Oakley Diaries 49 - The Quiddity of Riding in Summer Sun 2020

This is a good summer, so far.

Last winter, I decided that I would just take it easy, no galloping through the snow in the blowing wind. my appetite for bitterly cold winds and frozen hands has severely diminished. Not this year. I did feel well enough, in January, to begin once again, with my 5BX fitness program, since it starts so gently, it was good way to get back into fit shape. Oakley got occasional grooming, maybe an apple or a carrot, and just hang out for a bit. No riding, not even indoors. After having a horse drop on me, I didn't really feel as enthusiastic about jumping back on, so I waited until I didn't have any more aches, until my body was well and truly healed.

In March what I did with Oakley was go back to basics and do groundwork, starting in the sandy round-pen. Even before the ice melted, that was usable and safe.

Bundled up in winter clothes, I began to work Oakley again, going back to the very start of the Clinton Anderson training program and reviewing every groundwork exercise, and that turns out to be something I'd let slide: I hadn't really been practising my groundwork. Tsk, tsk, tsk. It's a good review for me, too, since when I handle the lunge rope I still feel like Laocoön fighting the snake.

Since working Oakley from the ground at least once per week, and his attitude and responsiveness has, accordingly, improved immensely. Of course, we are not starting from scratch, so this time around, I demand a high degree of quality from his actions, which he is giving me. He has never looked better than after his rest.

At the same time, I started to ride again, indoors at a nearby arena on different horses. I immediately noticed was how much deeper in the saddle I'm sitting and how still my legs are, even at the trot. I am sitting straighter, yet more relaxed; a vast improvement in my own skill. It seems, having an enforced period of rest allowed my mind to fully integrate all the details of good riding that I'd been carefully building up over the last three years or so, bit by bit. To ride well, all the various body parts need to be in balance and working in harmony. This is not so easy. When we start out as children, it takes us a few years to walk, run, and jump around with sufficient co-ordination, all the more so when trying to manage another living being, such as a horse, at the same time. Of course, as I've written before, the best way to learn this is to add complexity a bit at a time. Of course, with each adjustment, one must be cognizant of what one is doing, and as each adjustment becomes more fluid, something else needs work. Sitting upright, keeping the legs steady, keeping the hands steady and in place, but without tension in the neck, where to look, when to shift weight in the saddle, when to press with the calves, &c. &c. &c.

Even after learning to make all the adjustments, to learn the techniques, it still takes time to make these automatic. As the jumps get higher, and not by much, new adjustments need to be made. The release isn't even on the horizon when going over a trot pole, but as soon as one begins to go over 60 to 75cm jumps, very easy really, the flow of the hands and arms starts to come into play, following the head and neck yet retaining contact, but without suddenly jerking the mouth, starts to become an issue. More so as the height increases.

All these skills, of course, develop with practise, including confidence of both the rider (that the horse is going to jump and smoothly) and the horse (that the rider is going to stay steady and balanced). Some horses, of course, are eager to jump, so eager that they will cut corners and arrive at the jump at a 45 degree angle and try to jump sideways. But eager or reluctant, all horses must be brought into line and address the jump correctly, and the rider must, in fact, be using the same techniques in each case, but with a different emphasis. In the one case, the upright, balanced position to create impulsion and get the horse up into a state of energetic collection, in another case that same posture is to restrain the horse and curb that enthusiasm into the same sense of energetic collection.

Even after months of practise, one finds oneself consciously aware of running down a checklist to make sure everything is optimal, and immediately having to remember what the best position is for anything that is out of alignment, how to respond to different behaviours by the horse.

What I got from 4 months of enforced rest, when I finally did climb back into a saddle, was the delightful realization that while at rest, my mind and body had integrated all those positions and co-ordinated all those motions into a smooth quiddity: a wholeness that was now become automatic, without the need to think, the way I can walk down the street without once thinking of how to move my feet and legs and torso. I found myself, and Oakley too, flowing energetically around the sand ring, over jumps, and without the need to focus on every aspect of every move.

Many writers have struggled to convey this sense, and, as I've said before, much of what is written makes little sense until one reaches a certain degree of ability and skill. Trying to understand energy as a circle from rear to front is not possible, until one has reached an unconscious fluidity and a relaxed comfort in the saddle such that focus can be on the deeper sensation because one no longer needs to focus on having 'hands still' or 'legs on' or 'sit up' or any of the usual admonitions that beginning riders hear until their ears bleed.

The vast majority of riders, especially children, are eager to rush on to do all the fun stuff: jumping and racing around... whee! JH looked at me a couple of weeks ago and said, "Anyone can be a good rider if you do it long enough, but great riders are always circling back to perfect the basics." She was talking about me, because here I am, once again, working on the basics, but once again with a far deeper understanding and degree of sensitivity and skill.

This is a good summer.

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Comment by Jackie Cochran on July 17, 2021 at 9:51am

I am so glad you are back to working with the horses.

Going back to the basics---all serious riders do this. 

With my MS I am constantly having to start over again.  My riding teacher puts me on horses who really need to start over again.  The horse and I start over again together, the basics, a good free striding walk, a springy trot, and an easy canter.  Well I try.

Many equestrian authors emphasize that the human has to use his own brain to truly understand riding a horse.  To learn anything there has to be some downtime so the brain can "digest" newly learned knowledge, visualize, and subconsciously send nerve signals down the proper nerves.  This subconscious practice is necessary to understand the more advanced equestrian books.  With this basic physical and mental exercise books that once were dense and not very clear suddenly have good advice about exactly how to ride the horse.  Consciously we use both types of knowledge to figure out exactly how we can improve the movements of both horse and rider.

Horses also benefit from time off to "digest" everything they learn, even though horses do not think like we do.  A few times I had to take extended periods off from riding, and when I got back not only did the horses remember everything I had taught them, they would do it much better than they did before our often involuntary "vacations".

Decades ago I learned I could make progress training even though I could only ride my horse once or twice a week.  I did not know much back then so my progress was not great.  But now, knowing all that I know about riding, I can make significant progress in the little itty bitty details of good contact, response to the aids, and teaching the horse that being ridden can be somewhat enjoyable, the basics.  I no longer do exciting things on horseback, but my riding seems to help the horses understand the exciting stuff under another rider, exciting stuff like cantering, galloping and jumping, all stuff I just cannot do anymore.

We humans are goal oriented.  Horses really just do not care that much about the games we make them play.  Time off is the time when horse and rider realign, and then when activity starts again we are back to a more even footing--the rider has to go slowly at first to get the horse physically fit again, and in that slow time the horse has a chance to do the verification process of "yes, THIS works, this is what my rider wants from me." 

Horse and rider often learn better after time off.  Don't worry, it will make you a better rider though having a horse fall on you is a rather traumatic start to this learning and digesting period.  Since you overcame your fears from the crash, everything should start getting easier now.

The same goes for Oakley.

And remember there are plenty of good riders who never jump their horses.  Jumping can help, but jumping is not totally necessary to learn how to ride well.  It is fine to change directions and goals!

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