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What Does the Term ‘Happy Athlete’ Mean in Dressage?

What Does the 'Happy Athlete' Mean in Dressage

The concept of the ‘happy athlete’ is a fairly recent innovation in terms of dressage sport, but is one, we hope, that all who ride and train their horses for dressage – whether to compete or to ride at home – are committed to pursuing.

So what exactly do we mean by a ‘happy athlete’?

Submission and willingness

The FEI states that:

“The object of dressage is the development of the horse into a happy athlete through harmonious education. As a result, it makes the horse calm, supple, loose and flexible, but also confident, attentive and keen, thus achieving perfect understanding with the rider.”


“Submission does not mean subordination but an obedience revealing its presence in the horse by its constant attention, willingness and confidence, as well as by the harmony, lightness, and ease displayed in the execution of the different movements.”

The concept of the ‘happy athlete’ is really an effort to encourage achieving this sort of submission a greater priority, rather than the dominance-submission which is produced by bullying, force, and fear.

How can you tell if a horse is a ‘happy athlete’?

This is a little harder to define, but pointers to look for would be:

  • Lack of tension
  • A relaxed expression on the face and a ‘soft’ eye
  • A willingness to obey the smallest of aids from the rider, but without any signs of anxiety
  • A loose and swinging back and body
  • An eagerness to travel forward with energy but without tension in the hindquarters and hind legs
  • A harmonious picture of horse and rider performing with ease and almost invisible aids

The goal of the happy athlete concept

  • To foster a harmonious relationship between horse and rider that is based on trust and confidence, not obedience born of fear
  • To develop each horse’s individual character, not to suppress it
  • To make the horse more beautiful, and to develop his natural abilities to their peak within the limits of each individual’s physical limits
  • That the horse enjoys his work and wants to do it
  • The result should be that perfect blending of strength and control that enhances the sport, raising it to the status of living art

In conclusion

There is, as yet, no quantifiable measure by which to determine if a horse is a happy athlete. The best we can do is to interpret the signs that tell us if a horse is relaxed, confident and willing.

To achieve these goals requires systematic training of his body and mind to enhance his physical flexibility and responses, using training methods that encourage and reward, guiding him to offer his cooperation willingly and ultimately create that sublime harmony between horse and rider that should be every equestrian’s goal.

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