She starts off by taking issue with the definition of 'dressage' as "the systematic training of the horse". She proposes instead to redefine it as "the process through which riders inter-act with their horses from moment to moment, and learn the skills to do so in more refined and effective ways." For me, this works as a definition of riding full stop. It is not restricted to those "doing" dressage. At the other end of the spectrum, even a rider who "just" hacks their horse out on the trails can interact with their horse from moment to moment, learning to do so in more refined and effective ways.
Mary reminds us that the process of learning to ride well is incredibly complex and challenging: "As well as gaining intricate physical skills, we have to gain a subtlety of perception that can match the perceptions of our horses: in other words, we have to learn to read them in the way that they so instinctively read us. This gives them the intimate knowledge of our physical, mental and emotional weaknesses. As well as arranging their bodies according to our asymmetry, our floppyness, or our bumpyness, they also sense our commitment level, and our bottom line."
In this model, the process of riding becomes a conversation, as well as an energy exchange between two players, in which the rider (as a human being) is hampered by being vastly less perceptive and attuned to their own body than the horse is, never mind the difficulties of tuning into a body not their own. For me, learning within this model has transformed the way I am aware of my body (not to mention, literally transforming my body, in the muscle development that it has required in order to gain control of my body's movement). It has also transformed the way that my horse is aware of his body.
I think there is a really interesting parallel to this model of thinking about riding, which I came across in Josh Waitzkin's book, The Art of Learning (really great book - I highly recommend it - you can read the Introduction here). The focus of the book is specifically about how he learns (having achieved world champion status in two very challenging skills, firstly chess and secondly t'ai chi / push hands - his opening paragraph describes his experience competing in the Push Hands world championships in Taiwan), but his descriptions of learning the art of 'push hands' as part of his t'ai chi practice resonate to me with the experience of riding, and in particular with the experience of riding as Mary presents it. He gives a description of his first experience of push hands in the Introduction:
"After about six months of refining my form (the choreographed movements that are the heart of Tai Chi Chuan), Master Chen invited me to join the Push Hands class. This was very exciting, my baby steps towards the martial side of the art. In my first session, my teacher and I stood facing each other, each of us with our right leg forward and the backs of our right wrists touching. He told me to push into him, but when I did he wasn't there anymore. I felt sucked forward, as if by a vacuum. I stumbled and scratched my head. Next, he gently pushed into me and I tried to get out of the way but didn't know where to go. Finally I fell back on old instincts, tried to resist the incoming force, and with barely any contact Chen sent me flying into the air." (There is more information on Push Hands here.)
I have had riding experiences that felt exactly like that - as though my body was being controlled by the horse underneath me, tugged forward and pushed backwards by unseen forces beyond my control - even down to the experience of attempting to resist the incoming force and ending up flying into the air! This model of riding as a conversation of biomechanics and energy sensing between horse and rider provides a language for talking about the ways in which the horse is impacting the rider's body in a non-judgmental (on either side way) - so instead of 'my horse won't canter', you have instead 'I'm asking for canter but the horse can't canter because I've folded forward, and my bum has come out of the saddle, and I'm pulling back on the reins because I don't feel safe' and then, at the next level up, 'I'm asking for canter, but my horse can't canter yet because he has tipped onto his outside shoulder, and he's taken away his back under my right seatbone and I'm holding my breath because I don't know if it will happen or not...' (Then there is yet a further level which goes 'my horse was thinking about tipping onto his shoulder but I've already asked him not to'... - and probably more levels beyond that!)
Breaking it down like this enables both rider and instructor to have a conversation about things they CAN actually address - however difficult it may be to make the changes effectively (to keep yourself from folding forward, for example, or to keep your horse from taking his back away from under your seatbones). This seems to me to an incredibly productive and fulfilling way to proceed, and I count myself extremely lucky to have found an instructor who teaches me along these lines.
"The emotional responses which arise in us when the horse thwarts our intentions frequently turn riding into a power struggle, and this brings another dimension into our learning. If we are impatient, we have to learn to become patient. If we lack authority, our horses will demand that we develop it. If we lack sensitivity, we are challenged to develop that too – and then to demonstrate these apparently opposing qualities in one body-mind. This is asking a tremendous amount of us. For to be good riders we have to become what we are not – as does the horse."
And, of course, this is the other facet of riding, our emotional response to the horse. And, in my opinion, it is not just the rider that brings emotional responses to the interaction - the horse too can have emotional responses which need to be acknowledged and worked through. In one of her later books, For the Good of the Rider, Mary has a whole chapter on "Mindwork", and she talks about the three roles that riders can fall into in their relationships with their horses, using the terms from Transactional Analysis of Victim, Rescuer and Persecutor (description of the theory behind these terms here). Can you recognise yourself in these roles? Which role do you feel most comfortable in? Which role do you feel most comfortable casting your horse in?
The challenge here is to step out of the limitations of these games and to find a way for you and your horse to relate to each other on the same level. And in order to that, we have to be prepared to be honest with ourselves, and to be able to see our horses 'cleanly', without projecting what we want or need them to be saying into our understanding of their side of the conversation - which is challenging stuff. I think that models of riding which concentrate solely on the physical for both the rider and the horse are addressing only the tip of the iceberg, and impoverishing themselves in the process. It takes a huge amount of commitment not only to be prepared to address the mental and emotional components of our relationship with our horse, but also to be prepared to develop in ourselves those bits that may be "missing" (sensitivity, authority, patience) for the sake of our horse, but if we ask it of our horses (to be more sensitive, to be more patient, to be more submissive), then I think we need to be prepared to commit to this ourselves.
"In good work, horse and rider are part of a feedback system. The ‘game’ of dressage riding is a ‘game’ of interaction in which I as rider feel the horse change (say he falls on one shoulder) and I counter his move by straightening him. He responds to my move, so I sit still. The next time I sense that he is about to fall on his shoulder, I counter his move before it even happens. I have had a conversation with the horse which – if I was subtle enough – will not be noticed by an observer. If my move works well, I sit still again. This stillness, in which I do not intervene, becomes the horse’s reward. I may then feel him about to slow down, so I counter that move. Perhaps I over-correct, making him speed up, and if so, I let him drop back a little. Just as he is about to slow down too much I send him forward, hopefully with so much subtlely that you as observer never see this conversation happen. When the horse and the rider are less highly trained and/or beginning something new, the conversation between them becomes more obvious. Instead of saying ‘I get it’ and responding to the rider’s move, the horse may reply ‘But this doesn’t make sense in ‘horse’’. He then continues in his own sweet (evasive) way, leaving the rider either searching for a way in which her move will make sense or ‘shouting louder at the natives’. Once the rider’s side of the conversation degenerates into push-pull (the loudest of shouts, often amplified by draw reins and other gadgets), you can be sure that she has run out of tools in her riding ‘tool kit’."
RWYM calls this state of continual conversation 'riding on interface' and it is one of the things I am proudest of that I am slowly groping my way towards that state in my riding. Apart from anything else, it is SO rewarding. And not just for the riders! Riding like this is more rewarding for the horses too, as they become part of the conversation instead of opponents (or obstacles) for the rider to outwit. As the rider learns to say it in 'horse', the horse becomes more willing to cooperate because what you're saying makes sense to him. I've been lucky enough to watch Mary and Heather Blitz ride "ordinary" horses (ie horses that they've never ridden before, and which aren't dressage specialists) and you can see how they converse with the horse on such a subtle level that they are continually moulding him into the way of going that they're looking for, whilst looking as if they are doing nothing. Riding this way becomes a fascinating, moment-by-moment, non-verbal conversation, far from the "boring circles" stereotype of dressage riding.
"The primary challenge of dressage riding is to learn how to sit so well that your horse natually, willingly, comes into ‘the seeking reflexes’. As he begins to seek contact with your seat, leg and hand his back lifts, his rib cage fills out, and his breathing deepens and becomes regular. His neck lengthens, reaching out of the wither, and his head no longer looks too big. Any horse who shows the biomechanics of correct movement in his body will begin to look like the archetypal dressage horse, whatever his make and shape, and however much you paid for him. The trick to dressage riding lies in knowing the rules of the rider/horse interaction – the rules of cause and effect which form the science that underlies the art. You then obey those rules. You search (aided by your teacher) for your remaining ‘blind-spots’, discovering the aspects of your sitting which perpetuate the cramping reflexes, and collude with your horse’s evasive patterns. You also seek to unravel the asymmetry that you are imposing upon him. And you listen, moment by moment, for your horse’s response to each of your interventions."
And there is a little demonstration of this truth in my icon - where we've been caught in a moment where Marco is doing a good imitation of a dressage pony,despite his age and various ailments! I think this categorisation of the 'cramping reflexes' versus the 'seeking reflexes' is one of the most valuable tools in the RWYM tool-kit. And, in my experience, if the rider gets themselves enough biomechanically right (enough being a variable depending on the level to which the horse you are riding requires to be convinced!), the horse cannot but respond, and - most crucially - it will feel good to the horse. In the process of getting yourself biomechanically effective as a rider, many of the evasions - that you may have thought were an integral part of your horse - disappear, as he stops feeling that it is necessary to protect himself.
And once you are aware enough of your body to be able to hold that biomechanic structure in some extent, you are already well on the way to being non-judgmentally aware enough of your body to start what will be a life-long process of working on the asymmetries and stiffnesses that we all (riders and horses alike) carry in our bodies, in order to make this transition into the seeking reflexes easier, and to enable the horse to maintain himself within them for longer. And this is where for me, I think, riding starts to feel like one of those martial arts that you can spend decades learning... Or, as Mary puts it, where riding well is like peeling an onion, where as you go down through the layers, you will always find another layer of challenge and feedback to address and further opportunities to learn and grow and develop.
"Horses have an uncanny knack of finding neat little evasions which capitalise on our weaknesses. These may involve a crookedness, a lack of impulsion, or a ducking behind the bit, and they can be so subtle and clever that they are just as difficult to deal with as the cruder evasions of the green horse. The horse is like a tennis partner who exploits the vulnerability of our backhand, and some make a career out of countering our every move and ‘playing tennis’ with us! Others employ much more subtle tactics, and they ease our framework out of place without us even knowing that they did it. Only the very skilful rider who leaves few (if any) loopholes can train correct patterns in her horses. Only a skilful and wise rider respects and preserves his generosity so that he remains willing to exert himself, and to work within those patterns."
"On the way to this lie many blind alleys, and many cycles of 10,000 repetitions. For if you are a disorganisd rider, your horse will succeed in disorganising you more, and only when you are a highly organised rider will you be able to organise the disorganised horse. You will then earn his respect, and perhaps even his love. But do not expect that the game will then be over, for our horses cannot not play it. Whenever you absent yourself mentally, for instance, your horse will find the loophole that you have just created."
Which brings us back to the model of the Push Hands competitors - our horses cannot but sense and respond to the weaknesses in our bodies and our riding form, neither can they refrain from offering challenges to our physical integrity as riders - though the way they may do so differs from horse to horse. However, these challenges are not meant personally, they are merely part of the kinaesthetic language of Horse. The only answer is for us to improve the skill with which we can communicate to them in that language - a lifelong challenge!