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Nicole Tough Dressage: Let’s talk about the happy athlete

Courtesy Nicole Tough

Let’s talk about the happy athlete  

The happy athlete – what does that mean? NICOLE TOUGH unpicks the concept. 

Article 401 in the FEI Dressage Rules states that: “The object of Dressage is the development of the Horse into a happy Athlete through harmonious education.” 

Pre Facebook, this meant adhering to the scale of training regarding the development of our horses. Post digital revolution, with its increasing exposure, social media judgement, and spotlight on equestrians’ social license to operate, and the term ‘happy athlete’ could do with more discussion.  

The ‘happy athlete’ certainly seems a contradiction in terms. I’m sure if we could ask a horse, ‘would you like to chill in the paddock eating grass, or come to the gym and train?’, we know what the answer would be. Likewise, if we ask most humans, ‘would you rather sit on the couch watching Netflix, or go to the yoga studio and get comfortable in uncomfortable positions?’, we also know what the answer would be. But is sitting on the couch better for us? Likewise, is a life of grazing, with their teeth and feet unattended, better for your horse? 

Dressage is a sport of development, where we guide horses into the right frame with self-carriage; preserve the basic gaits and improve them by conditioning their bodies in a systematic way; and gradually increase load and intensity, allowing the horse to happily do their job – because they can. 


Any athlete knows that to improve, comfort zones must be challenged, and training will produce stress. This is where limits are pushed, and excellence can be achieved. If we increase pressure and the movement improves – the horse was ready. 

But whilst stress is needed for improvement, training should never cause distress. Distress can occur when the rider falls into the short cuts trap, and fails to condition the horse’s body. Without taking the time to improve suppleness and strength, the work becomes hard, causing reluctance and resulting in the rider using force. This creates an unhappy athlete. If we apply pressure to this horse, they will protest, evade and resist – in other words, they were not ready. 

Perversely, people talk about ‘correct training’ as if it’s easy. But as international 5* judge Cara Whitman said: Dressage is easy, unless you want to do it well, then it’s really hard. And out of the love and respect we have for our horses, most of us are prepared to take the hard road. Getting a 600kg animal with a strong flight instinct to surrender their will to their rider is difficult enough in itself, compounding that with the demands of the dressage discipline, asking them to perform wondrous movements of grace in unfriendly environments, makes our sport challenging.  

Understanding why dressage is hard is crucial to comprehending why horses resist. More than in other disciplines, the dressage horse is asked to accept the restriction of the rein, engage the muscles of their topline and work through their body.  

Each horse is born with a certain rideability and self-carriage, and the difficult part is understanding and accepting any limitations. Dressage training can improve any breed, but that doesn’t mean it should be the ultimate discipline for every breed. Whilst there is benefit in dressage training for all horses, forcing some to comply, go through the levels and be competitive, would not be in their best interest. 

For people, hard work is a test. Ask any equestrian group: some turn up their noses, some don’t show up, and some roll up their sleeves. It’s the same with horses. Some are purpose bred with natural talent but lack heart, and some are not purpose bred, lack talent, but have the biggest hearts. I would take the horse with good character that wants to follow the aids of the rider, over the purpose bred talented, but unwilling horse any day. 

However hard our sport is, creating a happy athlete should be our goal, more than ribbons and trophies. This goal requires the systematic training of the horse’s mind and body to enhance their strength, confidence and flexibility, using training methods that encourage and reward, guiding them to offer willing cooperation, and ultimately creating that sublime harmony between horse and rider. 

For all dressage training, it is important to remember that horses are simple animals and can be overloaded with too much information. When life gets difficult, a horse’s instinct is to run away or evade. Breaking pieces of a movement down, and teaching those pieces one by one before putting it all together, will always serve the patient trainer well. Dressage training is simple aids repeated over and over, producing enthusiastic horses, content in their understanding, not afraid of making mistakes and willing to try. This is the ’happy athlete’.