Reading Notes: The Seven Deadly Sins of Dressage (Ignorance)

"The essence of dressage is technique grounded in knowledge, 
triggered by awareness, and executed by feel."
-Puterbaugh, The Seven Deadly Sins of Dressage

For my birthday, my wonderfully thoughtful sister Abbie gave me a new book: The Seven Deadly Sins of Dressage, by Douglas Puterbaugh.

sins cover

She thought it would help my specific issues at shows – namely, Robbye senses my nervousness and completely takes advantage of me. As I read through the sins, I saw parts of myself in each of them – the book diagnoses the sins from both a horses’s and a rider’s perspective (including “you may be committing this sin if…” sections, which made the specific issues clearer to me), then offers broad solutions to the sins. My one complaint about the book is that the solutions are not at all specific – it’s more of a “ponder what’s going on” book than a “here’s what you do” book, if that makes any sense.

When I read, I tend to enjoy a piece and then completely forget all about it. While this is great for re-reading my favorite novels, it really devalues non-fiction! So, in an effort to internalize more of the concepts, I’m going to blog about the sins and the main concepts I’ve learned from each of them.

Puterbaugh’s first sin is

Ignorance.

For the purposes of his book, Puterbaugh defines ignorance as a gap in one’s knowledge or a lack of information, not “willful” ignorance, intolerance, or stupidity.

In what ways am I ignorant? Ignorant riders don’t just make mistakes – they also fail to correct them. As someone who spends 90% of her rides trainer-less, I know that I’m guilty of this. Additionally, ignorant riders often have unreliable, contrary, horses with seemingly unprovoked unwanted behaviors – and goodness knows I do! Puterbaugh names the horse as a rider’s report card – as the rider becomes less ignorant, the horse becomes more reliable, less contrary, and less prone to disobedience, An ignorant rider is often asking, unknowing, for all of these negative behaviors. Only by gaining knowledge can the rider communicate perfectly with her horse.

Generally, I think I’m pretty conscious of my ignorance – especially when it comes to the physical side of equestrianism. I can do all the reading and research I want, but that’s not going to fix my lower leg, or teach me how to feel Rob’s hind end, or grant me endurance or a sitting trot. I need a ton more time in the saddle and in front of a trainer.

How can I fix my ignorance? For now, I’m doing what I can. Puterbaugh points out that a rider must gauge her ability truthfully – she mustn’t inflate her ability with pride. I can see myself beginning to become dishonest with my ability at times, but Robbye always manages to temper me. Thanks for keeping me grounded, Rob!

Puterbaugh also emphasizes that a rider won’t eliminate issues by repeating unsuccessful exercises. She must go back to the basics and start from the ground up.

Puterbaugh believes that practice, too, eliminates ignorance – and better practice eliminates ignorance faster, and builds trust and skill faster, too. He notes that it takes time for a horse to learn, since it’s really interpretation; this is a lesson I should learn, since I tend to be impatient when I feel Robbye isn’t getting something at the pace I wish. He also notes, though, that over-practicing can lead to sourness, set-backs, and increased resistance. This is one of those places where I wish Puterbaugh provided more concrete examples – how do I tell the differences between confusion, resistance because she doesn’t want to work, and resistance because I’ve soured her? I know that she displays all three at times, but I struggle to distinguish between them, and therefore probably react inappropriately.

What else did I learn about ignorance? Puterbaugh believes that “anthropomorphism is ignorance wrapped in good intentions, but it’s ignorance nonetheless.” The best compliment and respect we can give our horses, he says, are treating them as they are, and as they think, not as humans are and think.

I also love this point, and it’s a concept he elaborates on further in future chapters: “Learning to ride properly – using finesse rather than force while in a state of mental equilibrium free of aggression and immoderate ambition – gradually cultivates an exquisite sensitivity that enables you to apply the aids in the appropriate manner with the right intensity, and to do nothing when the horse complies – as a reward.”

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9 thoughts on “Reading Notes: The Seven Deadly Sins of Dressage (Ignorance)

  1. How well written! My trainer likes to word it like this: when the horse does as they are asked, their reward is that you soften a bit and do nothing. When they resist, that’s when you apply your aids. I also have a tough time determining if Addy is resisting or if I’m just asking incorrectly, and I’m hoping that distinction will come with time.

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    1. This is a new concept for me (sad, I know). I probably put way too much emphasis on praise, both verbal and physical. In dog training, where I learned a lot of my animal social skills, praise is absolutely essential!

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      1. I tend to praise a ton too- Addy and I celebrate every single little thing. She gets a pat and a “good girl” whenever she responds correctly, but I’m trying to limit that to when she puts in an extra effort or listens when she clearly doesn’t want to. It’s hard, I just wanna love on her too much!

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      2. LOL I’m with you! And reading this book, apparently the pats and verbal reward may not mean as much. BUT it means a lot to me and makes me feel better, so I’m just going to go with that 😉

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    1. It is interesting and I’m glad to have read it (and I’m sure I’ll get more value out of it as I blog about it), but it’s also…frustrating. It has glowing reviews on Amazon, so I suspect I’m just not the ideal reader. I’m probably way too analytical and detail-oriented for such a “philosophical”-type read.

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