Riding - A Dialogue Between Horse and Rider
By Paul Kathen
There is this myth that very well trained horses are easy to ride. Most of them are not! The fact is, unless you are an accomplished rider, they are difficult to ride. Along with their suppleness goes a great deal of sensitivity which does not allow for mistakes by the rider. Such a horse tends to either overreact to insensitive aids or become frustrated and resistant. Dependent on the temperament, his reaction to false or inconsistent aids may be a trial and error response to a signal by the rider which often does look rather comical to the observer but is no laughing matter to the rider. The less generous horse will probably turn to active resistance or begin to ignore his rider and take over the control of the ride.
It does look so easy when we observe experienced riders riding a dressage test or jumping an obstacle course. The horses seem to react to the thoughts of the riders and aids are hardly visible. The horses are obviously moving with a great deal of power, they seem to need little urging to move forward, and are totally focused on the rider. In most cases that is a correct observation. Yet take a closer look at the rider after the test and you will see that the moisture on her face is perspiration, not just tears of joy. As a matter of fact, she is soaked through. The truth is, while the rider made it look easy, she worked very hard. Much of that hard work was directed at absorbing all that motion so as to not interfere with the balance of the horse; one reason why horses tend to slow down under the rider. During the entire trip the rider kept up a constant dialog with the horse. It is much easier to be coarse in the aids than to be subtle. Subtleness requires a great amount of concentration and a feel for what is the proper strength in the aid to achieve the desired response from the horse. The directive to the rider is to do as little as possible yet as much as necessary. So the rider must do what it takes to achieve the exact desired response from the horse and not more. That requires a great deal of thought and experience. Hence the adage that riding is a thinking person’s sport.
Let us kick this around a little bit more. In teaching students my first goal is to develop in them an independent seat. They must learn to stay on their horse strictly based on balance. This way their hands and legs are available to them to communicate with the horse, not hang on to him. Next they must understand the aids and how to combine them so that instead of shouting commands they will speak to their horse in complete sentences. Then they must detect and sharpen their sense of feeling so that they can effectively listen to their horse. The final step is to wean the student from me, the instructor. The student must learn to think while she rides. Please read carefully. I said, think while she rides, and not think to ride. The act of riding is left to the subconscious mind. Just like in any conversation you might have, you think about what you are going to say, not how to produce the words. Speaking, however, is only part of a conversation. The other half is listening. In order to listen well, the rider must learn to feel. The seat is both eyes and ears for the rider. My friend Eckhart Meyners calls this feeling of the body’s motion, the “inner eye" of the rider. Eckhart is a university professor specializing in the science of motion. I believe it is obvious that in order to be able to feel this motion correctly the rider’s seat must be secure and relaxed. This, the listening part of the conversation of a rider with his horse, is worth a closer examination.
When you read about the great communicators, the one trait they all seem to have in common is their ability to listen. Only in listening will he find out whether or not he is being understood. This is doubly important in riding because the horse's perception of the rider’s command is immediately turned into action. This action then becomes the answer. So far it is easy! What happens if your horse misunderstands you? You receive the wrong answer! The result is a rail down, a bad score, or many other unwanted consequences. After years of lessons and years of training your horse, mistakes still do happen. That is not what you expected. Can they be prevented, and how to do it? Eckhart Meyners has written several books on the subject, and I have a feeling he is still not satisfied that he has exhausted the subject and will write some more. Please bear with me as I try to put all the threads together so that it will make sense. Before you skip to the end to find out whether the good or the bad guy wins let me give you the good news. Most mistakes can be prevented. The bad news is that you must be very good and work very hard to be able to do that. I would like to make it clear one more time that we are talking strictly about the act of communication; about being misunderstood by your horse, not other mistakes like miscalculating the distance to a jump or allowing the horse to go onto the forehand.
A great deal of our time is spent listening and talking to other people. We naturally often repeat what we just heard to make sure we understood correctly and then answer. We can do this in a one on one dialog or in a group of many. The good communicator will always through skillful questioning and repeating of statements make sure he understands and is being understood correctly. In our dialog with horses we do not have the opportunity of questioning the horse to make sure he understood. Or do we? I think we do! As you speak to your horse in preparing him for a command, his response will indicate to you whether he is interpreting your aids the way you meant them. The moment he is not responding as expected you immediately correct him to avoid a mistake. The difficulty is that you must listen while you speak. Here you are busy half-halting and yet you must still be sensitive enough to feel his response and make sure it is correct before you tell him more. This takes a well trained "inner eye". I would like to add the "inner ear" as part of the rider's tools. The eye observes and controls you while the ear listens to the horse's response. Too complicated? Not really! I would like to tell you about how I learned to type.
In the past, when I wanted to write an article, I would take a notepad, scribble my thoughts down, scratch, add, underline, insert, rewrite, etc. until it looked like a chicken had been turned loose with a crayon. This I would then turn over to April. She then would type what she thought I had written, double space it, and return it to me. Now I had a chance for the first time to study what I had written. Sometimes it still made sense, but usually needed more correcting. After that April would return to the computer and make those changes. I was always amazed how easily this was done. Thus began my whining. I felt left out, watching April's fingers just fly over the keyboard, the curser moving faster than the eye can see, single click, double click, cut, paste, etc., etc. How was I going to learn that? It appeared much too complicated. So I continued to whine. In order to not have to listen to that any longer, my students gave me a computer for Christmas. I went out and hired Mavis, a typing instructor. April installed her on the computer, and I had run out of excuses. In the next two months I found out things about me I do not want anybody else to know. I had no idea I could swear that well. My ability to deal with frustration was stretched to its limit. Do not ask me how Mavis knew this, but every time my back felt like a bundle of knots Mavis would say, “Make sure you are relaxed and sit comfortably." How do you choke a voice in a computer program? Today I am sitting here typing this article myself on my computer. The backspace and delete buttons are still going to be the first keys to wear out, but I see the mistakes immediately because I do not have to look down to find the keys. The situation in learning to ride correctly is very similar. Find a Mavis who is willing to endure your tantrums, listen to your frustrations, coolly tell you to relax and then give you valuable advice how to move on. You then do as she says and you will learn.
Something else very interesting happened the first time I attempted to type an article myself. No matter how hard I tried I could not think and type at the same time. I wish I could tell you with any degree of certainty what might be the cause of that, but I can not. Maybe it is that in concentrating so hard while I was learning to type, my brain, when faced with the situation of typing again, could do but one thing at a time. So I went back to Mavis, practiced to relax while typing and you see the result in front of you. I typed this article as I composed it. So if you still have to concentrate real hard on the physical part of your riding, take heart, learn to relax while practicing hard, and soon you will be able to sit your horse, feel your own and your horse's movement, think ahead, and enjoy your ride all at the same time.
Remember, when I found myself unable to do two things at the same time, my response was to go back and practice one of them until I could do it without having to think about it. In your case that would be to develop the independent seat to such a degree that your subconscious mind will keep you in balance without any help from your conscious mind. Now you are ready for step two, learning to talk to your horse. This will be the subject of my next article.