Sunday, May 30, 2010

Leading the Thought

Like many riders, I think, particularly those from English disciplines, I tend to overuse my hands and focus too much on "riding the head" rather than the whole horse. Yesterday, to work some more on Maisie's tendency to work herself up and rush, I wanted to try something completely different. I decided to try riding with almost loose reins - no real contact at all - and see if Maisie responded by being able to go slower off my thought, as expressed through my energy level and my seat and posting rhythm. I also wanted to make it clear to her that I was confident that she could go slowly and didn't feel a need to restrain her. It worked pretty well. My daughter had ridden her earlier in the outdoor, and she'd been pretty worked up. I rode in the indoor, and although she had plenty of energy, she was able to listen to me and do a nice, slow trot in both directions all the way around the ring. Since it worked so well, after we did one set we took a walking break, and then repeated the set and then I got off to reward her. The whole time we were trotting, I was thinking "slow, slow, slow . . . " and consciously lowering my energy level.

This made me think some more about the things I wrote about in my previous post. To me, the concept of getting ahead of the thought (that the horse might have) directly points to leading the horse with my own thought. I think, if done well, that leading the horse with my thought can avoid the common practice of correcting/punishing the horse for doing what I don't want, which only teaches the horse that - what I don't want. It doesn't really give the horse a good idea of what I do want, and can be frustrating for both horse and rider. If I can lead the horse with my thought, and clearly and consistently communicate what I want the horse to do, then this should make it easier for the horse to do it. The horse is actually looking to me to provide leadership - to lead with my thought - and if I don't do that, the horse has no choice but to fill in the gaps with its own thoughts. I think that's where a lot of the trouble comes in. A quote from the Mark Rashid book Whole Heart, Whole Horse:
[M]ost of the problems we see boil down to simple miscommunication between the horse and rider. And the vast majority of those miscommunications often boil down to the rider not giving the horse the direction it needs to perform the task properly, or . . . inadvertently taking a little mental break while the horse is still working. (p. 104)
If I expect my horse to try to work with me and offer the best they can, I owe the horse some things too: having a clear idea in my mind of exactly what I want the horse to do at each moment of my work - not just "trot", but "trot exactly here, at exactly this pace, in this direction and with this destination". I know what I often do is give the horse a cue, the horse responds and then I stop giving direction - I don't keep leading the horse with my thought. Of course the horse is going to have to step in and make decisions. And then I'm back in the cycle of endlessly correcting what the horse does wrong instead of leading the horse with my thought to do what I want at each moment of our ride. This way of riding takes a lot more attention and, yes, thought, than how I was taught to ride, but when I can do it, results come, often in truly amazing ways.

Maisie and I are going to try out some different things today, and we'll see how that goes.


  1. Excellent post! I love that quote too.

    I have been riding western because that is basically how the horse I have been riding has been trained. It has taken a lot of effort to stay out of his mouth and ride him on a nice western loose rein. I keep thinking, I want to pick up a little more on the reins and do a little more. I know that his horse works off leg and seat really well, I just keep thinking if I could use my hands a little more I would be able to get him to do what I want better. That is a load of horse hockey though, with this horse.

    It has forced me to really think about my seat again, and I have been going back to Mary Wanless's books because my seat is just not like it used to be. I am not using it as effectively as I used to and it is frustrating. Before I was too nervous to trot so I walked and now I want to go back to the walk and just work on my seat.

    On the whole thought process, I really to believe that when we start riding with our mind, we make little changes with our body and clue the horse. I was reading that our head weigh a several pounds so the horse can feel even just our head movements.

    My trainer keeps on me about asking the horse to do too many things at once, one of his complaints about riders in general. Ask the horse to do something, let him do it, and then leave him alone. It really has made me slow down and think more deliberately about what I want the horse to do.

  2. That is excellent Kate, I really loved reading your processes!
    I too, am becoming more thought driven in my is yielding better and calmer results!
    Thanks for all the food for thought!

  3. Ditto,excellent post. I love how you chew on your ride and think of new approaches to improve your communication next time.

    Thinking ahead to give direction all the time takes focus, but how can we not at least attempt that clarity when we expect the horse to follow our direction?

    My hands also get too busy and your loose-rein-ride is something I'll have to try soon. My trick when I notice my hands are busy, is to bridge the reins. You really notice when you're hands get too active, or move "out of the box", yet you can maintain a working contact even with the bridge when you're hands are quiet.


  4. Have been woefully remiss at catching up on my favourite blogs! Really enjoyed reading your thoughts today, as a through-and-through English rider it is my constant battle to shut my hands up, so this really resonates with me.

    Look forward to tomorrow's post!

  5. My (now) retired broodmare used to also get very worked up and rushed her flatwork. Before I purchased her, everyone's solution was to over-bit her, until she was doing simple flatwork in a pelham! I used the exact same thought process, and found similar, excellent results:D

  6. I ride, my horse lets me. I suppose thats the case most of the time. She lets me. Now why is that? Am I good, or am I poor? I really dont know the answer to the question. All I know is this, if I was doing something wrong or hurting her, she wouldnt tolerate it? No?

    I liked the post.

  7. Oooh, I really needed this post - thanks!

  8. I'm always interested to read posts on rushing horses as mine is just the same. I like to use a long rein warm up at the moment and use turns (using my body not hands) to regulate the pace. Like you I'm 'willing' him to be slow but even after 20 minutes in trot work he can rush off if you lack concentration for one second. I look forward to hearing more about this calm work Kate.

  9. The whole first goal of the early basic dressage tests is obedience. The horse needs to walk, trot, canter, halt at markers around the arena. Right from the start, the dressage rider learns to think of hitting those marks and thus becomes focused on being quite specific about what she/he wants from the horse.

    It might be fun for you and Maisie to set up a little marked area and do some basic dressage obedience to help develop your communication.


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