Mindfulness: perfect harmony for dressage

A dressage test requires the horse and rider to execute a pattern of gymnastic movements, in walk, trot, and canter at specific positions around an arena. In competition, each movement is scored by judges out of ten, based on factors such as the rhythm and the freedom of the horse's paces, the flow of the movements, the energetic forward energy (impulsion) of the horse, and the skill and precision of the rider.

Sound boring? Indeed, to a bystander, dressage may lack the excitement, speed and unpredictability of other equestrian disciplines, such as jumping or racing. The challenge is in the subtlety of the sport. Riders must demonstrate their horse's athleticism, by directing the animal's considerable power with very precise aids which the rider provides through their legs, seat and hands. In turn, the horse must ignore his natural instincts as a prey animal, and trust in and submit to the rider fully, so that he listens and responds to the rider's aids for each movement. What judges look for, and riders strive for, is harmony: when this is achieved, the communication between horse and rider is barely perceptible and they appear to move as 'one'.

In case you are still wondering what can be so difficult about steering a horse around an arena, consider this: The horse has his own mind. What must be appreciated is the reactivity of the horse to his environment and physical interactions with the rider. For example a horse will 'read' and respond to the rider's body language or tone of voice; a horse's heart rate will rise and fall according to his rider's; and a horse will miss subtle aids to perform if these are confused as an effect of a rider's emotions. What is unique about equestrian sport then, is that two minds must be synchronised. Riders who are able to communicate clearly and to optimise cooperation with their horse, even in the most stressful competitive situations, are more likely to portray a harmonious picture and achieve success.

Emotions such as frustration, anger and anxiety are commonplace in any sport, and dressage provides ample opportunity for such experiences.  Yet controlling one's emotions and physiological arousal is often far easier said than done.

Our related video demonstrates one of the ways in which a sport psychologist might help an athlete to maximise their performance, despite the inevitable emotions that go along with participation and competition. The video focuses on the use of mindfulness with an equestrian athlete. Mindfulness is a relatively new phenomenon, but in the past decade has become increasingly popular in many types of psychology, including sport psychology. To be mindful is to be quietly focused in the present moment- the "here and now" - while non-judgmentally observing - and not reacting to one's thoughts and emotions.

Evans, Baer and Segerstrom (2009) linked mindfulness to persistence, after having 142 psychology students work on a series of word puzzles, some of which were impossible. The better the subjects were in not judging or reacting to their positive and negative emotions, the more persistent they were; that is, although these students were aware of their emotions, their mindful stance allowed them not to be self conscious about it.

In this video, sport psychologist Dr. Elizabeth Pummell structures her work with a para dressage rider around mindfulness. Dr. Pummell explains the essence of mindfulness; how accepting, but not reacting to, emotions and thoughts promotes a state of relaxed concentration and reduced self-consciousness. Through being mindful, one can see what is going on, and is aware of what needs to happen. This theoretical knowledge base is then put into practice by way of ridden exercises. Mindfulness and acceptance exercises are executed whilst riding on a circle; the rider must focus on the present moment, and can be helped to do this by focusing her attention on various aspects such as the feel of the horse and tack, and surrounding sounds, one at a time. The rider is then given an exercise designed to evoke frustration, which involves a tricky test of bending the horse in and out a line of cones, the rider using only her legs, and no hands. The idea is for the rider to practice observing and accepting the type of thoughts and feelings that they might have while performing, but then to move on without reacting. Through practicing this, it is hoped that the rider will learn to notice feelings such as frustration, and be able to take a non-judgemental and non-reactive stance. For, as Dr. Pummell explains, it is when a relaxed concentration and sense of effortlessness comes, that one can become fully immersed in the feeling of the current activity, i.e. be in a state of 'flow'. It follows that an athlete, who is able to focus wholly on the current movement, will be in a better position to communicate precise aids to the horse. This will in turn serve to optimise cooperation and harmony between horse and rider.