Remember the Stepford Wives–a little too submissive, a little too darkly docile? I saw horses just like them last week and I’m still in a snit. They were at a riding facility–a group lesson of fairly novice western riders. Each of the horses had a shank bit, each of the riders used spurs. The horses moved like the zombie-wives who had lost the will to live… altered into submission by their self-important husbands. If one of the horses did lift his head to see where he was going, there was a hard bump on the bit, metal on bone, painful enough to shut down or kill forward movement in any horse. That’s where the spurs came in. (There is also a dressage version of this, of course.)
*If you think domination is good horsemanship, you’re wrong. Seeing your horse cower underneath you is ugly.*
I’m preaching to the choir. If you read this blog, I doubt you ride this way. My actual clients, who always think I’m talking about them, all know for a fact this isn’t them. I’m not accusing any of you of being this kind of brutal, soul-killing rider. Still, balance and forward can always improve, and in an attempt to relieve the PTSD burned onto my eyeballs, can we talk about balance and willingness?
Let’s compare riding a horse to driving a car. It’s a lousy, demeaning comparison because even though some horses are expected to perform mechanically, in truth, riding is an art involving lightness and partnership with an animal of intellect and emotion. Not like cars at all.
To begin, a horse has a drive-line at the girth area. In other words, where the rider/driver sits in the saddle. All energy to move ahead comes from behind the drive-line, so the hind-end is the engine/gas pedal, and in front of the girth is where the brake is.
Forward movement is the finest virtue a horse can have; the ability to cover ground in a rhythmic and relaxed way. It begins with the horse’s soft, strong hind leg stepping under to push forward, allowing the energy to flow softly over his back, through his withers and his poll, and landing sweetly on his lips. The result of this push from behind is that the horse’s poll is soft and his head on the vertical, like horses moving at liberty. It’s a rider’s goal to recreate that relaxed liberty sort of energy; to let it flow sweetly, passing through the rider in the saddle–at any gait.
That’s the idea, but if the poll is tense everything changes. There’s a delicate front-to-back balance crucial to the horse. To the degree that the rider creates tension in front, or lays on the brake, forward is impeded because forward isn’t defined by the speed the horse is moving, but instead the horse’s effective, flexible use of his body. Just as you wouldn’t drive using the gas and brake simultaneously. Just as you couldn’t run easily in a cinched-up back brace.
Still, we land in the saddle and immediately bump the horse’s nose down, or use a rein to pull his head to the side before the first step. Some trainers do it, but it isn’t any more effective than turning the steering wheel when the car is parked. Using the hand brake, meaning the inside rein, before the horse is even moving, makes a horse lose balance and rhythm–even at the halt. What could have been a dance, ends up in a bar brawl. And I might be ranting about those Stepford horses again.
A good rider always has more energy from behind (gas) than restriction in the front (brakes) but it’s a fine balance. We move off at a walk, engaging our seat and legs and letting the reins rest. In Dressage we want the horse moving forward to the bit, in support of his natural balance, roundness, and flexibility at the poll. It takes finesse, lightness, and sheer will to stay out of his way.
Most of us unbalance our horses when learning. It’s our nature to pull on the reins for control or an impression of the desired outline. So we cue stop and go simultaneously, confusing the horse by grabbing his bit and spurring him forward. Or soft hands can flow with the horse’s movement, creating no resistance and getting none in return. Hands can ride the brake every stride, or rest lightly on the wheel, careful to not over-correct. Hands are the aid we should use least while riding.
How can you tell if you ride the brake, being too restrictive with the reins? That is so simple–your horse tells you. He’s tense and upside down. He flips his head or tries to pull the reins out of your hand. It isn’t disobedience, he’s letting you know by sending your resistance right back to you. It’s what happens when you tap the brake–the ride gets jerky. You can choose to take the cue gratefully and continue the conversation; you can be as responsive as you want your horse to be. Or you can shout him down and punish him when he asks for kindness.
If the excuse/thought crosses your mind that you need a stronger bit, read this (here.) Especially if you think your horse will run off if you let up on the brake.
For what the horse does under compulsion… is done without understanding; and there is no beauty in it either, any more than if one should whip and spur a dancer. -Xenophon, b. 430BC
The saddest thing about fearful Stepford horses is that they are silenced, never to waltz, or sing into their rider’s ear. By correcting the horse before he’s had a chance to volunteer, the ride becomes flat and two-dimensional. As hard as it is on the horse, it’s the rider that loses the most.
Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.