They say strong leaders are often good listeners, and according to international competitor and Wellington-based trainer, Nicholas Fyffe, a quiet rider lends the best "ear" to equine partners. After all, dressage is in many respects, a conversation between horse and rider. To sit quietly not only allows a horse to perform its job uninhibited, but also permits riders to "hear" a horse's reaction to the aids. Much like a telephone line, a rider's actions determine the quality of the connection - whether it is clear - or in other cases, muffled.
(Nicholas Fyffe. Photo by Annan Hepner)
Fyffe believes the best way to invite a horse to respond to aids is with an unrestrictive seat. "As a rider I always go back to my own mantra of the best forward driving aid is a seat that follows. We tend to think about improving the gaits by pushing them or putting more power in them, but sometimes I think we just have to sit there and follow the horse's natural gaits, and we can find a place where the rider can be neutral," says Fyffe. "When I mean neutral I'm talking about when the rider can sit with a quiet hand and a quiet leg and from that neutral place then the horse can "hear" when you do apply that aid."
Fyffe goes on to say that to ride effectively one must pause for effect, rather than ramble incessantly with aids. "Basically I want to feel like I can relax, let my leg hang, be quiet with my hand, and the horse maintain what I create. I'm happy to work to create energy. I have a right to ask for energy, but then I have a responsibility to allow and see if my horse maintains what I created."
"In the upper level movements - in the walk pirouette, the canter pirouette, or the piaffe - that's when I see the riders want to work really hard." Fyffe believes that it is in these moments that riders are often enticed into working as hard as their horses. "It's the difficult high school movement so the riders tend to think they need to work hard as well."
Instead of being conned into "over riding" a movement, Fyffe encourages riders to make their horses responsible for delivering the action. "I think riders need to think about if you're riding a walk pirouette or a canter pirouette or a piaffe then we would like to think that fundamentally we've done all of our homework to get to that point and the horse is already set up. So the movements should happen fairly organically, and we don't have to push so hard. I try to tell my riders that once you have prepared for the movement there is an element of trust involved and that I want you to allow the movement to happen."
Fyffe warns that too much "help" from riders, can often backfire. "Sometimes when you push the horse too much within those movements you push them out of the movement or beyond the balance. It takes some confidence and experience to sit there on a movement and allow it to happen knowing full well that the horse could take over, but often you trusting them is enough that they will trust you back and they won't take over - that is of course if you've done the homework before!"
(Nicholas Fyffe riding Afago Da Raposa. Photo by Emma Miller)
As riders progress up the levels it's natural for them to expect their horses to become more reactive and more sensitive to the aids, but Fyffe believes that refinement is a two-way street. "The biggest thing is that as riders we're all trying to train our horses to become more sensitive to the aids, and react right now, and they must listen, but we don't always think enough about if we want the horse to be more reactive then we need to take way more control of our own bodies." Fyffe and his students all participate in active fitness programs out of the saddle, believing that a toned body and core, creates a quiet rider in the saddle."I was a gymnast myself so I kind of understand my body and balance symmetry. I really find that things like yoga and Pilates are very good for dressage riders in terms of symmetry and alignment."
"I see so many riders correcting issues like 'he has to carry himself, he has to be straight' but making very little effort to carry their own bodies straight or maintaining their own posture. That horse is not sitting on you, you are sitting on that horse and he's actually carrying himself and you. It's only fair that you sit in some form of balance to make it possible, right?"
Fyffe believes a rider's ability to maintain quiet, balanced posture in the saddle all comes down to one area - the core. "If the core isn't strong enough to let your leg hang loosely from the hip then it's really hard to keep your hands very quiet and really hard to keep the neck really quiet. I teach some riders and I know they are trying so hard not to interfere but they are a little bit weak in their core, so without meaning to they collapse, or touch the bridle at the wrong moment, or touch the spur at the wrong moment, and it's indeliberate but that's still not a quiet rider. So as riders get stronger in their core and they get more confidence to trust the movement and follow, then I see improvement."
According to Fyffe, trusting the movement and trusting in one's training is one of the intangible traits of great riding. "I see some riders that just have this innate gift that allows them to sit there, and I think a little bit of ego plays a part in that. A little bit of ego isn't always a bad thing as a dressage rider. When you put an aid on expecting the right result then very often you get the right result. I'm a very educated rider and sometimes I can put an aid on knowing that I might not get the right result because I haven't set up the horse correctly, but you have to believe in it. The ego does plays a part."
One might surmise that riders who have confidence in their aids, ride most quietly, using their bodies to facilitate impactful communication with the horse. Like hearing a pin drop in a silent room, the aid of a quiet rider draws attention and provides clarity. Fyffe believes riders must demonstrate confidence in their own cues and trust in their horse, asking once, and without the "noise" of repetition. "If you've done the perfect preparation then you must remember that you can only get the ideal reaction from the ideal aid." Riding he feels is often a self fulfilling prophecy. Expect that your horse will respond correctly, encourages Fyffe. There is no place for doubt. "Always have faith in your horse and take the risk!"