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

"Spurring, when needed, should be done lightly but insistently,
and must cease its action the moment of compliance. The 
effect should be like someone tapping your shoulder with their
finger. No matter what you're doing, your attention will be drawn
to the one tapping you."
-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. I posted my reading notes for the first sin, Ignorance, a couple of weeks ago, and learned a lot about myself and my relationship with Robbye by writing it all out.

sins cover

Puterbaugh’s second sin is


For the purposes of this book, Puterbaugh focuses on the effects that timidity has on the dominance (or lack thereof) between a horse and its handler. Perfect for me, since I struggle with dominance so much.

In what ways am I guilty of timidity? Timid riders tend to accommodate their horse’s idiosyncrasies. However, this is not doing the horse any favors – in fact, the handler is failing to provide for the need for leadership that the horse naturally has. Naturally, the dominant horse establishes boundaries within the herd. Young horses learn what’s expected of them.

Additionally, to the horse’s instinct a human is never his equal. She can be above or below him in the hierarchy, but never on the same level. As much as I wish Robbye and I could be equal partners – it’s actually kinder to her to act as her superior 100% of the time. She needs that authority instinctively, and she also needs it in order to learn how to be a better horse.

Puterbaugh also declares the perils of compromise. If a horse is cooperative in some ways but not others, a timid rider will take what she can get (or “end on a good note”, as I like to do) in order to avoid confrontation. To a horse, this is a free pass for more and more disobedience. Boundaries and demands have to be 100% obeyed.

How can I fix my timidity? Dressage is all about submission. That sounds bad written down – but really, a submissive horse with a dominant rider is just a tiny herd. And herds are happy, natural groups – that include plenty of trust. Dressage builds trust just as it builds submission. That trust is built with practice. And practice – that I can do!

Timidity is also fought with appropriate discipline. Puterbaugh emphasizes that

a reprimand is deserved only when the horse knows better and is willfully disobeying,..You want to teach your horse, not bully him.

Overreaction to perceived mistakes, says Puterbaugh, is a symptom of ignorance and an expression of temper. Before a reprimand is dealt out, a rider must know if the horse is willfully disobeying or is confused or distracted. Of course, this is so hard since discipline also has to be perfectly timed!

(Puterbaugh also emphasizes that discipline should get milder as it’s used – it’s better to start off strong and work down to less. That’s what Helge taught us too!)

What else did I learn about timidity? Horses don’t work out of gratitude – if his handler doesn’t establish boundaries, then he’ll instinctively make up his own. Without a clear dominant handler, horses will constantly question authority…especially after they inevitably succeed at insubordination with a timid rider. In the herd, a horse confronts insubordination by confronting it. As riders, so too should we.

15 thoughts on “Reading Notes: The Seven Deadly Sins of Dressage (Timidity)

  1. this sounds like a book I need to get. I am a timid rider, and I know that, though I feel like I have gotten better through working with Sydney. When you are working with a green horse you have to learn to be the leader! I do still find myself accommodating her at times in the interest of myself not getting hurt right in that moment, though I know long term its probably not the best solution.


    1. I highly recommend it for timid riders. There’s an underlying theme through the whole book about establishing a relationship with a horse may require stepping outside of your comfort zone!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The title of the book and the flames are making me grin. This whole topic of timidity brings back memories of my first horse when I was a kid. A stubborn, too-smart QH. I was green and timid. He totally bossed me around.


    1. The title and cover artwork are a bit dramatic, aren’t they?! I definitely wouldn’t have picked this one up myself, so I’m so glad it was gifted to me 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. That whole explanation of horses naturally needing a leader never ceases to be an “aha” moment for me. It’s tricky tho for me to find the right balance for “harmony”. Anyways love these posts and glad you’re enjoying the book!


    1. I’m also struggling with the harmony aspect, especially since I have a mare who really doesn’t want to submit. I hope it’s just a time and relationship-building thing 🙂


  4. I had my own “aha” moment with this just last week- Addy was willing to cart me around, but as soon as I stepped up and took charge, she seemed so much happier. She’s good-natured, but she was definitely waiting for me to take the reins (pun intended). I think I need a copy of this book!


    1. It’s a great book, as long as you put some time into “digesting” the chapters. Highly recommended though!


  5. You can’t be equals, but you can have 51% of the leadership while your horse has 49%. That helps me feel less guilty about not be equals :). I think it is so critical to allow them that 49% so that they have something invested in the relationship, too. As Parelli says, cause your ideas to become your horse’s ideas, but acknowledge his ideas first. With mares, I find this extremely important ;).


    1. OH YA, I’m feeling this concept too! (For one thing, I know I don’t have the brute strength OR the energy to be 100% of the leadership between us!)

      Liked by 1 person

  6. This is so important, especially with an alpha type horse. If you’re not the leader, then the horse feels like he/she has to figure things out and that is both scary and dangerous.


    1. Before reading this chapter I never understood this. I thought we were establishing dominance for *our*, the rider’s benefit. Knowing that it’s for our horses’ benefit as well makes it easier to enforce, for me!


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