Dressage and Natural Horsemanship can sometimes seem to be at odds with each other. I have met NH people who feel that dressage training methods do not take the horse’s nature into consideration. Comments from them seem to indicate that the discipline of dressage is that of micromanaging a horse and that you cannot have a true partnership when you do this. On the other hand, there are dressage people who do not see Natural Horsemanship as valid horse training and cannot fathom how it could possibly help to further a dressage horse. They seem to indicate that if the horse is not in dressage training day in and day out, they will never progress through the levels. I sit in the middle, and can understand both points of view from my experiences as a professional dancer.
As a professional dancer, I met dancers who were unable to exist outside the dance studio. They took at least one daily dance technique class, but sometimes would take 2 or 3 classes in a day. These dancers would not miss a day of class even if it was during a vacation or time off from school or the dance company. I was not that kind of dancer. I could easily exist outside of the dance studio and gave myself time off from the daily grind of training when it was permitted. In this way, I found that living life in all ways, taking vacations, relaxing; hiking etc. all contributed to my success as a performer. In fact, one summer while living in France, I had no dancing work lined up until the fall. Wondering what I should do, I decided to learn how to ride horses–a passion of mine all my life that I had never had the opportunity to do. I spent that summer taking riding lessons at a very prestigious academy in Lyon. I took five riding lessons a week instead of dance classes that were readily available to me. The only concession to my dancing career was that I would stretch for 30 minutes after each riding lesson. This went on for two months before I had to fly back to the States for a performance in Toronto. I stopped in NY to take a week of ballet classes and then headed up to Canada. Contrary to what you might think, my dancing improved so dramatically from my non-dancing summer, that when I went back to company class, all of my fellow dancers were wondering where I had been studying all summer because I was dancing like never before!
Now some would have said that I was not serious about my career as a dancer because I didn’t take dance classes for 2 months! And yet, the reality was that by incorporating life outside of the studio (emotions, experiences, relaxation, different perspectives) actually enhanced my ability to perform! Therefore I believe, through this profound experience, that the training of a person…and so I believe also a horse, can actually be improved by many approaches. So although NH may not specifically improve dressage technique, it will improve the relationship between horse and rider, which is at the root of dressage. And although dressage training might seem to be an exercise in micromanaging a horse, the subtlety and precision required of the physical balance between the horse and rider is essential to the development of the correct musculature for the performance of the art of dressage.
To me, the combination approach is what I can live with and what makes the most sense to me in my journey with my horse. I value both disciplines and have very good friends and teachers in both worlds. I will continue to seek a balance between developing my horse physically in dressage training as well as finding ways to create a better partnership with my horse through natural horsemanship. And in fact, Pilates for Dressage® is dedicated to teaching the rider how to use the body to ride dressage more naturally!
I would love to hear from you what your thoughts are about this subject!