Jane Pike: You’re listening to episode 28 of The Confident Rider Podcast with Jane Pike. Today I am very excited to be sitting here with Karen Rohlf from Dressage Naturally. Karen is someone that I have personally been following for a long time and when I started my podcast, you were on my hit list right from the beginning, so thank you so much for joining me today.
Karen Rohlf: You’re welcome. It’s really nice to be here. I love talking to like-minded horse people.
Jane Pike: Really, really excited. I had an overriding premise to be able to have conversations like this one with people who are out there really improving horses and humans alike, and I feel like you are so much in that space. It’s such an honor to have this conversation. So for those of us out there that aren’t acquainted with you or aren’t familiar with Dressage Naturally, do you want to tell us a little bit about your background and story, and how you came to be doing what you’re doing now?
Karen Rohlf: Yeah, sure. Dressage Naturally right now is really about empowering horses and humans to be the best they can be, by creating stronger partnerships and healthy movement. That’s a result of my combination of my experience in dressage with my experience in natural horsemanship. So without going too far back, my main career was in dressage, in a competitive dressage facility working out of New York. Before that, my beginning to horses was very backyard kid and a horse, getting on bare back and backwards and seeing what happens. I had a lot of freedom like that, but I ended up having a dressage career. It wasn’t until really like 1998 that I had an upper level horse that had been willed to me, and he was a used up dressage horse. I think you can probably know the picture.
Karen Rohlf: As he was nearing retirement, I started looking for silly, fun things to do with him at this dressage facility, and that’s where I literally stumbled by accident across, it was a Parelli natural horsemanship clinic. I just saw horses on the flier standing on a pedestal, and I thought that looks silly and funk. So I brought him there, and that was my introduction to natural horsemanship. I really didn’t have a problem horse or anything like that, but what I learned from there really started to turn the light on for him. He started to really come out of his shell. So at that point in my career, as a grumpy dressage rider, we think we know everything. Then all of a sudden I’m like, “Wait a minute, there’s this whole other way of looking at things.” What it did for me when he got that little spark of life back and he started coming out of his shell, I started feeling with him the way I did when I was a kid playing with my horses.
Karen Rohlf: I went, “This feels good,” and he was performing better. He was offering more at the end of his career than he had in the years that I knew him before that. I was like, “Okay, I got to figure more of this out.” So that’s how I started getting interested in more partnership based training and took a deeper dive into that, starting then and I haven’t looked back. So then I had to figure out, wait a minute, back in 1998, dressage and natural horsemanship weren’t even mentioned in the same sentence.
Jane Pike: I was just about to say that. How was that-
Karen Rohlf: Well, the dressage riders all said, “She ran off and joined the circus.” The natural horsemanship people said, “Look out, there’s a dressage right here. They’re mean.” So there I was going, “Wait, it’s just me.”
Jane Pike: You’re hovering in no man’s land.
Karen Rohlf: Exactly. So I just felt very lonely, but it was beautiful because I had a big block of time because I left the facility in New York, and I was on my own. I said, “All right, I have to figure this out. What am I doing now?” When I go out with a horse, knowing what I know in dressage, knowing what I’ve learned in natural horsemanship, how am I making my decisions now, my training decisions? So when I wrote my book, I really wrote it for me. Like if I have to explain this to people, I have to understand my own system and I had to create it because there wasn’t any other blueprint to follow. So it’s really been a result of me just saying, “All right, how am I going to make sense of these bodies of information? How do they fit together, because they fit together beautifully and then how can I explain it?”
Jane Pike: I love that so much. I remember when I tapped into the horsemanship world coming from this competitive showing dressage background myself, and it was like all of the neural pathways in my mind were firing off trying to make sense of this information, and there’s a load of undoing on one side of things which you can see haven’t been working, but you might stick with them just for the sake of the fact that’s how it’s always been done. I think once you understand the principles and the reasons as to why you’re doing something and get that clarity, the fusion becomes so much easier.
Karen Rohlf: Yeah, and I was really fortunate, because it is hard to change, especially if you’re in the same environment and everybody else is doing things a certain way. So it was really fortunate that in 2003, I went to Florida supposedly for two months just to get out of the New York winter. I didn’t even know that where I was going was like seven miles down the road from the Parelli’s place and somebody I knew just literally dragged me over there. I said, “I don’t have time for this.” Then Pat and Linda were just so generous, they were interested in my interest in them and they let me follow them around for a couple of years. Then Pat went on this mission when we were in Colorado. He just kept me on cows. We played with his cows for like six hours a day, but it was by design. He made a point of not letting me have time to practice doing my old habits.
Karen Rohlf: So I changed locations, I changed my patterns because I just did what they told me and let myself experience these new experiences. That really helped because it was easier to go, “Okay, I’m not doing this anymore. Now I’m doing this, and I got to figure it out.”
Jane Pike: Wonderful. A whole paradigm shift really, isn’t it? Allows you to reconfigure things from a different perspective.
Karen Rohlf: Exactly.
Jane Pike: That’s wonderful. So when we think about dressage, and I’ve been reading a lot of your material of late, and what’s really struck me is something that’s been rolling around my mind for a long time that you explained so eloquently, is that dressage is essentially something that we do with our horse, for our horse rather than to our horse. I’m not sure if it’s the competitive narrative that we also easily fall into where we think of dressage as a competition or a sport, and that leads to conversations of maybe like my horse isn’t good at dressage, or I’m not good at dressage, rather than seeing it as a functional activity to optimize physical health and gymnasticism and create a relaxed mind. Would you speak a little bit to that, because I love this idea of dressage being the integral part of creating success essentially?
Karen Rohlf: Yeah, sure, sure because you’re right, I do get students sometimes saying to me or emailing me, they’re like, “I want to do dressage, but I don’t want to compete or I don’t have a fancy horse.” I’m like, “That’s okay.” For me, competition is a separate subject. It’s added on, but it really is like this extra bit. It has nothing to do with the art of doing dressage. I like to refer back to what the rule book, the international question federations rule book definition of what the object of dressage is. There’s a lot of dressage riders out there who don’t even know what or haven’t read this. So the object of dressage according to the rule book is the development of the horse into a happy athlete through harmonious education resulting in a horse that’s calm, loose, supple and flexible, but also confident, attentive and keen, thus achieving perfect understanding with his rider.
Jane Pike: Well if you could have dream summed up, that’s pretty much it, isn’t it?
Karen Rohlf: Right. So when I studied natural horsemanship, which is about using psychology and understanding communication, those two definitions go together perfectly. So that’s what dressage is supposed to be all about. What we humans do is we focus on I got to get my shoulder in done. I got to get my changes clean, but nowhere in that object does it say you have to have to be able to do 15 one time fees. That’s bonus points. So for me, every horse could benefit from achieving that object of dressage. Every horse, and I’ve had students who have driving horses, who do cutting, who do endurance, who do trail riding, who do jumping and who do dressage, and we focus on achieving that object of dressage first. Someday at the end of a perfect day, Grand Prix when your excellent half halt works, then you achieve the object.
Karen Rohlf: It’s something that can be achieved right at the beginning, and then you just see how far you go. Depending on the gymnastic ability of your horse, your talent or the amount of dedication, or time you want to put into it or what your personal goals are, and maybe you’ll compete or not. Separate subject, but remember what the object is.
Jane Pike: Really, really cool. I think a shift that I made personally that speaks to what you’re referring to now is moving away from this transactional approach with horses, where they’re there to fulfill a specific purpose like I will win that ribbon, and it becomes a little bit of a disposable situation at times towards a transformational approach where you recognize just how, when you get into everything with them, how much self-development is required in order for you to be able to show up as a balanced human basically, and give them the best deal possible in that you have clarity of what your intention is, and you’re responsible for your energy. I think that that intermeshing is something that you’re huge on as well. The self-responsibility element.
Karen Rohlf: Absolutely. What’s interesting for me about dressage, it sounds like a cliche, but it really is about the journey. I found… The last few competitions I did, I really, I forgot to go pick up my score. I already knew how I did, because what I was interested in is where did this horse and I start, and what are we doing now, and how does it feel between him and me? Of course, I want to have excellence and have correctness in the endeavor of dressage movements, but that’s all part of it. The joy for me is in establishing the communication and the trust, and then from there showing the horse that the things that I want to ask him to do are actually to help him move with more freedom. So I want him to be thanking me. “Thank you for moving my shoulders around. I feel so much better now.” Then from there it already feels good.
Karen Rohlf: Then how can I be a sophisticated communicator and a really good motivator, and someone trustworthy enough that I can get a horse to go to the gym with me, and want to go to the gym with me and become a ballerina, which is crazy cool that we can even do this. At the beginning, there’s something amazing when we figure out how to have our horses let us in. It’s not about control. When I come in the house after a good day, it doesn’t sound like this. I don’t say to my husband, my husband’s name’s Dana. I go, “Dana, I had such an awesome ride. I got to use all my aides.”
Jane Pike: Yeah, that’s so true.
Karen Rohlf: So I’m not interested in control. I come in and go, “Oh my God, I had such a great ride. It was like he just offered it, and I felt like I could just think about it and he did it.” So that’s what I’m going for.
Jane Pike: Yeah, that choice [inaudible 00:13:19] feeling where it’s like they’re with you because there’s a mutual desire to be forming this partnership. So this leads us beautifully into your happy athlete training scale. I’ve been ogling that this morning and I agree with that on so many levels. So your baseline is happiness. That’s a platform that you start from.
Karen Rohlf: That’s the base of the pyramid. Dressage rider is like pyramid, so weaning skills.
Jane Pike: Yeah, and happiness for horse and happiness for rider.
Karen Rohlf: Absolutely, and it’s equal. It’s actually all my responsibility, because the horses never asked for any of this. This is all my idea. I know horses make us happy, but they shouldn’t have to. So I feel like if this is my idea, I number one have a responsibility to have a horse who enjoys his life. If somebody asked him, he’d be like, “Yeah, things are good.”
Jane Pike: It’s working over here.
Karen Rohlf: Yeah, and I have to look at it like, and not just happy with me, but happy when I’m not there. Happy that he has freedom and he has forage, and he has friends. That he’s like, “Yeah, life is pretty good.” So that’s my responsibility, because even that helps dressage, right? Think of an unhappy posture. We’re trying to do posture with a horse, but the posture of an unhappy being works against us, and then it’s up to me to do my own work. So I show up, not still grumpy because of the last conversation I had with somebody who made me grumpy. Not grumpy because nobody else listened to me today, so I’m going to make sure my horse sure does. My best that I’m not walking around going, “Oh my God, I’m so terrible. I’m not good enough. I suck at this.”
Karen Rohlf: The self criticism. So getting rid of all that stuff that gets in the way of us being able to embody our intentions. Horses read intention, and they read body language. So an intention for me is heart. We have to match up my body and my heart. We have to be following our heart and embodying our action, and humans are really good at not doing that.
Jane Pike: At being out of alignment.
Karen Rohlf: We get out of alignment, we disconnect. We say one thing when we really feel or mean another. We pretend we have social norms, and horses look at us and they’re going, “What are you trying to say?” Like it doesn’t make sense. They know we’re feeling one thing and acting another way. The personal work I think is so critical. Yes, you need technique, but if you aren’t able to just express it freely through your body, your body is your vocabulary with your horse.
Jane Pike: Yeah, absolutely.
Karen Rohlf: That’s the part where do the work and the nice, what’s it called? Side effect is you’re just a happy person. Get happy for your horse if your horse is going to be the motivator, but the nice side effect is just you’re happy in general.
Jane Pike: Yeah. I always say that we’re so blessed to have our horses, because so many of us are motivated to do that work, because we have this passion that we want to get “betterful.” I wonder how many of us would do that same amount of self development work if we didn’t have something that was like our horses to actually invest in, in that way. So there’s such a blessing on so many levels.
Karen Rohlf: Yeah. Yeah, definitely.
Jane Pike: That intention that you talk about from my perspective, ambiguity in terms of not knowing exactly what you’re after, not knowing when you’ve actually got what you’re after and then that clarity of communication can be such a dream killer, and also create what we might consider to be problems in our horses that are actually coming from our inability to be really clear in what it is that we’re setting out.
Karen Rohlf: Absolutely. Absolutely. A common question that students come to me for the first time or at a clinic, they’re like, “Is this the right bend? Is this the right energy level?” Or whatever it is that they’re asking for, and I can assess it with a dressage eye from a dressage point of view, but I turn that part off and then I’ll ask back. I was like, “What does it feel like? Is your horse matching the energy that you’re asking for?” Because if so many riders get told good during a lesson when it looks good, but they know they’re using a ton of leg or the horse is hanging on their hands and now they’re told good. For me, it doesn’t matter what it looks like until the horse and the rider are happy together. So if I have a horse and a rider who are really happily communicating and the horses like, “I’m getting all the answers right. I know what to do.” That team is really easy, you can teach them anything.
Karen Rohlf: I can say, “May I suggest you go a little slower. May I suggest try moving your horse’s shoulders over there.” The horse is like, “Okay, I’ll try it.” That pair is much easier to teach them progress than a rider who’s making their horse look a certain way, and it’s all controlling aids. They’re making it look like it’s working even though it’s not working. Then that doesn’t feel good to anybody, so my top priority is to get students to really focus on that communication. How do you feel? Is your horse answering? You know what you asked your horse, does your horse know? When he did it, did you give him feedback because there’s this conversation happening? What gets in the way of that is students going, “Am I doing it right? Is this correct?”
Jane Pike: They’re second guessing.
Karen Rohlf: Yeah and I’m like, “It doesn’t matter if it’s correct or not correct at this point. Just get it to feel so it matches you.” Here’s the nice side effect of that is when that communication is flowing freely, then there’s no delay in the timing when the student goes, “Yep, that’s it. Or a little more.” If they’re going, “It feels okay, but I’m not sure if it looks okay,” and then they don’t reward the horse and the horse did exactly what they asked, and now the moment’s gone. I need my students to trust their instincts and to be free in trusting what they’re feeling, and just going, “Yes, or I need a little more.” Like do something and getting out of their head. I’ll tell you in teaching people live and it works through the online courses too, and this is why. When I see people and I say, “You tell me,” when they’re always correct.
Karen Rohlf: There’s never a moment where the students says, “Yes, my horse is matching my energy,” and that’s not true unless they say it like this, “Is your horse matching your energy?” “Yeah.” I go, “That’s a no.” So yeah, I play a little bit with them and I have them say it out loud so they can hear the tone of voice. Once they start practicing then, they know they’re like, “I’m so lying here.” They’re afraid to say yes. They’re afraid because they’re worried about getting the answer wrong, and I just give them permission like just say what you’re feeling. Say what you’re feeling.
Jane Pike: Yeah, that making mistakes is such a tripwire. The fear of making mistakes rather is such a tripwire that stops us moving forward. I found I’ve been attempting or doing my best to train myself out of that language that doesn’t really mean anything, and also isn’t replicable. So the, it was good. It’s like is good today good tomorrow, or is it like in an energy scale, would you say with zero being your horse is asleep in the posture, and 10 being the maximum energy you can produce. Where are we on that scale and actually the ranking between zero and 10 has helped me go, “Okay, it’s a five and I’m looking for an eight.” That helps me scale what it is I’m experiencing towards the feeling that I’m going for.
Karen Rohlf: Exactly. Yeah, if helps keep you specific so that you can trust your feel, but then be specific. When you ask yourself a question like what number energy level is this on a scale, your brain has to come up with an answer and you’re going to feel when you’re vague. So sometimes, this happens all the time. I’ll say, “What energy would you…” Or I’ll say, “Ask your horse to go and when he’s at the energy that you like, tell me and give it a number on a scale from one to 10.” So they’ll go, “This I like.” Then I’ll go, “Okay, what number is it?” They’re like, “Well it’s a five or six maybe.” I go, “Well, your horse is asking you what you want, and you’re saying five or six maybe. How can he be successful?” Just pick a number, it’s your scale. Just pick a number.
Karen Rohlf: So I really try to give people that practice to do it, and we have fun with it. There’s no you did it wrong, and just let them hear themselves when they’re being unclear or doubtful. They know with me they can always stop and ask a question if they’re like, “Wait, I don’t understand this. I need more information.” Like great, thank you. I love when they ask questions, because if you’re not sure what you’re asking for, you’re not going to be able to tell your horse.
Jane Pike: Yeah, that overthinking space as well and the disconnection to feeling, and instinct and intuition that we’ve almost become distrustful of what it is we feel I think, because we’re so used to analyzing every detail and wondering if it’s fitting the yes or no box. That becomes a practice as well, just to step back into.
Karen Rohlf: Dressage often attracts people who are very logical and measured. They are attracted to the system and the precision. So it tends to attract a thinker type person, but it really requires feel. So I think this is important that people take a minute to really figure out how the precision can come from play and from freedom and from curiosity, not from… That’s the paradox. The precision comes out of the possibilities that play creates. The more you try to make it in a box, the more it wants to get out of the box-
Jane Pike: So annoying-
Karen Rohlf: [inaudible 00:23:48], and you’ll find what you want. It might be right next to you and if you don’t play around, you won’t find it.
Jane Pike: That’s creating the conditions, like an atmosphere for something to arise that can only come when you’re in that place. Yeah, so wonderful. I think as well when I look at riders, the way that there’s that, it’s like an atmosphere they create of softness and lightness. What’s the word I’m looking for? In contrast to that. If you do stay in that analytical place and you’re trying, and it can come from a well-meaning place, it’s not necessarily ill intentioned but you’re trying really hard to get it right. There’s a controlled box where things are micromanaged, and don’t go here and left here and more inside leg and where it’s constantly riding with the brakes and accelerator at the same time. It will get you so far in maybe if you think of it competitively, but it’ll get you so far in training until you can’t progress beyond that, because the artistry of it and the actual movement towards something which is so much more aligned and where the partnership is obvious, it can’t be forced like you say. So I think I’m basically reiterating in a very non eloquent way what you just said so succinctly.
Karen Rohlf: No, that was really good. I think this is a paradox, because we need to be playful because every moment is different. Then when we find that yummy moment that we want more of, then we do have to practice the consistency and the stamina of that moment. I get people who are really into the precision and really into the play, and you can’t have just one because the playful feel people, they’re playing and feeling the horses are really happy, but then sometimes they can’t ride a straight line. Then I get the people who ride a straight line, but they maybe get stuck because they’re not finding or it’s all too hard. So it really is that blend, play to find the place that you want to strengthen and do more of. Then when it’s not working, play around a little bit more, find it and it’s very refinable. It’s very refinable.
Karen Rohlf: So you can be riding down center line of the Olympics and you’re still, instead of going, “I’m going to hold this together,” you’re still feeling and feeling and being neutral and checking and feeling riding more with your antennaes rather than your aides. So it is a blend. We’ve got to have that practice the balance of walking the tight rope. If you’re losing your balance, you got to adjust. I think some people just want to put themselves in a hallway with tall walls and just go, “I’m trying to go here.”
Jane Pike: Yeah. Let’s just get to that point. Yeah. Do you think as adults, just generally thinking about that sense of playfulness, I know that with the riders that I work with, time is an issue. It’s like well, I only have this amount of time to work with my horse. So you get very results focused that on Monday I have an hour, and we’re going to get out there and do this and it’s all going to go like this. So that sense of curiosity and allowing, and I don’t know if this is a word, but I’m going to use it. Discoverability of things that come up for you and your horse, you need to allow for that space, that place space for those qualities to occur.
Karen Rohlf: Absolutely. Yeah, and time is a challenge. Time is definitely a challenge, but what happens is you start putting pressure on yourself. I mean we have a joke around here that the way to sabotage, here’s a technique for sabotaging your ride and guaranteeing your worst ride ever is just come out like, “I’m just going to have a really short sweet ride.”
Jane Pike: I too have fallen in that hole.
Karen Rohlf: Yeah, and what most people do is they try to get to the end quicker. So when you have a short ride, just start at the beginning and stop earlier. Something I do actually is sometimes I will set timers for myself. I practice, I’ll get on my horse and set a timer for 24 minutes, and I practice being aware of time without letting it go, “Oh my God, I got to rush,” because it is a skill. We put the clock on or you get the show where you’re like going to ride at 10:46. So I think it is a good skill to, like with any art project. If you put a limiter on it, it forces you to be creative in a different way. So because right now I have the luxury with my horses of having endless time, they’re all my horses. I can do what I want, but I do find I will put timers on because I want to be also efficient. Sometimes when I want to progress, I have to be more efficient at getting the more basic stuff done so then I have time for the other stuff.
Karen Rohlf: The hard part is to do that and still stay… What is that? Discoverability or something. That word you said. Just to stay in that, in the moment. To stay in the moment and still be riding what is underneath you, even though you had this idea of what you wanted to do and how long you want to take, and it takes practice.
Jane Pike: Maintaining that presence. I’m going to do that. I was like, “I love that idea.” I’m going to be setting my timer for 24 minutes.
Karen Rohlf: Yeah, and it’s fun and then you know what? When the timer goes off, if it’s not the moment to end, you give yourself more time. [inaudible 00:29:26], timer goes off. What’s fun is I start practicing okay, I just have a few minutes. What can I do and how can I do it in a way that my horse find success this time? One piece of success and harmony and progression is better than 45 minutes of a bunch of stuff.
Jane Pike: Yeah. Yeah. I started doing these blogs called what’s the one thing, which was actually a practice for me where people would tell me something and I’m like, “Okay, what’s the one thing that I think would affect the biggest change in this situation?” As opposed to me going on for like an hour about the 20 things that I think could happen here. I was just thinking about my horses, I could be like, “Right, what’s the one thing that could take us to a better feeling place in this session, in this space of life, this short timeframe that we’ve got?”
Karen Rohlf: I love it.
Jane Pike: Yeah. My personal practice for next week is someone who like, it’s like, “How did three hours pass out here?” I’ve got-
Karen Rohlf: We didn’t do any. Yeah, I have guys like that. I’d come in from the house, I’m like, “What did I just do? [inaudible 00:30:35].” Which is fun sometimes too, but if you have goals and things you want to aim for, then it’s good to sit at home every now and then and review and go, “Okay, where am I heading? Where am I? What are some pieces?” Do some thinking when you’re at home so that then, and often in the mornings before I go out to my horses, I’ve done this thinking. I know where they are. I know where I want to get them to. I’ve done that. I’ve done that a lot, so I have that. Then before I walk out the door, I write down for each horse one intention. Just one intention. So I’m like ovation, relaxation. No, I’m schooling Grand Prix. So it doesn’t mean I’m just going to sit around him, but I just mean throughout that ride, relaxation has to be the main intention.
Karen Rohlf: With Natia, it might be like no, quick response. With another horse, it might be something else. With another horse that might be breathe. For me it might be for the horse, but so after I’ve done all the thinking, when I head to the horse, I just have this intention. No matter what I do, that’s the theme. Then I can be relaxed with Natia, and be thinking about effective quick response, but it might be in a trot around the field. With ovation it could be relaxation, but in schooling Grand Prix because I know the one piece that’s the most important theme for the day.
Jane Pike: Yeah. Yeah. Very, very cool. Would we be able to talk about by biomechanics? I almost didn’t get that out. Biomechanics briefly. Yes. Yeah, because I think it’s a term that we hear quite a lot about, and potentially people could switch off because it sounds like a lot to learn the biomechanics of your horse. What I read in some of your material is that it’s really bringing them into this state of dynamic balance, where the energy that’s available is utilized in a way that allows them to carry us efficiently and happily. So if you could describe biomechanics, you’re much better at this than me, how would you describe that?
Karen Rohlf: Yeah, well I thought… Yeah, and I think the most important part of that was to look at the word, it’s biomechanics. So it’s not people get out their protractors, “Oh my God, what’s the right place for the neck?” There’s bio, it’s a living creature. So that’s the most important part of that word. So my first priority with biomechanics is to get rid of the things that are actively messing it up, right? So things like my horse doesn’t trust me, he’s scared or he’s bored or the tack doesn’t fit. There’s often a list, this is an exercise. Write down a list of all the things that could make your horse’s way of moving worse. There’s a long list. If you think of that and go well let’s chip away those and make sure I’m eliminating those things, if he’s actively scared, if he actively confused, if he’s actively bored, your biomechanics is going to reflect that.
Karen Rohlf: Well that’s the number one thing, and then after that, if you have a happy partner who’s like, “What are we doing today, mom?” Then I like to think of this, I call it the sweet spot of healthy biomechanics. It’s the place where your horse moves with the most freedom and adjectives that you want to feel from him, which for dressage is calm, powerful, balance, free, fluid. All those adjectives and that place is a certain combination of relaxation, energy and balance. Those are knobs you can turn, or I think of them like the primary colors. They’re the red, yellow, and blue of biomechanics. So when you’re on a horse and you’re going, “Okay, now I want to improve his biomechanics. I’ve eliminated the reasons why he’s actively not in good biomechanics.” Then I know I have to check. Well, how good are my conversations about relaxing if he’s getting anxious? How good are my conversations about different levels of energy? Where he’s like, “Sure, I’ll try that.”
Karen Rohlf: How good are my conversations about shifting their shoulders right or left, or their haunches right or left, or lowering their neck or bringing their neck back up? Those are the things we’re going to change. Every dressage trainer is going to say some combination of wanting one of those things to change. So if I can teach students to get those conversations really good, it’s like trust me, you’re going to need blue, you’re going to need yellow, you’re going to need red if you’re an artist. The same way here, you’re going to need these. If you have a horse where you go, “Go” and he’s like, “No,” then it’s going to be a problem. So don’t take a dressage lesson yet. Let’s go fix, let’s go get that communication better and let’s motivate him so he’s like, “Sure.” If you know your horse can move his shoulders to the left, but when you do a forehand yield to the right, it doesn’t work. Let’s get that. You can find that.
Karen Rohlf: I can tell you that, and if you’re all the way down in the other end of the world, you could go get that and go, “Wow Karen, I figured out. My horse doesn’t move his shoulder to the right.” Like, “Great, let’s work on that.” Then once you have the ability to play around with those colors, you can mix them in different combinations. This is why I tell people, I’m like, “Get the conversations, now play with them.” Try different energy levels and notice your horse. Try moving your shoulders around, notice your horse. Even by accident, if you play with the possibilities, you will stumble across a moment where you’re like, “That feels better.” Wow, my horse just-
Jane Pike: It’s an eight, it’s an eight.
Karen Rohlf: Yeah, my horse just stretched or my horse’s stride just got more fluid. Then you go, “What did I just do?” Then you play with it some more if he loses it, and here’s the thing. This is all based on the hypothesis that that moment will feel good to your horse also, because you’re saying, it’s almost like you’re asking the horse, “Hey, where do we need, we, need to be so that you can move the most freely?” If you give them some choices, they start to find it and they start to seek it. When you get that moment where they’re loose and they’re balanced enough that they can stretch and blow, you can almost get to a point where you can’t interrupt it. That’s their happy place. In that moment where they’re balanced over their legs in the sweet spot where they have the most freedom of movement and they’re let loose, what does the object of dressage say? Loose, supple, flexible.
Karen Rohlf: Now you’ve got the physical elements of dressage, the object of dressage and now you take this horse and then you gymnastically develop it. You get it more engaged and even more refined amounts of straightness through prescribing different lateral work, and you go up the art of dressage. The first order of biomechanics is get rid of the things that are actively getting in the way. Then the second order is find the place of freedom. Find the place where your horse says, “I can move easily when we’re like this.” They’ll tell you.
Jane Pike: Almost seems like we have to get to that place where the point of balance or that sweet spot is unified, that our only role or one of our key roles at that point is actually not to get in the way ourselves.
Karen Rohlf: Exactly.
Jane Pike: To not invite-
Karen Rohlf: To embody, confirm and allow it.
Jane Pike: It’s one of those smile rides where you’re like, this feels so good. Feels so good.
Karen Rohlf: Yeah, and it’s recreatable through playing with these possibilities. There’s some things we got to have in place, those conversations, but if you play with it and you can talk to your horse like, “Hey, try your shoulder over here. How’s that feel? Try your shoulders there. How does that feel? Try a little more energy. How does that feel?” Then when your horse does it, meanwhile you’re saying, “Thank you for moving your shoulder. Okay, thank you for a little more energy. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.” Then your horse is going to go, “Can we stay here? This feels good.” So it should be effortless. The sweet spot should be like oh my God, this feels amazing and I don’t have to do anything, which is what we’re going for. That to me is the beginning.
Jane Pike: The holy grail.
Karen Rohlf: Now we’re ready to play. Now we’re ready to start doing dressage.
Jane Pike: The stretchability element that you refer to as well was a real light bulb moment for me, because I could visually identify that, but I guess I hadn’t articulated it in that way that you can see demonstrations of horse and rider combinations. That’s the word I’m going for, where you can tell that it’s put together, but if you were to rub out everything in the picture that was to do with reins and bits and holding in place, that it’s quite a rigid structure that you’re looking at. It doesn’t give this feeling that you could go, you could take it out and you could bring it back up. There’s not this lovely pliable element that gives that beautiful artistic expression, so what is stretchability to you? What does that mean if we were to use that term?
Karen Rohlf: Yeah, the stretchability from a biomechanical point of view or from a mechanical point of view for me, it’s the place where the horses balanced over their legs so that they are no longer using their back muscles for carrying, for supporting the rider. They’re balanced so they can let go and use their back for what it’s meant for, which is locomotion. That’s why the gates get freer, and why a crooked horse can’t find it, but if you find alignment, then all of a sudden they can let go and they’re operating up their nuchal ligament, and they’re just free for locomotion. So mechanically, it’s a place of balance where the top line lets go. The bio part is it’s also a posture of vulnerability and trust. So a horse that’s scared, usually the cartoon we draw is really high headed. The back and the head are up, and the back is down.
Karen Rohlf: So stretchability for the horse to really let go and open up his top line when we’re sitting on it especially, that’s a very trusting position. They trust us. They trust our balance, they’re softening through the mouth and things that are soft are vulnerable. Most horses who are hard mouthed, they’re not hard mouthed, they’re sensitive in their mouth and they’re blocking their whole neck and jaw and shoulders to protect their mouth. So to really understand that trust is so important. The stretchability is the difference between watching a horse at any level that ticks the boxes as far as criteria for dressage, but one looks beautiful and one doesn’t. It’s that horse mechanically getting stuff done versus the horse that just flows and you go, “It feels so good to watch that horse.” That stretchability is so important because if the horse is seeking it and if you’re always seeking this balance where the horse goes, “I feel like stretching,” you can stretch all the way down or you can stretch a millimeter.
Karen Rohlf: So in the middle of a piaffe or something collected, and your head starts to go into contraction which is really easy to do, that’s a fine line in collectability, especially when they’re really at their limit. It’s so easy to get contracted, and you can get that stretch reflex. You can stretch an inch or a few millimeters, and just enough to take out the contraction. That’s always the game is how do I collect my horse, but keep them reaching and stretched and free. That’s the game. If we don’t know how to create that stretchability in the easiest form, don’t wait until you’re in the piaffe to figure this out. So really highlight, like my horse’s default is a stretch and a stretch that comes through balance. So even in the round pen, if I set my horses out at liberty and they go a couple circles, they’re like, “Let me get comfortable,” and they’ll go into an act of a back stretch, because they know that that feels the best.
Jane Pike: I was on Facebook the other day, the world that is Facebook of all the beautiful and wild and wonderful and wacky. I looked at a thread, it popped up on my page and the first picture was of a horse with the lady was asking for some kind of equipment that helped the horse come into “frame” when they’re on the lunge. It was really interesting watching the comments, because half of them were like, “Well that’s not going to do it. This is not the way to create roundness.” Then the other side of the comments were mocking. Everyone was in this standoff, which we see quite commonly. This isn’t a judgment of that at all, because I was standing back and trying not to get involved myself. I just sit on my hands. One comment that really stood out to me was, “Well, some of us don’t like our horses going around on the forehand, we are concerned about outline. We like outline.”
Jane Pike: The stream of thought with that was that we require these gadgets, if you like, in order to bring our horse into an outline. So I think that if we were to take that aside, and it’s again not a personal assessment of anyone or anything, there is this stream of thought which is slowly changing. I think that we need some kind of gadgets or side reins or chambon, or so many things. The list is endless, to bring our horse into this roundness and that what we’ve just been discussing flies in the face of that essentially, doesn’t it? That true roundness and that stretchability just cannot be created with those types of equipment. Is this the contentious point?
Karen Rohlf: It’s just starting. For me, it’s starting at the wrong end of things. I find that if you remove the reasons why they’re not in that beautiful posture, and then you give them the possibility to find it, they will. The horses that don’t, usually have some past history of someone who did differently by that. I wrote a blog about nosebands. Just simple nosebands, which doesn’t create a shape at all, but in researching for that article, I found that another article, I think it was in Dressage Today magazine where they basically said, and I put this quote in my blog, “If there isn’t a noseband on, the horse’s neck will become wobbly and unstable,” and all these other things. I’m thinking, “Why?” If you’re riding in such a way that the horse’s mouth isn’t forced shut, the neck becomes unstable, that to me is a problem with the riding.
Karen Rohlf: I think shape is easy for people to see. It’s like, this might be weird, but somebody writes a great novel. It’s a beautiful piece of artwork, right? It’s like wow, that’s amazing. Then people analyze it and they look at how many chapters does he have? How many words in each chapter? They analyze that and they make a formula, and then people follow the formula. It’s never going to be a great novel. It’s never going to be a great novel. So when horses go well, they’re in a shape and people see the shape and they try to create the shape. The shape, the posture is a result of everything.
Jane Pike: It’s [inaudible 00:46:31] product of the beginning.
Karen Rohlf: It’s the byproduct, and the shape of the horse is so easy to change if they trust you and they’re already seeking balance, and they’re communicative. That’s like with online courses, I give people so much. I’m like, “You do all this stuff and you will get 80% there.” Then yeah, go to a trainer and get eyes on the ground. They might say, “Hey, I think your horse’s neck needs to be two inches longer.” It’s easy. It’s not hard, but if you’re coming in going, “Your head has to be here and has to be here, because this is what I read.” That to me is harder. That’s a hard way to dressage.
Jane Pike: Very much so.
Karen Rohlf: I think it’s the feel and feel is hard to teach, but the communication, the trust, the partnership, it has to start there. When it starts there, everything else is easier.
Jane Pike: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. So, so beautiful. Can I ask one question? This is personally motivated, so feel free to-
Karen Rohlf: You’ve asked lots of questions, so keep going.
Jane Pike: That’s true. So when we have this relationship of relaxation, energy and balance, so those components are, they seem to be like if you can come back and have a look at where they are filtering in, you can pretty much start to dissect where the issue might be and seek to remedy that in some way to bring it together. So what I’ve been really interested in observing lately is, because I’m in the process of I’ve just recently backed my young horse and he’s just getting started on the saddle. Is that negotiation in my mind where perhaps we come into trot, and the walk’s been what I would consider to be balanced and relaxed and we’re connected, but the truck’s a little rushy in the beginning, which I know isn’t necessarily that atypical.
Jane Pike: Making that assessment, is this something, is it rushy because somehow we’re coming into it in a way that’s unbalanced? So this biomechanical side of things where the actual mechanics of the situation creates a mental constriction, or is it the mental side of it that’s creating the physical manifestation of what’s arising? Do you know the question I’m asking?
Karen Rohlf: Yeah.
Jane Pike: It’s like how do we break it down to say okay, is this because for some reason, on some level we’re coming into this in a way that’s creating physical unbalance and as a result of that physical imbalance, we’re feeling tense? Or is there a tension that’s coming into it, which is creating these physical concern?
Karen Rohlf: I love the question, because this is the reality of training and being with your horse, and they can cause it. You can have a horse, the way a horse moves can create unbalance which then makes them anxious. So then it looks he is emotional, but which came first? So I think the answer is in thinking about things in this way all the time, is my horse thinking or reacting and not just waiting till you’re in the arena. So you get to know your horse. What does my horse look like when he’s anxious? What does he look like when he’s trying? With a young horse, well here’s a general rule. If they only get emotional at one gate or sometimes even one lead, then it’s probably not emotional. It’s probably something else physical. It’s like if they’re really fine on the left lead, but at the right lead they start freaking out, it’s probably the balance of the lead is causing the emotions, because then you go back to the other lead and they’re fine.
Karen Rohlf: So that gives a little bit of a hint. So you ask the question, I wonder what it is and then you observe. I think just asking the question is part of the solution like is this emotion or balance? You start trying to figure out ways to figure it out with that particular horse, and every horse is different. With the young horse, it’s always a question of how soon do you do certain lessons. With the owners, I feel like they need to have enough balance that they can go where I’ve pointed them, they can follow my focus and they can find a homeostasis. Like they don’t speed up or slow down. So even if it’s a little bit like a big ganguly trot, like some of these wamblers have big ganguly trots, so I’m not going to expect them to be collected. I’ll say just maintain. Maintain, I’ll harmonize with your big ganguly trot, and as long as they’re not accelerating, then I go with it for a little bit and then we find harmony.
Karen Rohlf: Okay, we have harmony at your big ganguly trot. I know I can stop, I know I can turn and I know you can follow your line of travel. If you make sure that they can stop and turn and follow the line of travel with some good precision, which is easy for a young horse to learn, that’s a good first step, they will balance themselves enough to be able to do that. That’s like step one. Then when they’re a happy little camper like that, then you can start changing how they move. I always like to think I need some what first, go, stop, turn, follow my line of focus and that resolves a lot of problems. They balance themselves so there are all these drifting off the walls. Go to that point. Get their mind. I want you to go to that point. What point? That point. They’ll straighten themselves up to do that. If they are being emotional and impulsive, then we have exercises to help them with that, where they figure out how to balance themselves and regulate themselves.
Karen Rohlf: So there’s some specific exercises that don’t require sophisticated communication, but helps the horse go, “You know, I think I should slow down.” [inaudible 00:52:29] good idea. Things that make them think about their feet and turning, and things like that. So yeah, I think I just want a calm, attentive, responsive, eager horse that can sustain a certain level of speed if we want to use that for a young horse. That’s a good starting point, and I don’t want to get complicated. With the young horse, I don’t want my conversations to get complicated. It’s got to be really simple, and when those are successful, then we can get more refined in our language. It’s a good question you ask because they do interact, everything interacts with each other in interesting ways. So I think just asking the question is going to be the beginning.
Jane Pike: Yeah, and like you said, nothing’s compartmentalized. It’s not just this or just this. It’s all fluid together there. I’ve been using over that for the last few days, so this podcast is entirely selfishly motivated. Thank you.
Karen Rohlf: No, that’s very true. The other thing I’ll add there is if I start having a puzzle like that, like what’s doing this? Then I start dialing it back and say okay, at the left lead canter, he starts getting fast and emotional or whatever it is. I start thinking, “What’s the first moment I can feel it happening?” Then I dial it back and go, “Do I ever feel anything like that?” Then the other times you go, “Yeah, when I lead him, if I lead him from the left, he’s this way. When I lead him on his right side, he’s always pushing his shoulder into me.” You can sometimes by finding these little benign-ish things that you find them in different locations, you can start to address it. So if your horse always leans on his shoulder when he’s leading in, you can take your leading from the pasture and make it a little exercise where they move their shoulders, and they yield and they keep their space and their boundaries.
Karen Rohlf: It might be the same exact concept that you’re going to do when you go to pick up the canter, and keep them from dive bombing off the rail. It’s the same thing, but instead of waiting for the arena moment where there’s so much going on in his mind, you can just get that habit of I know how to stay over here and hold my line, and I didn’t realize I was leaning because they’re always learning. It’s all the same. It’s all a session for them. There’s no wait until the training location. It’s all the same.
Jane Pike: Yes, exactly. It’s doesn’t start just once there into the arena. Yeah, I will say as well just to tie up that you have been one of the riders I’ve had been burned into my mind when I’m riding. One of the things I really appreciate you aside from everything that you offer and do with your horses is that you always have this beautiful quality of that playfulness you describe. Also there’s a joyful spirit that goes around that you can hear in your voice when you talk to your horses, and I so appreciate that about you and try to emulate that when I’m out there also. So thank you.
Karen Rohlf: You’re welcome. You know it is fun, and here’s how I see it. It’s like pull back perspective, right? We need to get over and you’re like pull back your perspective and think of the whole universe is like 99.99999% empty space. We’re on this one little spec that happens to have life. We get to be here and we get to play with horses.
Jane Pike: Pretty cool deal.
Karen Rohlf: How bad could it ever be? I know that, I don’t mean to say I know people have… Stuff comes up in life, we all have stuff that comes up in life, but really pull back and none of us have to do horses. We’re doing this because we want to and we love it. I think a lot of people, if you watch them everyday with their horses, they don’t look like they… They look like they have to and they hate it, and that’s a shame.
Jane Pike: Yeah, the choice realization.
Karen Rohlf: It’s a shame. Yeah. So enjoy it, enjoy it. Be in joy and your horses will thank you.
Jane Pike: I’m already a member of your Dressage Naturally classroom, but for those people listening who are like, “I want to work with Karen, or I want to find out more about these.” What are the ways that they can work with you and where can they find you?
Karen Rohlf: Yeah, thanks. So you can find everything at dressagenaturally.net. So that’s our home base, but yeah, the different ways. If you go to dressagenaturally.net, there’s some free, I call it my free starter kit. There’s some free videos and excerpt from my book, and in assessments. So you can just sign up for that and I’ll send you some stuff, and you can see if you like it. Then I also have a book that you can get in my web shop if you’d like learning from books, and it actually comes with three hours of DVD. So for the visual learners. Then I have the video classroom that you mentioned, and that’s my entire video library. There’s over 300 videos at this point. We keep adding new ones, short ones, long ones on all the different subjects that come up. That’s a subscription site, and for $12, you can get your first month in there and see how you like it.
Jane Pike: It’s totally worth it.
Karen Rohlf: Yeah, and then I have big online programs. So online step-by-step programs with a ton of support, like weekly Q&A calls. You can get on a call like this every week with me or my coaches and say, “Hey, this happened with my horse. I posted a little video on our Facebook group, can you look at it and talk to me about it?” So it’s really cool.
Jane Pike: That is really cool.
Karen Rohlf: You can find all of that at dressagenaturally.net, and you can send us an email and get a private consult even go, “Hey, can I talk to you? I want to tell you about me and my horse,” and we’ll help you figure out.
Jane Pike: I didn’t know that. This is good information for me as well.
Karen Rohlf: Well, we do it like if people are wondering, like The Sweet Spot Course is actually open for registration right now. We only open it twice a year. Sometimes people are like, “I’m not sure if I’m ready.” So we can get on a call and go, “Well tell me what you’re working on, tell me what you’re doing.” Then we’ll say, “Yeah I think it’s a good time or well I think you should do this other stuff first, or stay in the classroom.” So people have trouble figuring out which resource to do, just we can get on the call and we’ll help point you in the right direction.
Jane Pike: I love the old gear as well. I’ve ordered or I have one of the old dressage naturally bridles, and I just ordered the bitless bridles, sorry. If anyone’s out there like I am, similarly that was searching for some gear that without the nosebands or for a really nice-
Karen Rohlf: Yeah, you can buy a bridle that doesn’t have a big old crank noseband on it.
Jane Pike: I know. So yeah, I’ve been loving that so thank you so much.
Karen Rohlf: You’re welcome.
Jane Pike: This was really fun. I am so appreciative of your time, because I know that it’s precious. So thank you for coming on today, and sharing your wisdom with us.
Karen Rohlf: You’re very welcome. I love the questions you asked. Obviously I love to talk about this subject, so I hope it helps. I hope it helps some of your listeners, and to trust their instincts and go have some fun with their horse.
Jane Pike: Yes. Thank you so much.
Karen Rohlf: You’re welcome.
Jane Pike: I hope you enjoyed that conversation. Thanks so much for hanging out with us today. Once again, the link for you if you want to learn more about Karen and her fabulous work, her website is dressagenaturally.net. All of the courses she mentioned are there for your perusal also. You can find me by visiting confidentrider.online and the link to joy ride my online program is there for you too. Finally, if you feel like sharing the love, I would be so appreciative if you took a screenshot of this episode and shared it with your friends. Feel free to tag both Karen and myself on social media. We are both on Facebook and Instagram. If you share it to your stories, tag us in also. Your comments and feedback are so welcome. Until the next episode, have a great day and I’ll talk with you again soon.