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Painting of Maestoso II Catrina ridden by Shana Ritter. Painting by Janey Belozer.

Thomas and Shana Ritter perform a Pas-de-Deux to Music during the 2007 Open House Performance, aboard the Lipizzan stallions, Favory Toscana-18 and Conversano Mima. Photo by Amelia Gagliano.

- by Dr. Thomas Ritter

©2000 - All Rights Reserved

Beyond the physical, technical aspects, the mental/spiritual/emotional connection between horse and rider is a conditio sine qua non for good riding. Without that connection, there will never be true understanding, true communication. Our goal is to communicate ideas, mind to mind and heart to heart. The physical aids have just a supporting function, and the more intimately a horse and rider are familiar with each other, the less they have to rely on these purely physical aids.

The sensitive and intelligent horse is always acutely aware of how the rider is feeling (some less sensitive horses don't care enough to find out). Unfortunately, the rider is often unaware of how the horse is feeling. This is something that is very difficult to teach. One can only point the student in the direction in which he has to search, but it is up to the student to do the searching.

One of the first things I try to find out when I get on a horse is to feel what is going on inside the horse as much as which physical problems he may be struggling with. And throughout the ride, as well as throughout the entire long term training process, I try to get more and more in touch with the horse's "interior life", because this understanding will direct me in the choice of the exercises I practice with the horse, as well as a whole array of other things, e.g. how much to ask for on a particular day, whether to start something new or not, when to start with a certain movement, when to finish an exercise and to move on to something new, when to end the lesson, whether the horse understands what I am asking, or whether he is confused, whether he enjoys his work, or not, whether he is trying his best, or not, and others.

This tuning in to the horse begins already when you take him out of his stall or pasture to groom him. At that time, you can already get a feeling for what kind of mood he is in. The emotions and the state of mind I sense from the horse at this point often determine what I do with him during the lesson, e.g. whether I longe him first or ride him right away, whether I work him in hand, whether I end up riding very meditatively with a focus on calmness, collection, and bending, or whether I ride him more lively, with a focus on impulsion, lengthenings, tempo transitions, trot - canter transitions, etc.

In order to connect with the horse on an emotional/spiritual level, we have to focus our concentration on him and open ourselves up to him. This can bring unexpected new challenges with it, because the more sensitive we become to the horse's frame of mind, the more sensitive we become also to the atmosphere in our environment. We pick up on tensions, negativity, fear, aggression, calmness, happiness, joyfulness, supportiveness, etc. in the barn and the arena as well. When the atmosphere is charged with negative emotions, it can be difficult to do good, positive, harmonious work, unless we learn to deliberately block the negative energy from the environment. But being selective in who or what we are sensitive to is extremely challenging.

Focussing on the horse's mental and emotional state can be tiring, because it takes a lot of concentration and inner strength. In some cases, when a horse is still mentally and emotionally unbalanced, the rider has to give the horse his own inner strength and balance to lead the horse into a state of mental relaxation and calmness. It feels as if you were carrying the horse. Some of these rides can leave you drained and tired, although they may have been easy and light from a physical point of view.

Riding with a strong focus on the mental/emotional/spiritual connection brings out the best in each horse. You can see them blossom into complete, well rounded personalities. They become more and more aware of their accomplishments. They become proud of themselves and their work, which makes them put more and more effort into it over the years. Often, the horse will surprise you and exceed your expectations, because a nourishing, encouraging bond between horse and rider has given the horse wings. is dedicated to the preservation and promotion of the art of Classical Dressage.
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