Let’s say you’re a middle sort of rider. You aren’t a rank beginner; you’re comfortable in the saddle but it isn’t always pretty. Either you’ve been in lessons a couple of years or you’ve ridden all your life, more or less like you do now.
You know it could be better. Perhaps you’re considering switching to a different riding discipline. Or maybe your horse has the tolerance of a saint and you want to make it up to him. Or maybe another rider climbed on your horse and he transformed into a soft, willing partner who seemed to dance lightly on his feet, as joyously as he plays at liberty. Oh, that’s it; he looked free. Who doesn’t want that?
Whatever kind of rider you are, everyone shares this one truth: You’re usually getting the ride you’re asking for. Make all the excuses you want, but it’s true. Horses are honest. Assuming your horse is sound and healthy, chances are that he’s being fair in his response. If you consider yourself a solid rider with good hands but your horse is tense, or has trouble with his canter, or is always flipping his head, guess what? You’re wrong and he’s right. And if you want a different ride, it’s you that has to change first. It’s how you can tell you’re the leader; you have to model the change–and it probably needs to start in your brain.
Riding well, meaning in a way your horse appreciates, is hard. The challenge isn’t learning the principles; it’s managing the subtle communication horses like. Somethings are obvious. You know that abruptly shouting Canter! and gouging him with a spur isn’t the best idea, but sometimes nothing works, and the harder you try, the worse it gets, and you can’t just lose the fight! That’s when you notice it’s become a fight.
Give yourself a break here. It’s just natural for a human to get louder if we think we are not being heard. It doesn’t work well with horses, but it’s what we do. Louder means we cue bigger or harder. Things usually speed up right about then, too, so if your horse tried to respond, you’ve already asked three more times and he is so confused he just quits. It’s a calming aid; he’s telling you he’s not fighting, but it’s too late to hear it and you’ve lost.
If your horse is resisting your aids, don’t take that inane, stupid, and uneducated advice to get a stronger bit. Controlling a thousand pound horse by micro-managing his nose isn’t how it works. Even if everyone you see is slamming the bit, metal on bone, to get the horse behind the vertical–it’s still wrong. Instead, take off your spurs, get a nice gentle three-link snaffle, and start convincing your horse than you are finished being adversarial. Let it soak in; it could take a while, but a light, happy, responsive horse isn’t made through war. Even a passive aggressive war, which is how most of us do it.
It might be time to do some riding out of the saddle; some thinking, visualizing, and having a few lick and chew moments yourself.
By now, you’ve noticed that everything about riding looks like a fussy fine line. A fine line between not enough forward and too much. Between too much contact and too little. Between being dull to the aids and over-reactive. Between your need for control and desire to surrender. Then there’s the thing they don’t tell you–the faster the gait, the smaller the cue. Somehow all these fine lines turn into a spider web and the more you try, the more bound up you and your horse become. Congratulations, you are right at the place you want to be.
In order to improve, a rider must first grow in perception and being able to see these subtle things is a required first step. Now slow your brain down, mentally relax and simplify it by taking one small bite-sized piece and breathe it up until it’s large and slow. Make that instant big enough to move around in, and it’s about now that you notice your horse has done the same. This quiet place might be the eye of the hurricane, but it’s where you and your horse connect, and he’s waiting there. It’s the place where it’s possible to make better choices, intuitively soft and quiet, and then traverse the distance of perception that takes you from the outside past-tense effect of what’s already happened to the internal in-the-moment presence needed to ask your horse politely. It’s altering time to be your aid and instead of time always leaving you behind in the dust.
Altering time isn’t new or even rare. It’s how tennis players return serves clocked at over a hundred miles per hour. How batters hit fast balls out of the park. And how elite riders of any discipline make it look so easy. Know that the two skills that define a higher level of work are perception and preparation. And it starts with a breath.
The next time you and your horse are at odds, humor me. Just stop everything; all the pressure and debate and stress. Breathe deep and slow, as if it matters. Because nothing matters more. Then pretend you’re an advanced rider. Sit taller and play the part well. Lift your mind, expect a light agreeable response. And since you have all the time in the world, use it to prepare your horse to succeed. Give him time to balance himself and find his crucial rhythm. Then feel your horse improve every step as he carries you on.
Wouldn’t it be crazy if the only thing standing between you and the happy progress that your horse is capable of, is your breath? Unless of course, it’s really true that Less is More.
Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.