Dear Fellow Primates: It is our instinct to grab. It is our instinct to talk in imitation-semaphore with our hands, to eat with our hands, and react to fear or alarm with our hands. We start when we’re babies being offered a finger to grab and we never let go. We use our hands to fuss, fumble, and fidget and we do it so naturally, we don’t notice.
Horses, however, do notice every small movement on the reins or on the lead rope. Reins work like a megaphone from our hands to their most fragile mouths, metal on bone. Last week, I wrote about it but if you ask a horse, the bottom line is, bit or bit-less, they don’t like their faces pulled on. Horses might put humans into two categories, the ones who don’t know they have bad hands and the ones who do know and are working on it.
Think of the woman in the knife-throwing act. She stands stock-still as the knives slam into the wood right next to her face and she doesn’t flinch. Horses wish we were more like her. Egads, most of us cover our faces during pillow fights. Instinctively.
A good riding instructor agrees with horses on the topic of hands. Truthfully, nothing is more challenging than developing kind, giving contact. We think training horses is the act of teaching horses to give up their flight instinct, but in trade, we must overcome our instinct to grab. It takes time to surrender instinct to trust.
Want to learn a cheat in the meantime? A shortcut your horse can appreciate right now? I’ll explain it in the way I would work on an issue with a horse. It doesn’t work to tell a horse (or a human) that every move they make is wrong. Constant correction diminishes confidence and encourages a bad attitude. As affirmative trainers, we say yes to the horse, so when training ourselves, we must find ways to do the same, with the happy knowledge that horses and riders are works-in-progress forever, if we’re lucky. Then deconstruct the problem into smaller pieces and start by finding success with fundamentals.
You’re riding, the sun is shining, the stride of your horse rocks your spine in a soft rhythm, the reins are soft, and all is well with the world. The next instant it’s a fight, you’re pulling and he’s bracing, and it doesn’t matter who started it. Barring a spook, what happened? Because a spook isn’t a reason, it’s an excuse. Start by finding the core reason. Commonly, we get in trouble by missing our mark. We wait too late and then panic. We feel rushed and react loudly with our hands. It could be turning a corner or changing speed, would you have needed to pull a rein if you had prepared sooner?
Step one is understanding how horses move. If they are moving freely forward, horses can be very agile but if we confine their movement with the reins, they lose balance. If they’re moving with restriction, they get awkward. Bi-peds can pivot but having four legs is cumbersome in small quarters. Think of turning a truck and trailer, the horse’s front and rear must both negotiate the turn. If you don’t plan for the room needed, you’ll overcorrect with your hands.
One of the most common times we pull on a horse’s face is asking him to make a 90 degree turn from a halt, mounted or in hand. We pull their heads to the side as if we were steering a parked car. Forward motion is needed to turn a car or a horse. It’s a hard-fast rule. A horse must be moving before we ask for anything else. When your horse is allowed to move forward, riding feels like gliding on ice, he can be light and agile. Constricted reins are like leaving the parking brake on. Drag and resistance for both of you.
Deconstruct to a solution: If we prepared ahead, the last-minute wrestling wouldn’t happen. Practicing transitions is a place to start. Pick a mark up ahead; a post on the long side of the arena or a rock beside the trail, but plan to turn there. If your horse’s nose is already at the mark, it’s too late! Pick another mark. But if you prepare before that mark, ask your horse to stride on and simply turn your waist. Your reins haven’t changed, your horse has turned, and you haven’t broken your horse’s rhythm. That’s the secret. You must ride in alignment with his movement. A break of rhythm in you is a loss of balance for your horse.
Pick another mark ahead and prepare for a halt. Ask your horse to go forward, and then count three strides with your sit bones, melting into the saddle with an exhale on three. Don’t pull, if you miss your mark, adjust on the next go, give your horse time to process that you’re not pulling on the reins. Congratulate yourselves and try again. Pick another mark and prepare to trot at that spot. Inhale, relax your shoulders, inhale deeper, and in the rough vicinity of the mark, allow your horse to lift to the trot. Allow his poll movement to balance, follow with your hands and then pick another mark up ahead, and exhale down to a bold walk.
You’ll miss the marks in the beginning but if you are a few strides off, who cares? Cheers all around; it’ll improve as the two of you find balance in the transition. That’s what it means to be a work-in-progress. You’re learning that working with your horse’s movement is more important than the position of a rock or a post. Practice kindly. Eventually, your horse will trust your hands, as much as you respect his mouth.
You know you’re doing dressage, right? There might even be letters on the walls. In dressage, we believe the art is in the transition, that how we ask is as important as what we ask. Preparation is the building block to better hands and a relaxed and forward horse, whether trail riding or any other discipline.
Authentic dressage isn’t about breeches, but a helmet is only common sense. It isn’t about what kind of saddle you ride in, but the ability to communicate through that saddle. We endeavor to ride the inside of the horse, and we do it from the inside of our bodies. Dressage was born centuries ago to encourage the strength, suppleness, and confidence of the horse. Dressage happens when two souls find oneness in movement.
I’ll be talking about Dressage Fundamentals for Every Horse at The Barn School this Sunday.
…Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward
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…Affirmative training is the fine art of saying yes.