Leg to Hand and Other Lost Arts
Every rider who has set sights on competitive endeavors with their horse has witnessed it. Modern equestrians are bombarded with suggestions about how to more quickly and easily achieve that next milestone in their training program. From bits and gadgets to pills and powders, horse culture is inundated with messages about how to best leverage man's control over the horse and all of them perpetuate the same myth: that man needs control over the horse.
In classical riding, the development of a horse who traveled off the aids from inside leg to outside hand was the foundation for all other endeavors. This methodology has stood the test of time and any rider who has even for a single stride felt a schooled horse truly engaged to his maximum natural ability knows why. Even through an honest attempt from a lesser schooled horse one may experience the perfect balance of power and grace that is the truly engaged horse.
With the rider’s inside leg creating drive from the horse’s inside hind leg, and the outside rein serving to stabilize and direct that energy, the rider has the ability to separately impact both the horse’s energy and his outline. It is by simultaneously creating and containing a horse’s power in perfect balance that the upper levels of dressage present a horse who is both energetic and light in the bridle through paces at all lengths and tempos.
The more contained a horse’s outline while continuing at high energy output, the more collected he travels. In the piaffe, the most exaggerated form of equine collection, the horse, while giving intense focus to the carrying power of his hind end, sits over his hocks and transfers all the power he’d use to travel forward in an expressive trot lengthening, into lift to propel his frame lightly upwards with each stride in a gravity-defying display of kinetic power. While the connected horse is balanced deeply over his hindquarters, his face is on, or very slightly in front of the vertical. In a properly balanced horse, there will be an absence of tension in his face and neck, and the result is literally the horse’s face hanging like a pendulum, able to be used by the horse in the most beneficial way for his own conformation, as a counterbalance.
It’s been said that a well-trained horse is like a finely tuned instrument, but you still have to be a musician!
Without a true understanding of why what is correct is correct, many modern riders are like unskilled musicians playing poorly by ear. Ignorant to the depth of communicative nuance that must be established to properly ask the horse for several things at once, they saddle up and set out to recreate what their untrained eye perceives. Without considering the biomechanics and strength required to perform such a feat, what they see and seek is a horse who travels in a big lofty stride with his nose in. If you stood at the rail of any show grounds warm-up arena, how long would it take you to spot a rider giving her horse a good see-saw on the bridle to bring her horse’s nose in? How many would you see hollowed behind the tack with hocks-a-trailing, but “that front end?!” How many horses would you see bridled with everything but the kitchen sink? And if what you saw at the show wasn’t enough to convince you that the magic is dying, then a fly on the wall’s perspective of some top barn training sessions would certainly remove all doubt that by and large there is a need in Equestria for taking an inventory of priorities.
This brings me back to you.
With the pressure placed on so many riders today, if you find yourself struggling to remember what it’s like to ride just for the sheer joy of it, your horse is probably wondering the same thing. It’s ok, you’re not alone. Many of us find ourselves just going through the motions in our horse’s training program, never really connecting to the real purpose of why we’re all living this crazy horse-show life, that special horse~human connection!
It’s one thing to see when modern horse culture is so off base that it borders on abuse, the majority of us can see and agree when there’s a huge problem that needs to be addressed. But it’s a lot trickier to notice when your own equine priorities need adjustment.
We’ve grown so accustomed to the instant gratification of a life lived on fast forwards that we can find ourselves ignoring the finer nuances of our relationship with our horse. We show up at the barn “sun’s out guns out” and go through the motions of our training regimens, many times without so much as pausing to greet our equine counterparts or allowing them to greet us.
But we can start. We can catch ourselves, in the moment, when we’re tacking up on auto-pilot without truly engaging with our horse or focusing negatively on the shortcomings in a difficult ride instead of the small successes and refocus the projection of our energy towards our horse. By bringing ourselves back into the present moment with our horse, we refocus the goal of our efforts from merely achieving some tangible accolade in whatever discipline we have chosen, to improving our relationship with him and rekindling the unspoken conversation with this magical creature. The time taken to perfect that secret language with each horse they ride is what sets the truly great riders apart.
Here are some ways to instantly refocus on your relationship with your horse--ways to fine-tune your routine to alignment with your horse-first philosophy.
As I’ve practiced these things myself, I’ve found myself feeling so much more connected to my horse. He’s more interested in me and his training. Even his overall health seems to have improved! I’ve seen the difference myself. I bet you will too.
Pay attention to your thoughts as you greet each horse every day. How do you enter the horse’s physical space, his domain? Like a master come to summon a servant? Like a begrudging taskmaster? Or perhaps possibly the most common way many of us go through our daily rides, like a ghost. We are so completely engaged in the other goings-on of life that we enter his stall & sit on his back but fail to even enter our horse’s mental space at all.
Take time to look at your horse in the eye each day. Horses are extremely intelligent and intuitive creatures. Recent research has confirmed what most of us already knew, that horses not only make faces to communicate but that they can learn to read human faces as well. When you simply look at your horse until he notices you, his interest will pique and he will innately move deeper into the unspoken conversation. For a horse to fully express himself in his work, he must be a partner, not a servant...and to be an equal, he must speak as well as be spoken to. By inviting your horse to investigate your training ideas without force, you evoke his natural curiosity and problem-solving ability and when he cracks the code himself you feel the proud display of a horse compelled of his own desire, truly awe-inspiring!
Before you begin the “routine” each day, be sure you are entering the arena with goals for your horse that are truly centered around the kind of relationship that is the foundation for that kind of greatness.
A comfortable horse is a happier horse that enjoys being with you. And a relaxed, willing partner is only possible with a healthy mind and body.
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