Saturday, August 4, 2012

Get Out of the Way

More and more, I see what I need to do with my horses is just plain get out of their way.  I need to be clear in what I want them to do together with me, and help them understand what I mean and want, and then I need to let them do their job - let their bodies be my body and their feet my feet, with our two minds as one, focussed on the job at hand.  I think it's just that simple, but our human monkey-minds tend to complicate things that should be natural and easy.  I have to be there with them, leading them with my mind, for this to happen - inattention or a focus on mechanics results in disconnection.  Horse/human graft, anyone?

Just watch your horse moving in the pasture, free, easy and unconstrained - you'll see walk, trot and canter, flying lead changes, extended and collected gaits and even perhaps airs above the ground - and look, there's no human making/telling/demanding/interfering with the horse's movement and capabilities.  Now that's not to say that the human rider can't shape or direct what the horse does to get more collection, more extension, more brilliance.

The statements that "my horse can't canter around a corner" or "my horse can't do a flying lead change" make no sense.  Of course your horse can do those things - maybe it's you that's in the way.  Of course a young horse needs to learn how to balance with the extra weight of a rider and saddle, but you'll help them on their way if you are able to stay balanced and quiet yourself.  Learning to be a rider who is able to actively direct and lead without blocking, bracing or interfering with movement is a lifelong challenge, but when it works, its magical.  I think of it as riding "in" the horse, rather than on the horse.

The horrifying and disgusting examples of rollkur at the Olympic dressage competitions are glaring examples of horse riding (I won't dignify it with the word horsemanship) at its worst - the idea that horses are dumb (e.g. stupid) animals who need to be forced and coerced and manipulated in order for their riders to be successful (you think the horses care about success?) - add in your own discipline's abuses in the pursuit of gratification of the human ego and winning and you get the picture.  The saddest thing is that these techniques are rewarded, in many disciplines - horses with forced and unnatural movement, who are miserable - wringing tails (and then there are the nerved tails in certain disciplines so this won't show), unhappy ears and faces.  Horses are not tools, or sports equipment, they are living, breathing creatures, with their own needs for horse companionship, and movement, and yes, interaction with their human handlers - violation of their "horseness" in the name of human goals rises to the level of a serious sin, I think.  Keeping the horseness, and working so my horse and I can achieve things together, is a completely different thing.

I think it starts with actually seeing the horse - each horse - as an individual, in terms of each detail - the shape and posture of ears and nostrils, each small whorl and scar and dimple, how the hair lies on their forehead and in their mane, the stripes and shapes of each hoof, and the eyes - I could go on for pages about the eyes - the uniqueness of the gaze - how the eye is shaped and its natural look - the set of the tail, the angle of pastern, and hock and shoulder, and how each muscle feels under your hand, and how they move with their unique bodies.  That is the horse - and their special calls, nickers and way of drinking.  Each one is a miracle to be treasured, and to be handled with care and attention and gratitude.   Pie's sweet face, with his small deepset eyes and striped back hoof, Dawn with her elegant black-tipped ears and expressive muzzle, Red with his alert eyes and head and his whorls and "watermark" fur patterns . . .

Dawn is a good teacher on getting out of the way - we've been doing lots of loose rein canter and then I work on adding some guidance in terms of bend and softness and elevation without interfering with her movement - it's a hard thing but a good one.  Pie and I aren't there yet in our arena work, but we'll get there - I'm working on it.  Red and I are still doing pasture patrol, but that will pay unexpected dividends in terms of our attention to one another when we're riding again.

I need to be clear in what I want, and make sure my horse understands, and then get out of the way . . .


  1. Right on. That's exactly what Betty and I have been learning recently in the lessons we took in Tennessee.


  2. Love this post! I particularly like where you talk about seeing each horse as an individual. Very well said.

  3. I find with my experienced horses now, I am working al ost completely on softening me, so they can relax in the ride. Wood braces, so I'm finding ways to subtlety project softness when asking him to drop his head. I've never had so many conversations, actual conversations, not arguments, with a horse.

    It's so amazing. Great post.

  4. Agreed on all parts of this post, Kate. I had a trainer tell me once that the horse goes "exactly as we ride him." So if we ride nagging, jerking, snatching, and "busy-busy-busy" all the time, they never get a break (or a reward) and never figure things out for themselves. Also agree about rollkur. I have a wonderful DVD, If Horses Could Speak, by veterinarian Gerd Heuschmann. It's a companion to the book, Tug of War: "Modern" Versus Classical Dressage. The animations are amazing, pointing out what exactly happens when a horse is ridden in rollkur. It's not just the blue tongue that is created.

  5. I completely agree. Harley started offering flying changes on his own when we practiced canter figure eights with a change of lead through trot. It was his idea and he liked helping out by anticipating my request.

    Allowing the horse to be an active thinker may not always be conducive to dressage competition. I found this out recently, when my horse made his disdain for puddles in the arena very obvious with his tense movement. I do not think that I could have forced him to move nicely through the water without sending the message that his input was not important. I do not want to go there, even if it means a low scoring test.

  6. Nicely put. All this makes such a difference in riding a happy horse as opposed to a miserable one. I think too, overall, most horses want to please their riders. (There are probably some exceptions...) So it really helps if we, as riders, continually make it clear when they are doing the right thing by just letting them alone.

  7. Kate, beautiful post, with so much thoughtful consideration of the horse's uniqueness - so beautifully written, and personal, about your special horses, and their individuality. And it touches me in that I want to say, yes, I wish every horse owner thought and contemplated so lovingly about the creatures under their care.

    Overall, this is a lovely, contemplative post that is very thought provoking to me about appreciating my horse's uniqueness, and how to ride to develop our partnership better.

    Also, I share your outrage about rolkur and the forced machinations that it involves. I hate the way riders or trainers can justify it with inaccurate, delusional reasoning.

  8. Hi Kate!.......................AGREE!.........Well said!

  9. YES! YES! YES! You've "got it"! :)


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