All dressage riders, even the best in the world, have had moments when they felt so in awe of another combination that they simply had to try to emulate them. You’ve been there, right?
But then you also know that feeling of total ineptitude when, try as you might, you simply can’t achieve the simplest thing with your own horse.
There’s no doubt that dressage is incredibly challenging, and it can be unbelievably difficult to get your head around how to persuade your body to do even the simplest things. Add to that the puzzle of how to get your horse to understand and perform the movements that you want him to, and it’s easy to see how quickly you can become disillusioned.
In this article, we try to untangle the mystery of how you can master the sport you love while learning to love your mistakes.
How to master dressage
Unfortunately, you can’t master dressage just by reading books, watching videos of the world’s greatest riders, or attending endless clinics. If only it was that easy!
Only once you learn how to “feel” what your horse is doing underneath you can you hope to move forward and accomplish more, and that takes practice.
That said, you do need to take a multi-faceted approach to learn about dressage. So, watch videos, read books by the experts, and go to events to watch the top riders competing, as well as having lessons.
Learning to embrace your mistakes
The key to mastering dressage is learning how to embrace your mistakes, keep calm, and carry on.
To tackle that tricky learning and coping process, you need to understand a psychological model known as “The Four Stages of Competence.”
The Four Stages of Competence
Developed in the 1970s by Noel Burch, The Four Stages of Competence can be applied to learning any new skill, including dressage.
The stages are:
- Unconscious incompetence
- Conscious incompetence
- Conscious competence
- Unconscious competence
To master dressage or any other sport for that matter, you must work through each of the four stages. Rather like the dressage Scales of Training, the stages of competence are intrinsically linked; you can’t bypass one and expect to be successful in the end.
Let’s take a look at them individually.
Stage 1 – Unconscious Incompetence
This stage essentially translates as “you don’t know what you don’t know.”
For example, as a child, you might have learned to ride at your local riding school. You know how to make the horse stop and go, you can stay on board at all three paces, and you know how to make changes of direction. Essentially, you’re a competent happy hacker.
Then you got interested in dressage. You can see that the horses carry themselves in a different outline, move sideways as if by magic, and perform some pretty fancy footwork. But you have no notion of why the horse is asked to work in that way or how to do it.
Stage 2 – Conscious Incompetence
So, now you’ve reached the second of the four stages, conscious incompetence.
At this stage, you know what you want to achieve, but you still can’t do it. That’s incredibly frustrating! You know that the horse needs to work in a round outline, but you have no clue how to persuade the horse to do that or why you would want him to.
To move forward from stage 2, you need to find a good teacher who can explain the concept of riding a horse “on the aids” and show you how to do that. You also need to be a good student.
Ensure that you ask your trainer endless questions until you understand the concept of what you’re trying to achieve. Then comes the fun (or not so fun) part of trying, trying, and trying over and over again until you get that lightbulb moment when all becomes clear. The horse finally starts to work in a round frame, you know what that should feel like, and you understand why riding your horse on the aids is so important in dressage.
Stage 3 – Conscious Competence
Now, you’re beginning to make progress!
You’ve learned to embrace your mistakes and use them as a learning tool to get yourself to this stage. Now, you’re finally beginning to achieve what you set out to achieve, albeit with a few false starts. Most importantly, you actually understand the concept of riding your horse on the aids, and you know, in theory, how to do that.
From here on in, it’s a matter of practicing and honing your skills. Of course, every time you learn something new, such as riding lateral movements or developing more collection, you go through the whole four-stage process all over again.
Stage 4 – Unconscious Competence
Unconscious competence is the stage that the best riders are at. These riders can produce those beautiful, flowing performances in the arena that look effortless, seemingly without even thinking about it.
Unconscious competence is every rider’s Holy Grail.
Facing your incompetence
An essential part of embracing your mistakes is facing up to the fact that you didn’t know something fundamental and that you can’t do it. That’s both embarrassing and frustrating. However, you need to accept that and don’t let those emotions prevent you from becoming a good student.
Don’t be afraid to step “outside your comfort zone” and make mistakes. Pushing yourself forward like that is the only way you’ll make real progress.
A big problem that wannabe dressage riders often encounter is that they aren’t prepared to accept that they need to re-learn the basics of how to sit in the saddle and develop a truly independent seat. That takes time and discipline, not to mention aching muscles, to achieve. There are no shortcuts, so suck it up!
Ask stupid questions!
Dressage is full of confusing terms and phrases that you probably won’t understand at first.
For example, the dressage judge tells you that your horse needs “better connection forward from behind through the back to the contact.” What does that even mean?!
Never be embarrassed or ashamed to ask for clarification if you don’t understand something. It’s only by asking “stupid” questions that you’ll learn and make progress. So, embrace your ignorance and view it as a challenge rather than a hindrance to your progress.
Related Read: Judge’s Comments Commonly Found on Dressage Score Sheets
To master the art of dressage, you first need to learn to embrace your mistakes. It’s only through getting things wrong that you’ll figure out how to get them right. Then you can make real progress.
Even the world’s greatest dressage riders go through the four stages of competence from time to time. So, you know you’re in good company every time you find yourself back to stage one again!