
It doesn’t have to be this way. True dressage, meaning dressage that is not just focused on one rulebook written by one sporting association has its roots in practical horsemanship that is easily available to any horse and rider.
There are three basic stages of dressage. That seem to have disappeared from the sport side of things, but which are alive and well in equestrian cultures where dressage is still part of the training of a working horse.
The first phase (what people now call ‘natural horsemanship’) has always been the starting point for horses on the Iberian peninsula. The round pen and it’s exercises subsequently being exported to the Americas along with the vaqueros. This is a joyful period of training but should not be held in isolation from the later forms of dressage. Rather it’s a base line to which horse and rider can always return, if necessary.
After the natural horsemanship comes what the Spanish would call ‘Doma Vaquera’ or cow work in which the young horse, but working livestock learns how to go forward, condense or lengthen his step, accept the bit, and seek the contact, learn to stop, start and spin, and to cope with anything the outside world can throw at him.
In the French system this is called the ‘debourrage’ (the scraping clean) and includes working over small fences as well as basic flat work and hacking or trail riding at all three gaits.
The third stage (basic dressage) occurs about a year to two years into the horses training and this is what corresponds to the lower levels of sport dressage; lateral work in the arena, counter canter, basic flying changes, the performance of figures at all the gaits and the beginnings of true collection and extension. In sport dressage many horses are thrown into this fairly complex work without having undergone much in the way of the two early stages and so they start without the basic building blocks that the early stages give them.
As a result it’s often pretty stressful. What should be a fairly smooth formalization of the skills learned working livestock or in the debourrage are presented fairly abruptly. Neither the rider nor the horse has had time to prepare themselves and there is no practical application in either of their minds for what the figures in the arena might actually be for. It’s all very abstract which means that only a minority of horses and riders will excel – where as in the older systems most horses and riders had a lot of opportunity to develop the building blocks for collection, laterals etc. in the field before being expected to start performing them in an arena.
After the three basic stages of dressage comes High School Dressage – more or less what corresponds to the upper levels of sport dressage but which in their highest form go even beyond movements such as piaffe, passage and tempi changes and include aires, Spanish walks, trots and canters and ultra-collected canters such as terre-a-terre, mezaire and others.
Before dressage was ever a sport (roughly around the early 1900s) this upper level was used for horses that either did battle in the bullring or on the actual field of war. All of the upper movements have a martial arts rational and by the time a horse was ready to learn them he had already been working with collection and extension, lateral movement and impulsion, not to mention the potential freak-outs of what the world can throw at him since his early days of working livestock.
At every level therefore there was a practical application and a base faith that both horse and rider, both could and would get there in the end. Because no one was imposing universal judgments on how horses movements should appear pretty much any athletic breed could excel.
Breeds tended to be developed around particular needs but there was no universal ideal. Put simply, because dressage was a practical pursuit and an art rather than a competitive sport for money neither rider nor horse was subjected to the kinds of stresses that most sport dressage riders encounter today.
We seek to return to this stress-free, sport-free approach. It’s not that one shouldn’t do dressage for sport and for the eyes of judges, but it’s nice to have other options.
Stress-free, well that’s self-evident. It means freedom from stress; which in turn means relaxation and wellbeing of mind and body.
Dressage, is an old French word (most riding terms derive from the French, who I guess were clever chaps in regards to this sort of thing); It simply means training of whatever kind. What it has come to mean among horse people however is a specific set of exercises for horse and rider that starts with raw material and ends with a horse and rider fully in control of their mutual bodies and movements in order to be super effective at battle or the highest levels of equestrian sports. Let’s say it’s a bit like going from white belt to fourth dan black belt in a martial arts program.
These days dressage has separated off into various branches. The most common is “Sport Dressage” which follows a training pyramid and rule book laid out by the Germans in the early 20th Century to prepare horses for the Olympics. See video below:
You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video
There is also “Classical Dressage” in which the emphasis is not competition by simply the pursuit of beauty and harmony with the horse following a similar training program to the Sport Dressage but going much further in terms of the complexities of movements. Put simply, it’s more balletic.
There are also some more practical applications of dressage such as bull fighting on horseback – mostly as practiced by the Portuguese; working equitation and what the Spanish call Doma Vaquera (Ranch work taken into an art form); equestrian theater and even it could be argued, some of the mounted games that require extreme control such as high goal polo, show jumping and reining.
Obviously there is a lot of cross over between all these different branches of dressage and the basic training is much the same. However, there is a tendency in the horse world to over specialize. In the old days there was a much more holistic cross over between different riding disciplines – because riding as a sport was inseparable from riding for utility and transport. An old English or Irish farmer would have driven his horse in harness most of the week and would then have taken him hunting one day at the weekend and out of this show jumping evolved. Or the best ranch horses in Spain or Portugal would automatically become the best bull fighting or battle horses.
Because sport now dominants the equestrian scene, this cross fertilization has become rare. Riders are less willing to learn from each other so there is often mistrust and ignorance between one discipline to another and the emphasis on sport – and therefore winning and losing has made the whole thing extremely stressful.
Learning to ride is a bit like learning to play a musical instrument or to speak a foreign language. It takes daily practice for about 2-3 years to go from complete beginner to reasonably proficient at the basics – and after that one keeps learning forever. No one expects to play guitar well or speak French or Chinese proficiently in a short time period. Riding however can be deceptive. It’s possible to sit on a quiet horse, trained by somebody else and (if nothing goes wrong) get from point a to point b. But that’s not riding. That’s being a passenger, dependent on the good will of the animal who is usually following another animal ridden by a more proficient rider. To truly learn how to ride, takes about the same time as a language or a musical instrument but with one key difference. In riding the instrument can decide not to be played. It can decide not to come out of the box. It can decide to knock you sideways when you play it and run back to the box. Or if you were learning a language it is as if your tongue could decide to stop working or run off and start licking a lollypop instead of speaking. With the horse you are dealing with a thinking, living, intelligent, humorous (usually at the expense of the rider) being that can think and feel for itself and has to be persuaded into cooperation with empathy and tact.
There is also the violent nature of the horse’s movement. Once one gets out of the walk beginner riders take a while to stop getting bounced and stressed – it simply takes some time for the human body to learn to adapt to the movement of the horses’ body and the quirks of the horses mind before any real techniques can be learned.
So learning to ride – dressage – in fact comes with some inherent stresses already built-in. If one then adds extra stress to this – the win/lose mentality of sport, the investment of ego in being better or worse than other riders (experienced musicians happily jam with novices but experienced riders often snub beginner riders), then the whole thing is set up for pain not pleasure. It would be simpler and less expensive to simply drop a brick on one’s foot once each day, rather than to go to such lengths of effort and expense just to have a really stressful time.
By starting with a self-compassionate approach. Self-compassion is not something we are taught in western culture. Instead we are taught to be highly self-critical, as if the only way we can prevent ourselves from being complete couch potatoes is to constantly beat ourselves with a stick. We don’t treat our friends this way, but we do it to ourselves. And sadly that leads to all kinds of psychological and emotional suffering. Self-compassion is however a skill that is taught in Buddhist cultures. It can be learned at any time of one’s life. It’s worth getting hold of Self-Compassion by Dr. Kristin Neff a University of Texas psychologist (and Rupert’s wife – she has to be self-compassionate in order to be married to him!), which offers not only an explanation but useful exercises in how to achieve a more self-compassionate mind set. Click here to visit her website.
We need to remember to be kind to ourselves when we encounter the inevitable challenges and to remember that every rider no matter how amazing went through similar challenges. Finding an instructor who takes this approach is also vital – one wants to create a positive, not a negative cycle of learning. Ideally your instructor wants you to become better than he or she is and to pass the torch of their learning to an ever improving succession of pupils.
Sadly, many instructors actually hold their pupils back, especially when the pupil reaches the point where their knowledge is now level with the instructors and a teacher with more experience needs to be found.
Few instructors have trained their own horses through the highest levels of dressage themselves but most talk as if they had. Few instructors have trained schoolmaster horses that they will confidently put their pupils on so that the horse can show the pupil what the higher levels ought to feel like. Few instructors, even if they have fulfilled the first two criteria an teach without to some degree humiliating and stressing their pupils.
However, thankfully there are instructors out there, who have trained their own horses through the highest levels, who have produced schoolmasters for their pupils to learn the upper levels on and who take a compassionate, sympathetic approach to the whole thing.
We are not claiming to fulfill these criteria ourselves. However, we have identified some instructors and trainers who do and we hope to help prepare you to get the best out of them and above all to have FUN!
Copyright © 2009 Horse Boy, LLC.All Rights Reserved.
Information deemed to be reliable but not guaranteed. Check for pricing and trainings. Terms subject to change.
The Horse Boy Method is not intended or offered as a cure for autism. Ameliorative effects may or may not occur. The method was found to be very useful with Rupert's son Rowan and with other children subsequently. We simply follow what worked for Rowan and others but there is no guarantee of outcome.
By participating in a Horse Boy Method session or training or applying them at home you accept full personal responsibility for any injury or death that can follow any equine activity. The Horse Boy Foundation accepts no liability.
Just as a reminder… The Horse Boy Method Training is an intro into the methods including but not limited to back-riding. We do NOT suggest that you go home and start back-riding with children. Practice, practice, practice! Seek professional advice from your trainers to deepen your skills as a rider and horseman/woman. Take lessons! Again, after the training you are probably NOT ready to ride with a child. Practice until you, your horses and your property are ready for back-riding! HORSE BOY LLC, IT’S MEMBERS, OFFICERS, TRAINERS ETC ARE NOT LIABLE FOR ANY INJURY, DEATH OR DAMAGE CAUSED BY YOU BACKRIDING WITH A CHILD OR OTHER PERSON.
We do suggest you and anybody you work with wears protective gear like protective riding helmets etc.