Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Book review: Riding in the moment

Rather than try to make the horse understand what they want, mechanical riders try to make the horse do what they want. 
--Mike Schaffer

There is no "easy button" for dressage. Or is there? Mike Schaffer ( has a new book out, and he was kind enough to send me an electronic copy of Riding in the moment: The hidden language of dressage. I have his book on training young horses, Right from the start, and found it very down-to-earth and readable.

About Mike
I only know  a little about this guy's bio. He  is a follower of the French school/Baucher style, whatever the heck that is. You won't hear about his performance in the show ring--don't think he competes. Mostly, he teaches and trains, and his style is unique. It is just my perception, but he seems to bridge the gap between cowboy dressage and classical dressage. I was interested in seeing what this book, which is more rider-focused than Right from the start, had to say.

The premise of the book intrigues me -- as a lover of language and words, I have been frustrated at times by the terms dressage trainers use. Some trainers live in the world of the  ideal--not always where I am in my riding ;-)--and their advice doesn't always feel relevant.  More bend! Activate the inside hind! Lift the shoulders!  I'd hear this and want to quip back, "Lady, I can't even steer right now!"

The "hidden language" of dressage
If Schaffer doesn't have an easy button, he does speak in a language we can all follow. He laments the use of phrases like "ride from the inside leg to the outside rein." While it might be meaningful to the schooled horse and rider, it can be misleading for the average rider on the average horse. At worst, the imprecise language of dressage deprives us of corrective tools, and can turn us into "mechanical riders." To ride mechanically is to use force (same aids, only stronger) when things go wrong rather than finding new ways to communicate what is needed. Like talking louder to someone who is totally deaf, it simply won't work.
Mechanically ridden horses never become submissive or calm. Rather than accepting the rider as the leader who will guide them safely through a worrisome world, they see the rider as just one more worrisome thing in the world.
That phrase alone is worth the price of the book.

Schaffer describes how riders must help horses understand what is being asked of them by breaking complex movements (e.g., half pass) into simpler, more basic moves. In the old school Skinnerian behaviorism I think this is called shaping, and Schaffer describes it here when he refers to cognitive, or thinking riders:
Their techniques vary but their method is the same — they keep chipping away at a concept they want the horse to understand by making tiny little advances
followed with immediate, frequent reward.
What you don't get with this book
The answer is jargon. There's no renvers, no fill up the outside rein, no intimidating metaphors.  He lists five basic building blocks that are the foundation of these movements: go, stop, turn in, and move out. He helps the reader perform these basics, giving simple directives, and then he helps us put the basics together to do things like form a bend on the circle, shoulder-in, and other complex movements. The whole time the emphasis is on riding cognitively (as opposed to mechanically); instead of  doing a movement you're helping the horse to understand what is being asked of him/her.

It's a pretty unique book, and one that I'd recommend especially for any rider at second level and below (which is most of us). I'd urge any rider that is  struggling in their riding efforts to read it. If you've lost confidence in your ability, if your understanding of dressage seems to drift in and out, and if you feel the things you thought you understood are eluding you now, this is the book for you. It's also a great introduction to dressage for the very beginner or child beginner. I applaud Mike's mission to talk about dressage in a language that we can all "get" without dumbing down the sport itself.


  1. Looks very good - thanks for the review!

  2. Sounds like a winning and refreshing approach. I'm sick to death of reading books that focus on doing things to the horse rather than with the horse!

  3. I love you for this review!! I'm going to put this at the top of my horse book list.

    Phrases like "inside rein to outside hand" are GREAT-IF you have an instructor right there to clarify or simplify or break it down or do whatever it is you need to understand what you need to do and WHY. So many of us don't have that, so a book like this is great:)

    I'm sort of going on all my prior training to ride my OTTB, and some days are great and some are so-so. Anyway, thank you for this!:)

  4. The review reminds me of a clip of your trainer riding Riley with Felicitas Von Neumann. She had your rider break down the leg yield aid for Riley's benefit. This book sounds great!

  5. Mike is on a list I'm on and he always has useful things to say about riding and dressage.

    I need to check and see if his books are available for Kindle - I'm stocking it up since I got one for Christmas. :)

    Thanks for the review!

  6. Sounds good. I've found most of the exercises are no secret to accomplish provided your horse responds correctly to the basic aids, so his concepts make a lot of sense.

  7. Thanks for the review. I'm always looking for ways to increase my dressage education. I'm going to put this book on my list of must reads.

  8. Thanks for the review, I just ordered it. It sound like exactly what I need to compliment my trainer's sessions. FYI- Mike's ebook is a PDF file which Kindle can read. (I got my Kindle this week)

  9. Sold. Great review. The way you described the content was very helpful. I need this one!

  10. I laughed outloud at "Lady, I can't even steer right now" thinking of how often that pops into my head during lessons :) Thank you. just thank you, for this review.

  11. Oh please, Mike is a whackadoodle. I've ridden with him and watched him teach many people. I think some of what he says is helpful but much goes completely against the grain of common sense.

    There is a reason why you don't see him competing at the upper levels. I'm blessed to be in an area where there are a ton of very competent and competitive dressage trainers so it quickly becomes obvious when he goes off script.

    The ONE area where I found him to be VERY helpful was in his teaching of in-hand work. That really made a difference for my horse and it's difficult to find people who teach those techniques.

    I have not read his book so I cannot comment on what he says specifically. But it would not be high on my list of purchases. I'd be much more likely to recommend Jane Savoie who has an excellent series of videos that very clearly illustrates concepts.

  12. What I gernerally find to be "whackadoodle" are psychic reviews, written by those who have not even read the book, based on ad hominem arguements.

    I don't know Mike - never had the pleasure - but if "showing at the higher levels" is the only measure of either dedication to a sport or competence at teaching it, there are a whole lot of trainers & coaches out there who'd better quit their jobs. My only knowledge of Mike is through his books, which, in their ability to guide everyday riders on everyday horses to that energizing, relaxed place where learning really happens, I can only liken to Sally Swift. Except that he's a far better writer.

    I don't much care whether he shows, or at what level: he's not making any claims to teach me how to do that (and I have no desire to turn my hobby into that kind of work). I also don't care if he waves crystals and burning sage leaves, channels Xenophon, or whatever else it is that lends the accusation "whackadoodle." I do care that he does brilliantly what he claims to do: strip the jargon, and teach riders --- many of whom do not have access (physical or financial) to world-class coaching --- how to become their own teachers, and how to engage their own horses in that discovery process.

    That's a rare gift. Few riders -- including (or perhaps especially) in those at the top of the sport. To those for whom things come "easily" or "naturally" or "intuitively," teaching their craft is like trying to teach breathing: it just happens naturally. They don't really know why. And anyway, they aren't necessarily also good writers. So they fall back on jargon

    I, for one, never did "click" with Jane Savoi, nor with her devotees. I need not therefore engage in character assassination: she's clearly dedicated to the sport, successful, and has a wide following. More power to y'all. I've been riding for the better part of 50 years, and have long since learned that one size does not fit all.

    But over those fifty years, I've also read every major work written on dressage - most of them in their original languages -- and in the privacy of my own barn experimented with what works "straight from the book." I have a clear definition of "works": that is, leaves me and my horse softer, rounder, more energized, and a litter smarter -- and in a way that sticks with us despite erratic schedules, greying knees, and a growing spare tire.

    And if I had to distill the high points of that all into one clear, easy-to-read, easy-to-understand book, I could not. Thankfully, I don't have to. MIke's done it for us.

  13. This comment has been removed by the author.

  14. I heartily agree with JR's points and I'll add my own. I see so many riders lock into one trainer and one point of view. There are so very many ways to communicate and learn concepts--why shut yourself off from the diversity of perspectives out there? JR may have very valid reasons for her opinions. But speaking for myself, the book offered me something new to think about and try.

  15. I suggest that you watch the videos of him riding his horse and then decide if you want to buy his book.

    I may not have read the book but I've participated in three of his clinics and watched him teach many people. I can't imagine the book is much different from what I experienced on the ground.

    I am, perhaps, the only person on this thread who has actually met the man, paid him $$ and then evaluated his techniques based on my own experience and on what I saw with other riders.

    I do not judge rider's purely by their competitive success; rather by what they can accomplish either as a rider or as a trainer. I have ridden with many excellent trainers over the years who can make dressage both accessible and correct. While I found that Mike talked a good game and his concepts sounded good, his talk did not translate into horses that were on the bit, relaxed and responsive.
    But don't take my word for it, watch the videos. Watch his hands. Evaluate whether his horse is on the bit. Then decide whether you want to buy the book.

    I'm glad the book helped some of you. But my experience with the clinician was vastly different. I'm not the only one who has had similar experiences (do a search). Then take my comments in the context of the discussion and decide what works for you.

  16. Hi Liz, I respect what you're saying. I don't want to defend MS too much because I only know him from his books and from the videos I did watch.

    Have you ever watched the Jane Savoie video on half halts? For the purpose of the video, the aids are demo'ed in a fairly exaggerated way for the purpose of teaching. Often in training (and also in physical therapy) the coach overdoes the movement for better understanding.

  17. Stacey,

    Perhaps my use of "whackadoodle" was over the top, and if it offended, I apologize. I was, to use a COTH term, just somewhat "aghasted" to see MS held up as a beacon of dressage training because I found the way he rode and trained upsetting, particularly the way he was constantly pulling on the horses' mouths.

    At the time I took the clinics with Mike I was riding with a wonderful German trainer here in the Boston area and the contrast between her style (very quiet with your hands, using your seat and core to stay with your horse and hold your own balance) was extreme. I had a horse that was very reluctant to take real contact with the bit and the MS style of riding only succeeded in getting him consistently behind the bit and jogging along -- not connected and not really working through his back.

    *I* never saw MS teach or ride a horse with a real connection -- always the inside hand was working away and the horse floating behind the bit. Maybe he does teach a connection at some point but in my (limited) experience, the idea of having your horse accept the contact and stay steady and quiet in your hand has to start at the beginning.

    I don't think it's bad to get your horse to relax, but when the horse is constantly behind the vertical and not engaged, it's not really dressage. It may feel pleasant and enjoyable (which is fine if that's your goal).

    As for Jane Savoie? She was just the first person who came to mind when I was thinking of who has videos that are readily accessible.

    I absolutely agree that there are many ways to learn and that it helps to have different explanations of techniques because sometimes one person has a way of describing something (or has an exercise) that makes everything clear. It just took me by surprise to see your review.

    The books that have most helped me with my riding were Mary Wanless' series (I prefer her to Sally Swift) because they helped me understand how the rider's position influences they way the horse can use himself, and a book called "Stretch Exercises for your Horse" by Karin Blignault. The latter is a great book in that it explains how riding your horse correctly (and using certain dressage movements) strengthens and stretches your horse. I had a trainer (Joan Harris) who explained dressage to me in this way and that was a real light bulb moment for me.



Hi Guys, Your comments are valued and appreciated -- until recently I never rejected a post. Please note that I reserve the right to reject an anonymous post.