I became aware of the existence of the Dressage Rider Pyramid during the L program, and I must admit that after I gave it a cursory glance, I thought, “this is stupid.”
However, while doing some research for another article, I once again stumbled across the Rider Pyramid, and upon reevaluation, I realize that I was wrong. Terribly wrong. This pyramid for riders makes sense. Because the focus is on the essential basics, it maps out the path to a successful relationship with your horse, giving you a roadmap to becoming a better rider.
In order from the base of the Pyramid to the top:
Fitness and Balance: You are an athlete. An athlete who trains with a 1,000lb partner. The Dressage Rider Pyramid states that the rider should be able to trot or canter for 10 minutes without stopping. This makes sense; good riding starts with stamina. If you show, a Dressage test lasts several minutes. Now include the warmup. You need to feel fresh as you enter at A. If you don’t show, but love the discipline of Dressage, imagine making an important breakthrough only to stop when the magic happens because you are out of breath.
If you can post or canter for 1 or 2 minutes, great! Good place to start. Work up to 10 minutes. If you only ride a couple of times per week, don’t expect your time in the saddle to be enough. Pick up some other form of cardio fitness outside of the barn.
Balance involves the ability to sit in the middle of the horse, independent of your reins, and not interfere. Lunge lessons can come in handy for this. Outside the barn, consider Yoga or Pilates.
Independent Body: Most riders have very little body awareness. Especially if they have ridden the same horse for a long time. You and your horse have a “dance” going and what feels normal does not mean it is correct. In order to ride effectively, you need to be able to divide your body (aids) into four quadrants that function independently. Think about your trainer’s most overused phrase, “Inside leg to outside rein!” Dressage is a complex sport; your brain needs to be aware of what your body is doing, and of what your body needs to be doing.
Awareness of Horse’s Posture: The horse is also wired to do what feels normal and comfortable. He doesn’t gallop around thinking, “I need to bring my left hind through more in order to balance better.” He just moves around in whatever is comfortable and easy. Dressage is the art of gymnastically developing the horse to build balance and soundness through shaping his posture. Once you can be aware of your own body, you can, in turn, be aware of your horse’s body. Is he straight? Is he leaning? Is he crooked in his haunches? With your increasing fitness and with the help of a good trainer, you can become more aware of what the horse is doing.
Controlled Seat and Hands: Develop your seat and hands so that they communicate to the horse without interfering. I’ve read lots of explanations of this. They are all too long and complicated. In a nutshell: Don’t ask the horse to go with the leg and with the body, but tell him to whoa with the hands. In addition, don’t tell tell him to go, but throw away the hand. In my experience, if your horse is mad and acting out, the cause is likely your restricting hand. If your horse is trotting fast, long and flat, the cause is likely that you throw your reins away. The lovely thing about horses is they will tell you when you are doing it right. Magic happens.
Judgement and Training: Knowing when a performance is correct. Knowing how to make it better. Having a strategy to get there.
No one has ever achieved this level to perfection. Each day you step into the stirrup is an opportunity to learn. Each day, the horse presents a mirror of how you train and ride. Each day there is something to improve. This level is about having developed enough feel, and the ability to listen to your horse that you have the confidence to evaluate your progress, to know what works and what does not work, and to continue to improve. It is the ability to sooth your inner monkey that overthinks and criticizes and instead listen to the feedback your horse is giving you.
We are all somewhere on the same journey. Dressage is about mastering oneself, physically and mentally so you can help guide your partner in this wonderful sport that is also a dance.