Morning. Once she’s turned out, she bolts to a soft spot and rolls, and then this. No, her tail isn’t groomed, and she could certainly use a bath, but who cares?
Is there anything more beautiful and inspiring than watching a horse move at liberty? To see a horse feel the glory of her own body, strong and powerful? We’re horse people, so no, there isn’t. Unless it’s a foal’s first steps, but really, that’s the same thing. We’re the ones who can’t pull our eyes away from horses moving in pastures as we drive by. We get choked up in horse movies during the galloping-in-slow-motion part. Every time.
In our own barns, we scrutinize each stride for beauty and its evil twin, lameness. Our hearts soar with young athletic horses at play and we feel our own mortality when we watch elders in a head-bobbing stroll. And we love their movement so much, we want to feel it. Most of us want to ride.
Alas. We’re humans, and as such, lousy dancers. It’s just true. We’ve lost our wildness; we move in small spaces, have sedentary jobs, struggle with our own balance, physical and otherwise.
And we were never flight animals to begin with.
Humans have been “borrowing” strength and athleticism from horses forever and for the most part, horses have paid the beast-of-burden price for that. But there have always been humans who want to get it right. Who will always see riding horses as an art. Who say thank you for each brush with grace and lightness.
Your horse’s thought balloon: I am a flight animal. Cuddle if you must, but my confidence comes from movement. My mental health and physical well-being depend on it. All good things that I know involve rhythm: trotting, chewing, breathing. All bad things happen with a break of rhythm: bucking, bolting, spooking. Never forget, rhythm rules! Human, your choice, predator or partner?
Sure, some humans are magically graceful and some horses are clumsy. Some horses move with a rhythm like a metronome and some have been so dominated by over-correction and fear that they can’t remember how to walk naturally. I notice few of us have the confidence to strut down the street to the music in our heads. We live with fear and restriction as well.
Can we make a pact to lay all the whining down while we’re with horses? Can we stop telling stories of their victimization and weakness? Can we accept our own frailty as well as theirs, let it be okay, and make some rhythm of our own?
Consider building a bubble. It’s a safe place for you and your horse where breathing happens with a life-affirming regularity. It’s a place where leadership means safety and peace, where we abide in the present moment.
Our partnership, our bubble, is made stronger by communicating in their language. Their language is rhythm.
Some training methods seem to thrive on the disruption of a horse’s rhythmic movement. Western pleasure is the obvious example, as the horses move in an un-natural human-taught rhythm. Other riding disciplines depend more on developing that flight response in a positive way like jumping or endurance riding. But not all of us are up to loving that amount of forward. Where to start?
Rhythm is the foundation of the dressage training pyramid, meaning they must be allowed to move in a relaxed ground-covering gait. It’s tricky because you can’t sacrifice forward for relaxation or vice versa. Think about that.
This isn’t about a judge or competition, it’s because it’s natural, right for the horse. Rhythm is the place that their instinct can allow them to join with us. The more peaceful fluid rhythm we give them in our bubble, the more connected they are to us because the leader is the one who provides safety, in a way that they understand, that makes them feel good.
The rider’s dream goal is that the horse moves as freely under-saddle as he does at liberty.
Start in an arena, mount up and have a neck ring on your horse. You can buy them (I like this one) but you can also make them out of old reins or a rope (60-70″ depending on horse size). They should be long enough to hold with your reins but adjusted so the rope hits their chest long before they feel the bit in their mouth. His head is free.
Now, crank up the music and ride. Feel his walk rhythm. This is the warm-up part of the ride, the most important part. This is where you and your horse connect through rhythm. Just feel his stride. No corrections, just movement. Here’s the first thing you notice:
Over-thinking kills the dance.
Breathe, feel the sway of his flanks, and cue him in rhythm. Not faster or slower or harder. A leg cue in rhythm with his flank is irresistible. If he’s slow or quick, you go meet him there. He leads this part of the dance, but once the two of you are dancing, then you can suggest a movement, you can lead. Then the song changes and it begins again. Let him lead. Feel your body move with his. Experiment. Say thank you.
By now you’ve noticed that it feels like you have no steering. Most folks hate the neck-ring to the exact degree that they oversteer. It seriously limits the amount you can micromanage and correct him. In the beginning of this series, I said we’d build the bubble by pretending to be horses. Focusing on rhythm is the quickest, smartest way to do just that.
After twenty minutes of this, he’s relaxed and forward, his muscles are soft, and you eventually reminded yourself that turning your waist is all you needed in the first place. Both of you are loose and happy. His neck is gloriously long. A bubble of bliss.
So, you pick up the reins and in an instant, his poll is tense, your sit bones are frozen, and your beautiful bubble feels more like a wet sheet. Dance over.
Did your cue disturb his rhythm? Did it contradict his movement or support the flow? Did it make him feel wrong and weak, or strong and balanced?
Riding is hard, doing it well is an art. Remember the foundation for horses and riders: All riding questions are answered with relaxed and forward rhythm. (And one of you might need dance lessons.)