Part Two

The Spirit of Dance  

by   Jenny Rolfe

‘In dance something from deep within comes alive – a connection between a man and the spirit and soul of his partner ’

As we develop more awareness of lateral breathing techniques and core-stability,  we can use this to give us mastery of our mood, balance and co-ordination. A deeper understanding of breathing awareness is already used by professional athletes, singers, actors and dancers.  The foundation for many students of martial arts, yoga and a variety of relaxation therapies is an enhanced awareness and control, using techniques of breathing.

If the rider can learn to utilize these skills in horsemanship, then not only does the rider enhance his own performance but also that of the horse. This is already a well-recognized factor in gaining personal control and balance, both mentally and physically,  but has been rather neglected and overlooked as a skill that can benefit the rider. My greatest teacher in building an awareness of the significance of our breathing,  has been the horse.

Breathing Enhances Balance

Our state of calmness or tension will be perceived by the horse immediately we enter the stable. He is our mirror which can prove to be our most powerful enemy or our greatest  ally. We have the responsibility for not only understanding the mood of the horse, but also in gaining control of our own state of mind. I think this is one reason that the journey of horsemanship, can take a whole life time of discovery.

It is interesting to ask the question, ‘what is the ingredient that can make the difference, between a dressage performance of great technical merit and a demonstration which also encompasses both  artistic flair and a spirit of ‘dance’ between horse and rider?

The word ‘dance’ means a series of rhythmic and patterned bodily movements usually performed to music. There is a vocabulary within the field of dance where such words as: ‘elevation’- the ability to jump high in the air; ‘capriole’- a movement in dance; ‘galop’- a Hungarian dance; ‘haut, en’ - a position with arms raised above the head and ‘air, en l’- a step lifted from the ground, are used. These may have a familiar ring to the dressage rider. 

I have spent some time looking through a set of notes, written specifically for anyone wishing to learn the skills of the dance floor. It has been both fascinating and exciting, for me, as there are just so many similar concepts between Dancing and Classical training. . I read through a list of helpful hints for people wishing to take up dancing. These I have listed below:

  • Come with the correct frame of mind
  • Concentrate and focus  - try to develop a ‘feel’ for the movements
  • Practice regularly,  forming good habits through your repetition
  • Try to continue regular training with an instructor, with whom you feel some personal empathy in communications.
  • Always spend time warming up to avoid any physical injury
  • If a movement does not work, in dance, this may be due to incorrect balance in the body
  • Start and understand the basics before trying to progress
  • Do not constantly criticize your partner - have fun and lighten up!

All of these instructions seem very similar to our concepts in training!
I continued searching through interesting articles, relating to dance, until the teachings of one particular woman really caught my imagination. 

                                    DANCE COMES FROM THE SOUL

Martha Graham was born in Pennsylvania and spanning over many years she had an incredible career in dancing. She believed that creative dance came from the soul and movement was created by the tension of contracted muscle from the pelvis. This continued in a flow of energy released from the body, as the body became more relaxed. She was teaching the art of controlled breathing into the pelvic floor.
Martha went on to explain how dance could be felt in the contraction and release from the intensified moments of exhalation and inhalation. This increased the emotional activity, so that this experience was teaching the ‘body’ and it was not about only learning with the mind

The contraction originates in the pelvis of the dancer and the energy release causes a flexion of the spine. It occurred to me that this is a similar mobility of the spine that occurs when the rider takes the deeper outward breath and allows the release of the lower spine and the seat. This information was music to my ears! I have experienced through my teaching and riding, the spine responding to the lateral breathing, but I had no idea that similar concepts were used in the techniques of dance.


When I read through Martha’s teachings, I realized that her concepts were borne of similar ideas to my breathing techniques for the rider. Martha taught that out of emotion will come form and that movement will become an expression of feeling. If we as riders can convey these feelings to our horses then we will become emotionally in tune and in harmony with them.

Martha sought to give visible substance to things which can be felt and she called this ‘the ability to chart the graph of the heart.’ Following similar principles we understand how we can  ‘Ride From the Heart’.

The Competition Rider 

It is now common practice for competitive riders to employ sports psychologists to help them cope with the more stressful environment of the competition arena.

Some riders find competition stimulating; others may feel that competition is necessary to prove the progress of their training. All this addresses the needs and feelings of the rider but the horse has to find his own level of tolerance when on the competition circuit.

Breathing techniques, however, can really benefit not only the rider but also the attitude of the horse. The deeper awareness and practice of this way of breathing will immediately help a rider to become more self aware. The rider is then in the right place mentally, physically and spiritually to ‘connect’ with the mind of the horse. In the potentially over-exciting atmosphere of a competition, the steady breathing of a horse’s ‘herd leader’ can transmit calmness and security to the horse. This will help him to relax,  so he can pay more attention and listen to his rider more effectively.

For instance, there may be moments of extra tension: perhaps you have insufficient time for warming up or your last training session at home has left feelings of despondency over aspects of the test.  The atmosphere of the competition serves to highlight areas of training which may be less than fulfilling your aspirations. When you can become more self-aware, only then will you be more observant of when a horse becomes tense. It is then  possible to become more effective by the use of lighter aids and to respond to his tension and mood with breathing techniques to help him relax his mind and become more calm. In this way he will be able to perform with more fluidity in movement and  concentration of mind. Both go hand in hand.

 A rider will find this communication invaluable when warming up for a competition and when riding the dressage test itself. At a competition, it is difficult to attain the same quality of communication as can be achieved at home when working quietly with few distractions.

These techniques should help both horse and rider to keep relaxed and focused on their work. The aim of competition is to demonstrate the level of training achieved in the partnership of both horse and rider. The judge will be looking for harmonious, invisible aids and the application of these techniques can produce a more artistic combination of horse and rider, working together, as one.


Relationships between people may be harmonious under normal circumstances but strain can appear if the stresses of life become too much; it then takes more effort to listen and communicate, which is also true of relationships with horses. It is not only important that we listen to our horse, but also that he should wish to listen to us and look to us for guidance and leadership, particularly in tension-inducing situations, such as competitions and shows. At a competition, the horse will be aware of the body language and breathing of his rider, even if the individual is totally oblivious to the signals he is giving. 

The foundation of trust, which will help to ensure that the horse is listening and responding, at competitions and shows, will be built upon the relationship at home.
I find at every level of training that the relationship with the horse can be enhanced , not only through ridden work but also loose work, lungeing and working in-hand.  I use communications of breathing and body language,  to establish both leadership and friendship. These sensitive bonds of communication can change the way a horse views his relationship with a rider and encourage the mutual feeling of trust.

Classical Master, Nuno Oliveira, truly rode from the heart as he understood, the mind and physical capability of, the horse with an incredible empathy. He used to say that he wanted to make the horse look more beautiful and proud. His riding was from the heart and not a repetition of mechanical exercises. There can be no beauty without love, therefore to dance with the horse we must ‘feel’ and allow ‘emotion’ to be able to ride from our heart.
. The horse will quickly perceive our joy or our stress, our lightness or strength of aids. We are blessed with his sensitivity to tune into our mood, body language and voice tone. He will receive and transmit all our feelings and once we understand the power of our influence, we can readily communicate with the horse.

He will become the mirror of our mind and our greatest friend.

Jenny Rolfe's new book ‘RIDE FROM THE HEART’ is available at our shop section or please visit her web site for further information.

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