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Universal Truths: Playful Empowerment

When I first started embracing dressage and natural horsemanship together as a unique system, I felt like a contagious disease. My dressage peers thought I had run off to join the circus, and said I no longer did ‘real dressage’. The natural horsemanship people kept a safe distance because they had heard about dressage riders not being nice… Luckily, I listened to myself and my horses more than everyone else. Now, a decade and a half later, I still feel contagious, but in the good way! More than ever, people are craving a way to find results without giving up harmony or partnership. They are searching for a way to train horses where they still feel the joy they did when they first fell in love with horses.

This spring there were 2 events I am really excited to have participated in. One was a Trainer’s Triumvirate hosted by The Baroque Equestrian Games and Institute. I was invited to co-present on the subject of The Paradigm of Balance. The other was a Dressage Naturally event in The Netherlands called Partnership to Piaffe. I presented along with my 4 Virtual Arena coaches and we drew attendees from 14 countries!


The Paradigm Of Balance

At the Paradigm of Balance event, my co-presenters were Bruno Gonzales (co-founder of the Baroque Equestrian Games and Institute) and Jos Sevriens (Judge, International Trainer and Olympic Coach). There were also guest presenters on dance (Carol Toner), The History of Baroque riding (Tina Cristiani Veder), the science of animal behavior (Sharon Madera), and engagement (challenging horse specialist: Frank Barnett). Everyone gave a different perspective on Balance.

Common Threads

The highlight for me (besides my horses being really relaxed and wonderful) was to see how similar our messages were. We all came from different backgrounds, but amazingly, our messages were all based on the same themes: We need horses that are calm. We need to be clear leaders. We need to find balance through movement. It takes the time it takes. We need to be free to experiment. We need to be curious.

I was so happy to be part of an atmosphere of openness; it was each presenter’s goal to focus more on finding common threads than arguing differences. It was confirming to me to demonstrate my system and be recognized by the other experts as someone whose teachings are completely inline with the philosophy of the masters of classical riding. As I firmly believe, there are many ways to arrive to the same place.

Bruno Gonzales focused on how to achieve balance first, starting with the most simple of movements: The halt from the ground. He demonstrated how being particular with this basic skill will set your horse up with the skills for collection.

Jos Sevriens directed riders through gymnastic exercises in flow, like an artist mixing colors on a palette. He demonstrated his way of achieving balance through movement and through making creative choices about what to ask the horse to do.

A Whole-Horse Perspective & A Playful Partnership

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The first of my two presentations was a whole-horse vision of balance that takes into account everything from the way they are kept and fed, to how you communicate with them in a way that will build curiosity, confidence and motivation. My horses Ovation and Solana helped me demonstrate how to use obstacles on the ground to measure the quality of your communication and help the horse feel successful. Ovation then shifted gears beautifully from that exercise to an upper level dressage horse, showing how communication and confidence help to create an athletic partner in dressage.


My second presentation was about finding balance in playful partnership with your horse. I explained the ingredients of balance, and exactly what we need to be able to talk to our horse about in order to find that balance (Relaxation, Energy, and Balance). I presented my hypothesis that it should feel good to be in balance and how maintaining it should have a sense of ease. Even if we have to work a little hard to get to there, we shouldn’t have to work hard to be there.

I played with my horse Atomic on line to demonstrate the individual ingredients and how to combine them in order to create any qualities we want with our horse. He was a star and in just a matter of minutes transformed from just average posture to doing effortless piaffe passage transitions.

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I then coached a student through my signature system of Finding The Sweet Spot of Healthy Biomechanics. It is designed to empower riders, and again within a few minutes a student who had been frozen by fear of ‘doing something wrong’ was confidently riding her horse more forward, round, and engaged… She was telling me when she was in the sweet spot instead of needing me to tell her!

Openness, Playful Curiosity, Non-Judgment, and Skills

It is my philosophy of life that openness, playful curiosity, focusing on what works, and non-judgmental observation are just as important as refined skills. I feel so fortunate to have found other horsemen that share the same idea. Our beliefs about life and training cannot be separated. To learn how to train is to learn how to enjoy life… And if we learn how to enjoy life, it makes our training better!


International Appeal - A Dressage Naturally Event in the Netherlands.

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(Photos: Pawel Siwek)

The next big event was in The Netherlands. It started out as an idea to spend time with my 4 Virtual Arena coaches (Shelby Hume - USA, Justyna Rucinska - Poland, Ewa Angantyr - Sweden, and Liesbeth Jorna - Holland). These are the people I selected to do video coaching for the students going through my online courses. Of course once we started planning on inviting some students to attend, it was difficult to keep it small… It quickly turned into a two and a half day international Dressage Naturally symposium called: Partnership To Piaffe! I was thrilled to have attendees from 14 countries. We started with an evening lecture and demo that gave the big picture of what it means to do dressage from a whole horse perspective.

The weekend was full of different experiences and lessons. I coached 8 riders, and there were workshops with me and with my coaches. There were speed coaching sessions, theory, activations, and simulations. Students who were a part of my Virtual Arena courses were able to meet each other, me, and their coaches in person.

Fun and Empowerment

In a typical Dressage Naturally style, the emphasis was on fun and empowered learning. All attendees could participate at a high level through the different activities. Riders were tempted out of their comfort zones and made great progress in just a short time. Their focus was fantastic. This was in part because of their clear dedication and commitment to their horsemanship, but it was also because of the incredibly positive atmosphere created by all attendees.

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The first full day started with an exercise that everyone could do (without horses) to find their own sweet spot. By truly playing with our own relaxation, energy, and balance, we created a safe, fun environment. We began breaking old patterns and starting new ones. We connected energetically as a group and realized it was OK to ‘get messy’ and experiment! Everyone got to experience how to play with the qualities of Relaxation, Energy, and Balance and to feel how it will improve your posture and way of moving. The best part is it will help you improve without experiencing paralysis by analysis!

Throughout the weekend, there was a lot of learning, theory, exercises, and challenges. We shared laughter, tears of joy, frustrations, and breakthroughs. Nothing inspires me more than people following their passions and this group was a huge inspiration to me.

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We finished the weekend again as one large group, doing an exercise where we played with changing our patterns; I love the idea of opening ourselves - it is always the first step in creating change. The last moments were spent doing an exercise where we connect and harmonize.

Change, Growth, and Movement

Dressage Naturally has come a long way in 15 years. These days, what was once considered ‘a very strange idea’ to many is proving itself to be part of a growing movement towards harmony. This harmony can draw from the best of many systems, and brings out the best within those systems. It is proving itself to be something that students from around the world crave as a method for riding, training, and learning.

For me, this is a way of life. I cannot help but do what I do, whether or not the world agrees with it… But it sure is nice to have more company along the way!

You can learn more about the Virtual Arena coaches by going to my Events page.  

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by Karen Rohlf

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Need help with your horse? Click HERE to watch three of Karen’s training videos that give unique solutions for 3 of the most common challenges horses and riders face.

Karen Rohlf, author and creator of the Dressage Naturally program, is an internationally recognized clinician who is changing the equestrian educational paradigm. She is well known for doing dressage with a priority of partnership, her student-empowering approach to teaching, her virtual courses, and her positive and balanced point of view.

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