by Nicole Sharpe

A few months ago I had an awesome chat with a really cool scientist from Scotland (Dr. Francoise Wemelsfelder, in case you’re curious), about her research and mine. Something Dr. W said several times during her presentation and our conversation has been rattling around in my brain ever since, adding to some ideas that have been percolating for a while.

“The words we have available to describe something fundamentally influence the way we see that thing.”

Keep that in mind as I tell my story.

When I first started riding dressage, about four years ago now, I was certain that I knew what dressage was all about: The Headset. I had seen it in the videos. I knew The Headset wasn’t easily achieved, and that it took a Good Rider to get The Headset. When I watched Grand Prix freestyles, I was perplexed as to the differences in scores from one ride to the next: they all had it, The Headset, so what were those judges seeing that I wasn’t? Every horse was beautiful, but why were some more beautiful than others?

Months passed, and I slowly learned more about dressage thanks to a patient trainer and a stubborn ottb who happily packed me around but refused to submit to my heavy-handed insistence on The Headset. I added some new words to my vocabulary: on the bit, above the vertical. My boyfriend’s very patient mother also taught me some of what I was missing out on seeing in those videos: tension, tracking up, and moving out.

Blurry, but I think it gets the point across. I’m doing it wrong, and Quincy isn’t having it!

Blurry, but I think it gets the point across. I’m doing it wrong, and Quincy isn’t having it!

It wasn’t until my trainer’s own dressage trainer came to give a seminar at our barn that things finally clicked into place. Tina Steward, DVM*, gave a two-day seminar about the biomechanics of dressage that basically rocked my world. Tina started at the very beginning: connection.

Wait, what? My fool head was spinning. I thought CONTACT was the beginning?

With Tina we watched video of horse after horse, and learned how to tell whether a horse was engaged and using himself, or if he was hollow, cheating, bracing, or crooked. Later we watched all the clinic rides, doing the same thing: as Tina coached riders on their dressage, she made it abundantly clear what both horses and riders were doing that hindered their relationship. I saw flexing back muscles and hollow dips before the SI joint, free flowing tails and tense swishes, and the fat crest of neck muscle that indicates a horse is using himself properly (as well as it’s inverse – the hollowed neck where the withers join and faked flexion). All of these had names, and suddenly I knew them. I think I learned the horse-world applications of more regular English words that weekend than I had in my five years of serious riding prior. And I started to get what I had been missing the whole time. Without knowing the words to describe what I was looking at, I wasn’t looking at it at all.

I know it sounds circular, and it some ways it is. But I’m not talking about the etymology of schwung or lossgelassenheit here. I am sure much greater horsewomen and -men than myself understood these things before they could put words to them, but for the rest of us mere mortals, language is truly integral to our perception and understanding of the world.

Think back in your riding career. Think back to a time before you knew about impulsion or bascule, suppleness or the glory of a freely-flowing tail. When “faster” and “slower” were your only movement adjectives, did you know that a horse could be moving slowly but still possess great power because they were forward? Do you remember learning when “MORE LEG” didn’t necessarily mean “WARP NINE TO THAT JUMP” but “help balance her up and onto her hindquarters”? How could a brand new rider understand that a horse with her nose dragging in the arena sand isn’t exhausted or being rude, but engaging her body in a functional and different way?

Nine months later I was still bad at dressage, but we’re finally starting to get it. PS: pics mid-post are the worst, aren’t they?

Nine months later I was still bad at dressage, but we’re finally starting to get it. PS: pics mid-post are the worst, aren’t they?

When I watch dressage rides now, I hardly ever look at the horse’s head (or the rider’s, for that matter). I focus on bulging longissimus muscles, a swinging back, freely articulating joints, and relative elevation. This is my preference, though it needn’t be yours, and I’m probably missing out on things by focusing the way I do.

“The words we have available to describe something fundamentally influence the way we see that thing.”

Keep this in mind when you describe horses and riders, and keep your mind open to new vocabulary! This is hardly something that applies only to dressage (in fact, it really applies to your whole life!). I know that I am missing out on understanding reining, cutting, and many other disciplines because I lack the necessary vocabulary to look for the important details. And most important (probably my mantra in life): if you’re not sure, ask! Your trainer and other riders are probably more than happy to explain to you the way they are watching a ride, or the words they use to describe one. Increasing your vocabulary is never a bad thing, especially when it can make you a better rider.

* And may I also say that Tina is an all-around hilarious and fantastic coach, as well as a great chiropractor? She sees my horse for the naughty little monster he sometimes is, but is never sparing with the praise when he delivers. That probably has nothing to do with how much I adore her.

Nicole