by Laura Crum
No, not in real life. Just as a subject. And right up front, I know nothing about dressage, and I am hoping those who do will correct all my misperceptions. So this post is just to show you what comes to me when I read posts by other folks about dressage. It will reveal how ignorant I am (gasp). Feel free to make fun of me and/or show me where I am wrong. Seriously.
So the other day I read a post about dressage that really rang a bell for me. I’m not going to name the author because I’m afraid I may be misinterpreting what she said. And I certainly don’t mean to insult her. I believe her to be fairly accomplished at dressage. Anyway, her post was about the timing of cues.
I read this post and both laughed and nodded my head in agreement. The gist of it was that many people make very heavy weather about knowing exactly where a horse’s feet are at all times. Certain cues MUST be given when a certain foot is in the air or on the ground or beginning to rise or…you get the idea. And people go round and round trying to describe how you learn to feel the footfalls.
Well…yes, I have never had anything to do with dressage. But yes, also, those of us who have ridden reining patterns must cue for a specific lead departure in one stride, and a flying change, and a solid, balanced stop from the high lope, and a spin (would you dressage folks call that a pirouette?). And we, too, got a lot of input (much of it conflicting) on how exactly to cue these things. And yeah, lots of it had to do with cuing when the feet were in a certain place.
Its not that this is untrue, mind you. It’s just very hard for most of us to do. And as the author of the blog post I read pointed out, you will NOT learn to do it by sitting on your couch gathering advice from your internet horse buddies. You won’t learn to do it by listening to your trainer expound, either. The only way you will learn to do it is by many, many hours in the saddle. And for a lot of us, me included, you still won’t be able to say, “Oh, now Fluffy’s left front foot is rising and so I will cue him.” Uhmm, no.
What actually happened for me, and I believe this to be true of a few others, is that after many years of cuing many horses for, let us say, a left lead departure, I learned, mostly through the process of trial and error, to feel when the horse could easily take the left lead. And I would cue at that point. Basically I learned this by cuing at the wrong time and getting the wrong results, and then cuing at the right time and getting the right results. I did not learn it by making up a theory about it or studying the footfalls. A more astute student can (and perhaps will) tell me that what I learned was to feel when a particular foot was rising or planted or what have you. And perhaps I did. But I never thought of it that way. To be perfectly honest, in my opinion, thinking gets in the way of feel—and feel is what counts.
So after a lot of years in the saddle I could cue for a lead departure or a flying change or a spin, and my horse would execute the thing I asked. I might be able to tell you a little story about how I did it, but the truth is it was mostly about feel. And I got the feel by lots of hours on that horse. After doing it wrong over and over again, I finally knew the feel of when to cue. I knew both how and when to push the right buttons.
But every horse is a little different. So I would have to get used to the feel of a new one, and learn his buttons. The more horses I rode, the easier that was. And since I spent my youth riding a wide variety of horses, it was reasonably easy for me to adapt to a new mount. However, I want to stress that it still took some of that same trial and error—a willingness to experiment with what worked (and what didn’t work) for that particular horse. It wasn’t as if I had some kind of theory that I applied to all horses. In fact, I think theories are vastly overrated.
I’m not sure that this concept of mine about feel versus theory will apply at the higher levels of dressage—perhaps someone will tell me. I do know that if, for instance, I want my horse to shoulder in and sidepass so he is in the exact position I need to reach the handle of a tricky gate, I don’t think about what cues to use. It’s all about the feel. I cue as I sense the horse can/will respond appropriately. Does this mean I intuitively know where his feet are? Could be. I darn sure don’t know consciously.
So what I took from that dressage blog was this message. You can study theories till the cows come home—it won’t help you that much. Wet saddle blankets and a willingness to experiment are what will teach you how to cue effectively. And once you learn how to do this, it will be more about recognizing a “feel” than anything else. And this was exactly the way I learned to cue a horse effectively, in my own, much humbler, disciplines.
And yes, pity the poor horse that you experiment on. Well, yes and no. In my own case, my primary “victim” was Gunner, a horse I bought when he was three years old. I trained him and competed on him in first cowhorse, then cutting, then team roping. And yeah, lots and lots of wrong cues in that process, believe me. But Gunner still learned how to be an effective competitor in all three of those events. And from this kind, willing, talented horse, I learned how to give effective cues.
(Gunner turns thirty-three this year. I have owned him for thirty years. He was my competition horse until he was fourteen, I used him for light riding until he was twenty, he was turned out to pasture from twenty until he was thirty–one, and since then he has been home with me, being fed all he will eat and generally being spoiled. is still with me and still doing well, after a setback just before Xmas where he got cast. I spend time with him every day, hand grazing him, and he seems happy. I know I’m happy to have him with me and don’t begrudge one bit of the time, effort or money I’ve spent on him over the years. Maybe we don’t always have to pity the horse we learn with. For Gunner, I think, his partnership with me has paid off well—for both of us.)
So that’s my dressage theory for you—lots of hours in the saddle and a willingness to experiment with what works. Its all about intuitive feel rather than theories. And feel free to rip me apart. My riding today looks mostly like this. Not exactly dressage.
And, please do vote on my free book contest (my previous blog post—here is the link). Even if you are a dressage queen who considers all western horse events uncouth, and even if you don’t read on Kindle and don’t like mysteries. Just vote for the title that sounds even a little interesting to you. I would really like to get your input. If you have time, please leave a comment—either on this blog or on facebook—I will link to this post there. Thank you!