After the last blog, a friend/trainer thought legs should have been mentioned. Or as she put it, “‘The Mechanical Leg?’ It taps and bumps and wiggles and kicks and urges the horse along just due to habit and maybe some well-intentioned but less well educated former trainer’s instruction.” She’s totally right.
Over the years, I’ve
ranted blogged about legs and seats and it might be time again, but then I had a thought… and if there is an advantage to writing a few hundred blogs, this is it: You have to find different ways to say the same thing, hoping to be heard differently. Because nagging horses with your same banging leg isn’t more effective than nagging riders with the same over-used words. (It ends up riding and writing have more in common than you’d think.)
Start here: Horses have bad days. People, too. You really hope the two things don’t collide at the same time, but if they do, there will be people watching. For the same reason, if you have the most balanced sensitive ride ever, there will be no sign of people for hours afterward. It’s either a cosmic sense of humor or fodder for paranoia, depending on your blood sugar level.
Poor riding is always easiest to see from the cheap seats, which are defined as any place other than the saddle of said horse. Railbirds who judge from the ground don’t usually have bad intent, it’s more like a morbid curiosity. They just can’t take their eyes away because if it hasn’t happened to them recently, they think it might soon. Define railbird as you when you aren’t in the saddle of said horse.
This line of demarcation between riders and railbirds feels painful and huge in the moment. Riders tell me that peer pressure hurts, but peel back the emotion, and the difference between the sides is proximity to the mounting block. Meaning that the riders on the ground see what looks obvious, but when in the saddle, don’t manage to do better, as the current railbirds will attest.
Does this mean we have more physical awareness of other rider’s position than we have awareness of our own? Yikes.
Is that thing so obvious when we see other rider’s legs tap and bump and wiggle and kick incessantly, still nearly impossible for us to feel because we don’t know what our feet are doing, even when we think we do? We agree that less is more, but can we recognize how doing less feels? No wonder horses get confused by us.
Disclaimer: I’m a riding instructor, so I’m in the cheap seats, too. I have the view from the ground and I’ve seen legs do things that make my ribs seize up, too, from riders sincerely doing their best. It’s my job to get inside the rider’s head and connect the external reality with the internal awareness, narrowing the gap between perception and reality.
Riders fiddle with words like “feel” and “responsiveness” when looking for certain behaviors from a horse. We ask if the horse is on the aids but what if we have it backward? What if those are the requirements for us? If a rider wants “feel” and “responsiveness” from a horse, we have to first find that inside of one’s self, with awareness and sensitivity.
Humor me and put your saddle on a rack or fence and climb on. So, you’re sitting in your saddle while it isn’t on a horse. Good. Breathe. Do you feel your lungs expand fully? What does the air smell like? Is the air hot or does a breeze cool it? Can you breathe deep into your belly or do your ribs constrict you? Give your breath the same patience you give horses.
Now throat-breathe for a full minute, shallow tiny breaths, and then ask for a canter. Well?
Define “feel” as what your own senses tell you about what’s going on inside of you. Can you feel your spine collapsed or tight? Can you feel your inner thighs gripping the saddle? Can you feel your foot quiet in the stirrup? It’s easy to ride the rail of a fence, isn’t it?
Tack and mount your horse. Breathe. Don’t even think about picking up the reins. Ask your horse to walk on and notice your lungs. Notice your sit bones and knee joints. Wiggle your toes, feel your fingernails. Every sense that a horse has is so much keener than ours, that our best hope is to at least use the senses we have with more clarity.
We need to consciously fine tune our bodies to listen. It is a mindful state, one elusive enough to make you bored or want to pull your hair out. Be engaged and patient, instead. Feel the vertebra of your spine space themselves and stack in balance when you inhale. Then feel your horse stretch his topline in response. Yes, that’s where it all happens.
We always want a technique for how to accomplish something, the magic cue that all horses take. Breathing is that cue, but we don’t want to believe it.
I type the word breathe more than any other. It’s hard to find ways to make it sound as important or romantic as it is without wacky hyperbole. Breath is nothing less than the direct line of connection with our internal senses, and even more important, our direct line of connection with horses. It’s the secret to feeling and then fixing…only it’s no secret.
When I’m speaking in public, I see eyes glaze over every time I say the dreaded word. Breathe. The perfect calming signal and riders act like it’s some kind of vegan cue; one with no meat on it. Not even egg on it.
They want a real aid; a different bit or spurs or a special whip with my logo on it. They want an easy shortcut, but there isn’t one. If you negate how horses communicate and insist they take a technical cue without connection to his rider, then expect to see a flat, forced answer by rote. And that’s the best scenario.
Well, can’t put a logo on air, thankfully. It’s free for everyone. That means skill with horses isn’t about wealth or opportunity or even luck. We can all be equal breathers. I feel like a used-car salesman but in a good way. Here’s the same old breathe sales pitch in different words:
Hey, horse lover, do you want to know how it feels to be a horse?