Effortless Effort by Gincy Self Bucklin

Effortless effort. Those two words could really be used as a synonym for dressage, and also for the horse who has been trained with dressage techniques. Yet sometimes trainers and riders lose sight of that picture. We see horses and riders sweating and straining, working hour after tedious hour, horses breaking down and riders burning out because of so much tension and stress .

The first time I heard the word ‘dressage’, it was defined as taking the horse, who does all manner of things effortlessly and unconsciously on his own, and teaching him to do them consciously–that is, on command–with a rider on his back, just as effortlessly.

I think of a story my riding master told me. As a young man in Germany right after World War I, he was taken to visit one of the state equestrian training facilities. The day was hot, the sun was beating down on the sand in the arena when they arrived. In the arena was a young man, in his twenties, mounted on a large warmblood. The young man was trying to put the horse ‘in the bridle.’ His shirt was off; sweat poured off his body and every muscle bulged. Despite his efforts the horse resisted. Tension, frustration and anger filled the air.

Then, out of a small house nearby came a very small man in his middle sixties, dressed in impeccable riding clothes. “Nein, nein,” he said quietly. Just as quietly, he asked the young man to dismount, and himself mounted the horse. Immediately the horse relaxed, ceased resisting and went obediently and correctly forward into the bridle! There was no strain, no conflict, no forcing. The old man–who was the chief instructor of the school–simply was able to show the horse what was wanted and then allow him to do it.

My trainer used this story to help illustrate the concept that training is much easier than we think, because the horse wants to do the right thing. The reason he wants to do the right thing is because it is the easiest thing for him to do, and that is what makes it right.

The converse of this principle is that if an activity is not easy for the horse, that means that something is wrong. Thus we have a very simple map to follow in training. The minute the horse says, ‘ this is difficult for me,’ we know that something is wrong,and we look for the cause. And, when the horse begins to find the activity easy, we know we have found the right answer.

One might think that new things must always be hard, but because dressage movements are all movements which are natural to the horse, this is not necessarily so, especially if small steps are taken. As soon as the horse shows that he finds something difficult–at whatever level–we must solve that problem before we try to go to the next level of difficulty. We will then find that, instead of the training becoming harder, it becomes easier, because the horse has the correct foundation on which to build each more advanced step.

We must also train ourselves to be aware of how the horse feels about his activities. It is very easy to say that the horse is just lazy, or pigheaded, but laziness and pigheadedness arise from exhaustion and frustration.

In working on correct carriage in the horse, which is the basis for effortless performance, we must remember that, like correct equitation, it is not correct because some judge or rule book says it is correct, but because only out of that carriage or that position can correct function arise. If the horse carries himself correctly at the walk the transition to the canter is effortless. If his walk is stiff and irregular the canter transition will be awkward and difficult. In this way he tells us that the walk is incorrect, if we are not sufficiently experienced to realize it. But one should not then be discouraged. All we have to do is return to the point where horse and rider performed competently and effortlessly, then move on gradually until we discover the moment at which things become difficult . If each step is based on finding effortless effort in that movement, every session becomes enjoyable and progress is continuous. And unsoundness is reduced to a minimum.

One also finds out how much more fun it is to train a horse who is enjoying what he is doing than it is to force a horse to do more than he is ready for. The final bonus is a horse who is self-confident and happy, because he feels successful most of the time. Such a horse always has an edge going into competition, because he expects to succeed, and it shows.

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