ARTICLE

THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE ATHLETIC HORSE

By  Jenny Rolfe

jerez dressage

Much scientific knowledge and technical data is now available to help us as riders and trainers to progress the training of the athletic horse.  The performance of sportsmen and women can now become greatly enhanced by the amount of information we have available today relating to the human body and how it can best cope with athletic development. However, even with all this technology at our finger tips, many sports psychologists are also employed to motivate the individual to gain maximum performance. Without the positive mental approach, it would seem that even with such in depth knowledge, the athlete may not be successful.

It is interesting to watch a player in a tennis match. The game may be in full swing with pace and confidence within the match then suddenly just one small mistake is made. The game begins to change and his game falters. For that player, one mistake may mean that he rapidly loses confidence. As a result, the points begin to fade away.

Confidence and motivation would appear to play a very significant part in the journey for any performer. Many professional sportsmen have “sports psychologists” as it has been recognized that for maximum athletic performance the person has to be not only physically fit but confident and enthusiastic.

Although the individual may experience problems with self doubt, we must remember that initially it was their personal choice, to take on the challenge as an aspiring athlete.
Whilst we are training the horse it is obviously not his choice to take this path,  so it becomes our responsibility to help him enjoy the journey.

We need to take a close look at these aspects from the perspective of the horse, as if these principles are true for humans, then they are certainly worthy of consideration for our horses. The journey of training, for us, should encompass a desire to understand the horse and his nature. We need to take the path of true horsemanship where we can develop friendship with the horse, as his trusted herd leader. This bond will be founded upon a desire to learn and work in harmony – as one.

THE HORSE ENJOYS MOVEMENT – LET US ENHANCE HIS PLEASURE

The horse in his natural herd environment enjoys movement which is an expression of his pleasure. He can frequently produce brilliance of gait, worthy of any dressage arena.
I think it is helpful to think of the lateral work, collection and extension as having the ability to enhance the personality of the horse so he too can express his equine identity through his work. I believe horses can gain great pleasure and satisfaction within their training and if given this opportunity, they will look to the rider with both trust and respect.

Our goal may be to produce an athletic horse capable of producing paces and movements so that we can become competitive and demonstrate the level of schooling which we have achieved. The exercises used in the training of the horse will vary considerably depending on the nature, ability and suppleness of the horse. The tests in dressage competition are essentially guidelines to direct the rider towards a particular level of training. The dressage tests can not be specifically designed to suit every horse therefore endlessly preparing for the dressage test may not be the way forward to improving the performance of the horse. We need to apply methods of warming up and school exercises,  which suit the individual horse and enhance his performance within his level of training.

My stallions appear extremely proud in their training and sometimes I can inspire too much enthusiasm with my praise and they respond with a demonstration of high spirits. I take the opportunity during training to observe and listen to feedback from the horse, his responses and state of calmness. After a training session where both rider and horse have sought to communicate with each other there comes the moment when the work ends. It can be a wonderful contentment for both horse and rider to relax and share the communion which comes when two minds try to work ‘as one’.  This is true harmony within training.

On the dance floor the man leads the dance but two partners can appear to move as one. This artistry is not only gained by technical knowledge of movement but is often enhanced by the telepathic communications of the souls of the dancers. Has someone ever said to you “I know what you are thinking” or have you ever known someone with whom you felt such closeness that their words could be predicted. This is the relationship which is built on much time spent together. Over years building a bond of mutual trust such empathy can be borne.

HUMANS MAY LOOK FOR LOVE – THE HORSE SEEKS A TRUSTED LEADER

One of my clients said that she believed humans look for love but horses look for a leader he can trust and respect and that his confidence is gained through this.
There are now many labels that are used in our ‘horse world’ today,  but a deeper knowledge and awareness of the nature of the horse can only serve to advance our relationship and training. Success in competition with harmony and empathy may well become the result but maybe should not be in itself the only goal.

Each athlete is an individual. Some horses will cope with competitive stress, in fact they may thrive on it. Our responsibility is to understand whether the horse is displaying symptoms of fear and flight or whether his lively energy is an extension of his pride. If as trainers we continually instigate the fear-flight instinct we will be training the horse rather to fear than to enjoy the work. Energy can be created which is tense and stilted which will never give us the natural fluidity of paces from a horse full of stress. However we have the ability to encourage the horse to produce positive energy which will enhance joy and pride in his work.

We can help the horse within the structure of training to gain his own confidence through his ability. Below are some thoughts which may be helpful :

  • Always allow a period of warming up – either working from the ground or in ridden work.

  • Focus for a while on the work/movements and then if you feel the horse is tense walk on a loose rein. This quiet time will allow the rider to release tension which is a natural response to concentration. This is also the same for the horse and he can stretch his muscles and relax his mind for a few minutes before work is re-commenced.

  • Focus on your breathing and a deep sigh given when walking on a long rein will be copied by the horse and allow him to breathe more deeply. He will then be able to move with more fluidity.

  • To focus on the horse and think through the exercises which will improve his way of going. For instance, lateral work at a steady walk will help to gain engagement of the hind limbs and concentration from the horse if he is inattentive.

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