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