Oakley Diaries - 7: I'm Obsessed with Lightness

Way back when I was about 16, we had an night at the manège that is etched in my memory.

It was a "perfect" moment.

But it didn't start that way, it started out as a very, very imperfect evening. Mssr. Godot wanted us to passage and the horses just wouldn't. They leaned on the bits too much, some were too fast, others didn't passage so much as fade to a walk from lack of energy. And he sat in his booth overlooking the arena, calling out "Tempo! Tempo! Non, non, non! Plus d'impulsion! Plus d'impulsion!"

Finally, he got up in frustration and stepped back into his booth and we could see him put a record on the player.

Suddenly, blaring out the speakers, flooding the arena came Ode to Joy.

He sat back at the window, and once more called out "Tempo! Tempo! Tak! Tak! Tak! Tak! Tak!", smacking his hand down on the sill with each "tak" in time to the rhythm of the music.

Then the magical moment came about.

I cannot say for the horses behind me, but I could see that my horse and the three in front of me all started trotting on the beat, on the same foot, in unison. We all began to passage, the reins easily held in our hands, just a touch of slack, just the lightest, but very real connection to the horse's mouths, seat firmly and cleanly in the saddle, horses heads brought in and their haunches in collection as we danced to the music.

It felt like heaven.

I've been trying to get back to that place ever since.

Well, finally, I'm getting closer. After years of wondering how, I've finally learned how to get my horse to go lightly, in balance, without pulling. What a revelation. See, in the past few years, I had almost began to think that maybe I'd mis-rememberd something. No one (it seemed) actually taught to ride like that.

  • I've had instructors who praised me for getting my horse for being 'on the bit' when the horse was actually just resting his heavy head in my hands.
  • I've had instructors counsel me to put so much force on the reins that my hands cramped up from the effort.
  • I've had instructors who constantly told me to grip the reins tighter and pull on the horse's mouth, because I kept loosening my fingers the way I remembered.

When I finally attended a top level dressage competition, I was appalled:

  • I saw horses struggling, gasping for air, their heads hauled in close on reins so tight you could strum a tune on them. I could almost see the riders knuckles pop through their gloves. (I was taught to have reins with a very slight slackness in them, fingers soft and light so that the mere twitch of a finger was enough to get the horse to respond.)
  • I saw horses so constrained their tails continually swished in annoyance. (The horses I learned to ride on never leaned on their bits and rarely swished their tails.)
  • I saw spur-marks on the flanks of horses constantly being prodded at every step. (I was taught that light pressure from my calves should be enough... use the spurs only if necessary, as a last resort.)
  • I saw five-star competitors riding with their toes pointed so far downward they looked as if they were wearing 5" heels. (Yet every single riding manual, book, or video stresses heels down!)

Everywhere I went, I saw heavy hands and hard feet and horses gathered up, rather than collected.

Yet I found people who agreed with me, that aids should be light and clear, spurs used sparingly, the whip necessary but judiciously. No, I hadn't mis-remembered anything, but what I still didn't grasp was I learned to ride in lightness, with delicate aids because I was on well-mannered, carefully-trained horses.

That's how I learned to ride back then; what I never knew was how to get the horse to be like that.

I quickly found that simply riding in lightness is not enough: if the horse is used to being handled roughly, then trying to ride in lightness without first teaching the horse to be light is merely giving over to the horse and losing control. The horse doesn't think 'ah, a light hand. Oh, thank you', the horse thinks 'Ha! You just gave to my demand' and assumes they are now in control and get to decide if you're going to refuse that fence or run from the wind.

Through my coach, I finally found, thanks to modern technology, how-to training videos and Oakley is responding beautifully -- when he's not too excited to concentrate. (We're working on that.)

In simple terms, I ask gently with the lightest pressure and wait one second. If he gives and softens to the rein, great. If not, then I grab the rein and fimly pull (don't jerk) my hand to my hip and glue it there to get his head around and hold it there, against all pressure until he does give and soften. As soon as the horse gives, I instantly drop the rein: release all pressure and give back. Horses learn from the release of pressure, not from pressure. And start one side at a time. As Nolan wrote (in 1853), flex the horse's head to one side then to the other side. Once the horse learns that gentle pressure is always followed by irresistible pressure on one rein at a time, they quickly will give to very gentle pressure. Then teach them to give to gentle pressure on both reins at once, so they quickly learn to tuck their head. Then begin the exercise at the walk and so on. Soon, instead of fighting or leaning on the bit, they learn to carry their own head, and they bring their own hindquarters under and collect themselves. And that is the foundation of lightness.

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Comment by wildehex on June 1, 2012 at 5:16pm

Opps, it posted too early.  In any case....the giving of the rein/looping is a result of BALANCE, not a reward.  We teach the horse what we are willing to carry for connection.  WE make heavy or light, not them....both in hand/mouth connection but also from the balance we ask.

Horses tend to spook because they are not lead by the rider, and are not on the aids.  If there is CLARITY from the leader, and if they are not trapped by the aids, they will remain calm.  Basic horsemanship imho.

Comment by wildehex on June 1, 2012 at 5:12pm

I will address CA's type of getting laterally flexibility: (having watched and talked to him a lot). It is not the same as what (used to be done) at Samaur for a number of reasons:  First it does not address the horse being balanced/open/open/chewing BEFORE the horse is asked to flex laterally in millimeters (again for jaw mobilization).  Excessive BENDING of only the neck truncates the neck (a la CA) at the withers and put the horse onto the opposite shoulder (ok if the rider is going to do western de jour,  but is NOT what baucherist (BSM) do.  

The pictures of lightness (some problematic drawings of horses broken at the third vertebrae) are of horses in TOTAL self carriage.  At the apex of training the rider uses ubersteichen (giving one or both reins) as a check of self carriage, and finally the horse is held by the seat alone.

(For those who know the background of WM he is articulate and understands balance.)

Lateral flexilbity is progressive.  Once the horse knows how to mobilize the jaw, is upright, THEN it can be asked to chew fdo. It is NOT done for obedience/control, it is an action to provoke a REACTION to minimal aids.

Comment by Barbara F. on June 1, 2012 at 4:46pm

BG, if you are having success and both you and your horse are happy, you must be doing something right. Keep going!! :)

Jackie, your insights reminded me of an excellent blog post by William Micklem. It talks (in part) about different aids to get the same result.

Check it out, everyone!


Comment by Jackie Cochran on June 1, 2012 at 12:29pm

Hi B. G.!  I have no problems with what you are doing because it has worked for you and your horse.  After decades of riding I've come to the conclusion that horses have a type of genius, the genius of coming up with similar outcomes from very, very, very different methods from their riders; and that every horseman ends up with his own method of horsemanship, often very different from everyone's else, but it works for THAT horseman and horse.

Sounds like you have done a GREAT JOB with your horse!  Keep up the good work.

Comment by E. Allan Buck on June 1, 2012 at 12:28pm

I can read your concerns for the horse and appreciate where you are coming from.  I read that you really do care for the health and welfare of your horses.

I have produced positive changes in horses physically and emotionally in just a few hours.....does not make me special....just speaks of the knowledge the horses have taught me.  Every client I have worked with is somewhat shocked by the instant results achieved with the awareness of the horse and the awareness of themselves that I communicate to them.

I disagree with the perspective comparison of a horse naturally nosing a boot versus the rider causing the action.  And that comes from 23 years of riding bitless in which every horse has taught me how they need to function through their biomechanics.

That being said I shall refrain making any statements regarding the Clinton Anderson progam.


Comment by B. G. Hearns on June 1, 2012 at 11:46am

E. Allan, a few weeks (months?) ago, you posted this video of Sylvia Loch showing lightness in hand. I noted that the reins, had that same slight slack-loop that can be seen in photos and images of the top riders going back over centuries. (Images such as these: http://www.amisducadrenoir.fr/grands_ecuyers_de_saumur.htm)

That's where I'm getting to. I'm sure if we spent a couple of hours together, it'd clear up my poor written explanation of what I'm doing.

The lateral flexion that I've failed so miserably to describe is a simple stretching and obedience exercise, much the same way I touch my toes in the morning, and asking no more from when the horse than he does when he has an itch on his side and needs to scratch it. Horses rub noses on boots all the time, it's nothing abnormal, nothing beyond the healthy range of movement you observe anywhere. It's an exercise to get a quick response to light touch, to precede all the delicate movements that will be refined as we go on. I've only been at this 6 months, and no horse can learn to refine movements that much in that time.

I'm also not asking for any abhorrent Rollkur or any of the absurd tucks that are now so fashionable, I want his head a bit in front of the vertical (as in the fore-referenced images) and the reins light, not loose. I only loosen the reins to teach and reward a new movement, to give him a moment of complete relaxation as reward and to absorb what he's just learned.

I've also found over the years that two people can read the same thing written on a page and interpret it differently, yet still manage to follow the letter of what is written. So I've come to see any given book, manual, or other writing as mere aid-de-memoir for something that must be taught visually, first. I only reference what has been written in the past to illustrate that the concept of lateral flexion preceding vertical is not new.

If you want to know exactly what I'm doing, check out Clinton Anderson, as I'm working through his teaching program. It came recommended to me from my coach, whose father taught at the Saumur in the 70s.

The result: for the first four months, Oakley tried to push me around, spooked, refused and did everything to be 'in charge' of us. Six months later, I have a horse that listens to me and no longer tries to push me around. I have a horse that still tries to look for excuses to spook, but is much calmer and better behaved on the trail than before. A week doesn't go by that I don't get complements on how fit and strong he has become, or how lightly and gracefully Oakley moves, how sure-footed he has become on rough ground, and I constantly get remarks on his improvement over time.

Comment by wildehex on May 31, 2012 at 10:59am

Takt is purity of gait and balance, and tempo the rate of repetition those things allow for relaxation.  And they end up with lightness in hand.  I agree very much much of the modern world is heavy in the hand, etc.

That said the horse should NOT 'give to pressure' longitudinally.  That is wrong, and will cause flexion in the incorrect vertebral bodies.  And it is certainly NOT about what is commonly seen as l/r flexion in today's world which is sawing on the mouth lateral to get longitudinal flexion.  When Nolan was initially talking about flexion laterally it is MILLIMETERS to mobilize the jaw at the atlas/axis nothing more.  THEN following that increasing flexion STANDING at the axis but still up and open. Those actions are NOT done in movements nor 'head wagging' which produces false lightness. It is NOT the flexing grossly not at the withers which is imbalancing and puts the horse onto the shoulders (which we regularly see with nh types. Lateral flexion is about the ability to flex at the atlas/axis (the poll is a fixed place (occipital lobe), with the horse up and open/chewing and swallowing.  All the ideas used today had their basis in traditional roots, but they have taken on a (incorrect) life of their own.

For sure lateral flexibility is the way to eventual longitudinal flexion over time.  That means that lateral suppleness begins with light positioning/inflexion on large curved lines, the horse fills out the outside rein.  And the outside rein controls the degree of bend the horse is made straighter/upright and starts to be capable of axial rotation of the (inside) hind leg.  This in the end produces more bend/colleciton.  

It is certainly NOT about holding the reins short and waiting for hims to bend in the neck only/excessively.  In hand the rider first makes a limitation of height/steady connection.  Then it is possible to have light lifting of the inside bit ring into the corner of the mouth (holding the outside passively).  It takes ounces or less to have the horse mobilize.  Once that happens the horse can then learn to 'chew the reins from the hand' and seek fdo as a concequents.

Shoulder fore/in are created by taking the first step onto a circle and ride straight, the use of a circle (not holding the inside rein short is creating engagement and collection.  Those exercise essentially do not need the inside rein, they need response to the inside LEG.

The rider teaches the horse how to treat them.  This starts with connection and what the rider is willing to sustain.  But it is a direct relation to whether the horse is allowed to (especially) initially be up and open and free.  PRECIPTIOUS LONGITUDINAL FLEXION (seen in ALL traditions of riding) is something of the last 30 years or so.  One works the horse into a steady light connection which install light limits.  IF the rider drops contact/reins when the horse 'gives' longitudinally to the hand the horse will only learn to POSE behind the hand in false flexion.  FIRST the horse works into steady perimeters w/o flexion longitudinally.  Then they learn to mobilize the jaw, flex ever so lightly laterally, and over time to gradually flexion longitudinally as they employ the hind legs.  WHEN there is light longitudinal flexion the horse can be allowed to seek fdo and chew the reins fron the hand to a longer but still arced connection.

Too often riders think lightness is about an open hand and themselves creating a flimsy connection.  That is the WORST kind of lightness because it is inelastic.  SELF CARRIAGE is what is rewarded, the fact the horse will put itself in a sustained manner into the lightly closed palm.  What makes for the greatest lightness is an upright balanced rider.

Comment by E. Allan Buck on May 31, 2012 at 10:28am

Lateral flexion is not having the nose touch the boot.  That movement actually is placing resistence in the neck structure muscles.  When a rider pulls the horse into this position there is a natural tension applied within the neck so suppling does not occur.

Lateral flexion is the ability to flex side to side at the poll.

Like your ounces......always the way to go.


Comment by B. G. Hearns on May 31, 2012 at 10:08am

What I've learned is lateral flexion is the key to vertical flexion. It's very easy to teach a horse to give to one side. Hold the reins short and wait for him to soften, touch my leg or boot with his nose and release.

As he gets lighter side to side, he'll become much lighter going straight. That's why Cavendish and de la Guerriniere and Baucher wrote about shoulder-in and voltes and such.

Remember, he'll never be lighter than the lightness when you first pick up on the reins. If you are always pick up with 10lbs, he'll only respond to 10lbs. I always pick up with 2oz. I'll pull with 20lbs if I have to, but my first ask is never more than 2oz. So MOST of the time, he responds to that first 2 oz, which means the reins actually have a slight loop to them.

The other vital point is to drop the reins the instant you get that first give. If he gives a cm, drop the reins, release all pressure immediately to reward him and give him incentive to become light.

There is, of course, a lot more than that, but that's the essential core and the result is a horse I don't have to pull on.

Comment by Jackie Cochran on May 30, 2012 at 6:49pm

Lightness begins in the RIDER's head.

It sounds like your head is right.

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