Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Opening the Door

When I was taking riding lessons - in college (I had no lessons before that) and then in my 40s when I came back to riding, I heard a lot of things like this:  "push the horse with your leg into your hand", "have the horse in front of your leg", "half halt", "inside leg to outside rein", "bend the horse around your leg".  And that's how I rode, and the results can be pretty good.  I now think most of that way of thinking about riding isn't good enough, at least for me, and here's why.

All of those things involve braces.  Even using your leg as a cue for forward or something else is often a brace.  The good news is horses learn to deal with this.  But if there's a way I can communicate with the horse that doesn't involve a brace, then the horse will be more free to move without my action interfering - better responsiveness and better quality of movement, more softness.

Mark's message to me in my lesson this summer was to do less - of everything.  Part of this, for me, is understanding what my responsibilities are and what the horse's are, in turn.  My first job is to know what I want - exactly what I want - and to communicate that clearly to the horse, using my thought, focus and energy, and physical aids, as softly as possible, when needed.  The horse's job is to give me a response to my ask - that's the horse's try (assuming the horse hasn't had the try taken out of him/her).  My job is to consistently expect forward, and it's the horse's responsibility to offer forward consistently.  I don't nag or push or increase my aids - if I don't get the forward I want, I use secondary aids to make myself clear.  All my horses completely get this, and I all have to do is signal forward with my energy level and rhythm with my thought, and we've got it. My job is to offer connection, and the horse's job is to take up that connection - it's a two-way street and I can't do the connecting all by myself.  My job is to offer leadership and direction, and not to leave any gaps.  My job is to keep my posture and body in a position to help and not hinder the horse. My job is to offer softness and the horse's job is to respond with softness.

It's in the doing less, and offering softness, that the metaphor of opening/closing doors applies, I think - it's a way I'm working on using to communicate with my horses that goes a long way towards eliminating the braces that come with pulling with hands, pushing with seat, leg or by leaning.  It eliminates a lot of the "noise" that we inflict on our horses by doing too much, and it leaves room for energy, thought, focus and breathing to be "heard" by the horse.

As usual when I'm working on something like this, I do it with all three horses, but again as usual, Dawn's my primary teacher in working it through.  I'll give two small examples of what I mean.

Take traveling down the long side in posting trot - nothing simpler that that, right?  Not quite - I'm continuing to make some significant changes to my position - keeping posture upright and open and eyes and head up - no leaning forward or to one side or the other.  And breathing in a relaxed manner in rhythm with the trot . . .  And staying "tight" to the horse but with my hips slightly open - no clamping with either my upper or lower leg or forcing my heel down - since my horse is giving me forward without my having to do anything, my leg can be relaxed and draped . . . And posting using my core, not my legs . . .

If I can do this, Dawn travels beautifully on her hind end, in engaged trot, straight, with only enough tension on the reins to maintain a soft contact - like holding a baby bird with your hands.  This is because I'm opening a door for her to move into - forward and upwards.  The feeling is pretty amazing.

Now another example - turns.  Going around corners, making circles, and changing direction.  The only changes Dawn is having me make from my straight-ahead position and "opening" as we turn, is to keep my focus going up and around the turn and also to adjust what I'm doing with my pelvis, just the very tiniest amount. I open my inside hip just a tiny bit more - it's almost more of a thought - to create an opening for her to bend and step under with the inside hind leg.  And I get lovely bend without pushing with my inside leg, changing how I use my seat or holding with the outside rein, just movement forward, up and around.  And my outside hip stays where it is, slightly open but not quite as open as the inside hip, to close the door on that side and provide a boundary for her to use as guidance.

If overdone, any of these things could become a brace too, but Dawn's got me on the hunt for the least I can do, and the boys say she's doing a good job - they can see how I'm improving.

This stuff is very exciting and fun, and it's really delightful to see how the horses respond.


  1. I like the sound of that, you explain it so well, and interesting that Dawn is your go to to teach/ learn these skills she sounds like a truly special horse

  2. She is - she's a mare of strong opinions, which she never hesitates to express, and now that she's taken me under her wing, so to speak, I think she's on a mission to make me a better horse person.

  3. Kate, please don't even think of quitting this blog! Your ability to clearly express the nuances of some of these concepts is so exceptional. I've read Tom Moates, and Ross Jacobs, and Mark Rashid and they're all great, but you bring an immediate and realistic picture of what it looks like to work on this on a daily basis. Reading what you've written gives me some confidence that what I'm trying for is achievable in a different way - no forcing a frame, no constant reliance on inside/outside leg, outside rein, driving seat, half halt half halt half halt, etc. The hard part for me is learning to be soft myself, in my body and my mind, when my inclination and training has been to be way too strong in every aid. Thanks, again, for a wonderful discussion. Chris

  4. Chris - I came from the same place as you. I was considered a very effective and "strong" rider, which essentially meant I could control horses into doing what I wanted pretty consistently. But I'm on a new journey now - being effective with softness is both harder, and once it's happening, a whole lot easier both for me and the horse. But as you point out, there's a lot to unlearn from our past training.

  5. I agree with you that there is a lot to unlearn from our previous training. I had a very tough trainer for a very long time. Now I basically ride totally opposite of the way I was taught to "make tem do it".

    Dusty is my teacher and we have a wonderful relationship while riding. She too is opinionated like Dawn. There's never a time when she would actually put up with me not being soft and polite. She's a great horse to ride...once you get on that is ;)

  6. In my lessons, which are dressage, the goals are the same as yours. I think dressage can be, and should be, about lightness and self-carriage. If you have to put your leg on to get forward or bend, the training is not correct. Forward should be there and consistent without a nagging, clamping leg. I ride with my leg off unless I need a quick, sharp reminder or unless I am teaching something new - like bend. The goal is that the horse learns to carry himself correctly, that he seeks a light contact, and that a half halt becomes a slight tensing of my shoulder - nothing more. Unfortunately, trainers often take short cuts with their horses and students. There is no joy in riding (for me) so great as when I am doing "nothing" and having a great conversation; when it feels like I am directing an orchestra. ...so hard to explain but I know that you understand.

  7. It funny when you find out that most problems come from unconsciously screaming at your horse.



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