Horsemanship in Dressage: It is about the partnership, not the ribbons - a guest post by Dressage Hafl

I am proud to announce our first guest post! Today Dressage Hafl gives her perspective on horsemanship and dressage. She shows her horse regularly and explains how the horse's dignity can be preserved when competing. 

I believe that competition riding has to be founded upon the health and happiness of the horse. This is very important. If we establish that as the first condition, then the sport of horses can offer a lot to people because it develops a relationship between horses and people.
- Klaus Balkenhol

Do you think that dressage and horsemanship are like fire and ice? That dressage divas rather use white wraps than orange sticks? That leather halters with skin sheep are preferred over rope halters? For me as maybe not the typical stereotype dressage rider, it is a matter of definition. It might be true that many summarize carrot sticks, the horse whisperer (thanks Hollywood) and working with lead ropes and rope halters under the synonym “horsemanship”, but in reality, horsemanship is way more than this  - at least to me.

Trust and respect are two-way streets. We want the horse to accept us as leaders of the herd, to guide them safely and to provide protection and comfort. In return, they will give us their respect, and willing submission to our ideas about what to do next, and when and where. But this respect can only be based on well deserved trust.
-Walter Zettl

Mutual trust and respect, understanding the needs of your equine partner and developing a partnership is what I would define as horsemanship. And I totally agree with Walter Zettl, who was first known as a classical dressage rider and trainer. But he is also not reluctant to the ideas of horsmanship.  I have never had a horsemanship lesson; I have never had a Parelli stick - to me, it is not the method that you use that defines horsemanship, it is the way you act and behave and what’s even more important, the way the horse reacts and behaves. Horsemanship should not be confused with training or dominating a horse. Horsemanship is the basis for working with horses – the willingness to learn, understand and act in a way that allows true cooperation between animal and human.

You become responsible forever for what you have tamed. 
-Antoine de Saint-Exupery

When there are no words necessary to communicate with your horse, when he approaches you after being called when you go out to get him in the fields, when there is no panic when leaving the property to head for a show, when there is absolute tranquility when arriving at the show venue and the horse behaves like at home just because he trusts his human, than that’s what I call horsemanship. Trusting each other does not only mean that you are sure that your horse does not buck you off, it is the feeling of comfort you get when being in a complete new environment and the horse shows that he feels comfortable, too. It is the feeling of security when entering a show ring knowing that he would not do anything that would do you any harm. That he would  fight for you and give his best – as he is expecting you to treat him fairly and not start using whip and spurs just because you want to get that extra ribbon. 

The respect for the horse to realize when it is enough, when the tests are still too difficult, the movements not trained well enough, the horse’s fitness not built up enough. Asking yourself every day in training if the horse is ready for this specific movement, if on that specific day he simply does not feel that well to do these movements, when it is better to go for a hack and not doing things just to impress other people. 

The horse must be allowed to be a horse and to develop its character. Correct dressage and correct handling develop the horse's character. They become perkier, and more confident in themselves. They stop shying because they feel confident in their world. And their bodies become more beautiful through correct dressage, and they live longer and healthier lives. We take away the horse's freedom, but we give something back. We develop the horse's mind.
-Melissa Simms

Keeping your horse motivated, sound and healthy is also part of my definition of horsemanship - that is unfortunately som many times forgotten. Our horses are willing to do everything for us as long as they are in the right physical and psychical shape. You cannot expect them to perform when they are locked in stalls, never having any “spare time” relaxing with their horsey friends and the possibility to move freely. And it is in the responsibility of every horseman to grant that this is possible. They should enjoy their work! And you know that going to work every day when you do not feel comfortable at what you are doing, your job is not making you happy at all!

If you are going to teach a horse something and have a good relationship, you don't make him learn it - you let him learn it. 
- Ray Hunt

Unfair training methods, ignoring that it is a living being you are working with are things we see way too often in the news, on the Internet, on Facebook– among amateurs as well as among professionals. But there are exceptions also among professional riders and I have experienced it myself: in 2012, I spent two weeks in Denmark with a former Olympian dressage rider and he is convinced that horses benefit from the work on the relationship between horse and human. At least for me, he was the first professional dressage rider using rope halters, anti-shy training and so on. In 2013, I spent a month in the Netherlands at a Classical Dressage Center and their work with horses was full of what I would call horsemanship. It was in the way they worked with horses and in the way the understood horses. When we freeworked the horses, we communicated only via body language and it was simply fascinating! Words can hardly describe what it feels like when you can halt a stallion by simply breathing out! When I came back from this month abroad, the work with Hafl, my own horse, changed completely. And I see more and more dressage trainers who claim to incorporate horsemanship methods to set up a “more natural dressage”. Still, I do not think that you need to invent something new and stop riding in bridle and saddle and avoid going to shows. There is a chance that you show and have fair training and riding methods as well as a good relationship with your horse. One of the more popular examples for his approach is Uta Gräf, who even rides highest level movements bitless – but does compete on conventional levels as well. Don’t be blinkered to try something different and new! 

First of all, I believe that dressage should be the foundation for all horse sport disciplines. But, I also think the dressage community would benefit from the skill sets that natural horsemanship principles provide. 
-Walter Zettl

I am personally trying my best to do all of the above. Training plans ensure that he is fit enough for what I am asking of him, changing routines help to keep him motivated, all day in the fields with many other horses keeps his mind fit and listening to him keeps me from overworking or overburden him. A good horseman is also a good listener, but it takes time to understand and it takes even more time to set up a proper communication with your horse. 
The horse will teach you if you‘ll listen. 
-Ray Hunt

I would claim that my horse and I understand each other – and that should be the result of any training method applied – call it specifically horsemanship method or not. Without it, one cannot really be a horseman – rarely, you get ribbons for good horsemanship. But in the end, it isn’t about the ribbons – it is about that specific bond that develops between human and animal.
Put the relationship with your horse first.
- Pat Parelli
Whatever you do, whatever you work on with your horses – it is not that you are doing it for yourself, you are doing for the horse.

One reason why birds and horses are happy is because they are not trying to impress other birds and horses.

- Dale Carnegie

You liked this guest post? Than visit Dressage Hafl to read more of Hafl and his adventures!


  1. Thank you once again! It was a pleasure writing it! I reblogged it here: