Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Like Riding a River: Cues, Aids and Boundaries

I've been thinking through my two challenges from the clinic, and what they might mean, and how to move forward on them together with my three horses.  I'm also trying to broaden my understanding of these challenges by thinking in metaphors and analogies - they're never exact but they add flavor and new perspectives to my thinking - I suppose for me, it's a little bit like thinking in poetry.

To review, here are the three posts that describe my thinking so far:  the first challenge: riding all my horses the same; the second challenge: develop my own style; and the analogy of the dance.  If you've got the time and inclination, you might want to read these posts first so you can more easily follow what I'm talking about here - this post is one of a set with those earlier ones.

Today I'm going to use the analogy of riding a river as a starting point. I once described to someone what riding Red felt like - I said it was like riding a river - with all the flow, energy and power that implies - just being with that and in it.  Rivers have banks that direct them, and areas that flow or that are turbulent, have their motion eased or disrupted by what they encounter.  Hold that thought, and let's talk for a moment about aids and cues and what those mean in riding - we'll come back to the river in a moment.

My understanding of aids and cues, and their role in riding and working with horses, is starting to change.  Here's some things the word aid could mean, in ordinary English: "help", "guidance", "assistance".  Cue could mean "prompt", "reminder", "direction".

I think many of us are taught to ride mechnically - do this: rein, leg or seat aid/cue, and expect the horse to do that in response.  But I think this may underestimate the nature of communication that is possible between horse and rider.  This cue/response model thinks of the horse as a mechanical device - use this input and get that output.  Now, I'm not saying that if you use cues/aids precisely, and care and subtlety, that you and your horse won't achieve good things, with minimal bracing and interruption of flow, energy and power.  But I'm beginning to think about things in a somewhat different way . . .

To me, cues and aids are coming to have a new meaning - this is part of my developing understanding of the two challenges from the clinic.  Cues and aids have an important role to play in helping horses learn to do things together with us (that they can already do on their own, as is true of almost everything we ask horses to do with us), when we ask them to.  So they have a teaching function.  And once the horse learns what we ask, cues and aids are usually employed to request a specific response from the horse.

But, you might ask, what do cues and aids have to do with the analogy of riding a river?

Cues and aids, to the extent they're physical, and no matter how slight - even breathing as a cue is physical - are applied to the outside of the horse.  Now, there's nothing at all wrong with that if done with care and as much softness as possible - it is possible to do great things with a horse doing this - it's the third stage of my challenge to develop my own style.  But if cues/aids are applied to the outside of the horse - you bringing the aid to the horse - they're often braces, even if very tiny ones.  Stick your hand in a flowing river against the flow - big pressure and turbulence: a big brace.  Now stick one finger in the water against the flow - slight pressure and very small brace.  Now that's not bad at all - if I were consistently at that stage with my horses I'd be pretty satisfied.

Now try something else - stick your hand in the flowing water but keep your hand parallel to the flow and then ever so slightly redirect the flow by changing the tilt of your hand.  Now, if you overdo it, you get the same brace, but if you allow your hand to just be there as a boundary for the flow you can let it come to you and redirect it with less disruption.

The analogy of riding a river isn't perfect, of course, but I'm starting to think of aids and cues as boundaries.  But at that point they aren't really aids and cues anymore - they're not separate, discrete things that are applied and removed.  It's more like you and the horse are together in the middle of the flow, sharing energy and power, with you providing the leadership of your thought and the horse taking up the connection and moving together with you.  Even with a horse that knows very little about how to interact softly with humans, where the horse may be at first constantly running into the boundaries - I'm thinking here, for example, about teaching a "pushy" horse to understand your personal space, or helping a very braced horse first learn about softening - the thought and feel alone have to be there as the "offer", at the center of the flow, at all times.

I think part of what this means is that the horse learns best, and responds best, if the horse itself finds the boundaries, rather than us bringing the boundary to the horse.  This has another implication - the boundary itself has to have feel and softness.  (I'm starting to use the term feel and the term softness pretty much interchangeably, as I believe what Tom Dorrance discribes as "feel" and Mark Rashid describes as "softness" are in fact exactly the same thing - a live connection with the horse that isn't braced even when the horse is.)  The ask comes from the center of the flow and power, and the boundaries are there for the sole purpose of directing the flow and power without bracing.  An example of this would be my breakthrough with Dawn (which still comes and goes on my end) of beginning to develop a following/allowing contact.

Mark uses the concept of a trampoline to illustrate what it means to set a boundary, but have it be one that is never rigid or braced - the boundary responds to the energy of the horse encountering it by not bracing, but redirecting.  Tom Dorrance uses the concept of "drift" to say much the same thing, I think - sometimes we have to go with the horse who is encountering the boundary and then redirect the energy - this avoids the brace that a rigid boundary would create.  Think directing/guiding the energy rather than confining/restraining it.

It's all about direction of the energy and power that's in the horse, in a way that makes it as easy as possible for the horse to do what you're thinking.  A big part of this, I think, is to ride "in" rather than "on" the horse.  Most of what we "do" interferes with the horse's flow and energy in a bracing way - and by this I include things all the way from the biggest braces - pushing with the seat, or hanging on the horse's mouth, not breathing, or being tight in a muscle, for example, to the smallest ones - tilting your head down or to one side, or even giving the smallest cue with your seat for a downwards transition.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that cues and aids applied from the outside of the horse by their nature are at their very best tiny braces.  Now there's not a thing wrong with that, and it sure beats cues and aids and ways of riding that are big braces.  They're tiny braces that communicate, and if they're removed the instant the horse begins to respond, they don't necessarily interfere with the horse's flow and energy to any noticeable degree.

Now here's my ideal - I'm no where near that yet, but it does help me know where I want to go.  I want to think of my riding as first coming from the inside of me - my thought and direction, and asking the horse to make the connection.  The important thing is to be with the horse in the flow and energy, and to disrupt that as little as possible. Everything else is just establishing boundaries for the horse - posture, focus, legs, hands and seat - all in neutral and doing nothing but going with the horse unless the horse itself comes to the boundary.  I think of this as the horse coming to the aids/cues as boundaries with softness in them, and "drift" (this has nothing to do with the boundaries being inconsistent, it's more a matter of their feel), rather than the aids/cues coming to the horse.  I also think this is the real meaning of "making the wrong thing hard", which I think is a bit misleading because of the "make" that's in there - it's more "allow the wrong thing to be hard" by letting the horse encounter the boundary and be redirected back into the flow.

One thing this also means is that you have to stay with the horse in the center of the energy and flow, no matter what else is happening, including the horse doing something unexpected or not what you want.  It requires keeping your mind on what you do want, and not focussing on what it is that the horse is doing that is what you don't want - see Mark's article about six degrees of separation.  The moment your attention goes to the thing you don't want, you lose that mental offering of what it is that you do want, from the center of the flow and energy.

This, I think, is the heart of what it means to create a soft place for the horse to find with you, where the horse wants to stay and be - the work that produces this feeling between horse and rider is the release itself.   When you and the horse are together in the soft spot, in the center of the flow and energy, it is possible to lead the horse with your thought and energy and have the horse make the connection - the cues and aids, and even just your physical presence in terms of legs, hand and seat, are then the boundaries which only come into play if the horse leaves the soft spot and itself comes to them.  This I think, is what it means to set it up and allow it to happen, rather than making it happen.

Every time I ride or work with my horses, I'm trying to keep this concept, this feel, this softness, in mind - I want it to be like riding a river.


  1. I've been looking forward to this post since you mentioned you were working on it--thanks so much for taking the time to share your journey like this. I had a dressage lesson yesterday and one of the things the instructor asked me to do is look between my horse's ears, even once told me to look at his ears. It was a new thing--I've always been told to look where I want to go, keep my eyes up. But she wanted me to really connect with him for this exercise, and it made me realize that any "rule" should be used when needed, not always and inflexibly. Also, as I plan to write about in a post as soon as I am done working today, what I saw when I looked at his ears was his ears turned back completely toward me, tuning in with only a few occasional flicks around at other things. What I like about your riding philosophy and practice is that no matter what, you stay listening and responding to the horse.

    1. Anne - that's an interesting exercise to tune in to the horse. I also generally try to avoid looking at my horse's head, in order to avoid the change in balance and focus it produces, but your comment just goes to show that there can be very good reasons to do otherwise.

  2. Thanks for explaining this so well. It's a lot to think about, and work on.


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