We know the eternal riddle as “which came first – the chicken or the egg?” But when you’re giving a lesson to horse and rider, there’s a question that’s more important, which is “who comes first – the horse or the rider?”
Most instructors address themselves exclusively to the rider, every lesson. Some tell their riders to make the horse do something, but don’t explain how. Some make improvements in the rider’s position that in turn improve the horse’s way of going. Some focus on exercises or gymnastics, as part of a set program of instruction.
Rare is the instructor who focuses attention on the horse first, not simply as an athlete but also as an individual. I’m sure you’ve heard instructors say, “the horse comes first,” but the phrase usually refers to the horse’s welfare (and it’s too often said but not meant, just like those electoral promises). I agree that the horse’s welfare should come first, but I also think that focusing attention on the horse first, as an individual, can improve the horse’s performance.
After all, what is the essence of a great performance under saddle? It’s the partnership between horse and rider. And a great partnership isn’t based on selfishness. It’s not based on using; it’s based on giving. I’ll admit, it’s hard to give the horse something that he or she rarely gets, which is to come first. But the payoff can be huge.
For those of us who have passed the half century mark, the word “Rolfing™” conjures up some strange amalgam of hippie happiness and sacrificial torture.
No wonder, because this form of bodywork was christened at Esalen, the legendary consciousness-expanding center in Big Sur. And in the early years, people who got Rolfed™ talked a lot about how much it hurt.
Biochemist Ida Rolf developed the technique of Rolfing™, and named it after herself. Some say it all started with a horse. Ida had been kicked by a horse and afterwards suffered symptoms of acute pneumonia. Her symptoms were relieved not by drugs but by bodywork. She figured out how to heal herself and others.
The first person I met who had been “Rolfed™” told me it “hurt like hell” but he loved it. I always suspected that he was more than a little bent, so this didn’t make Rolfing™ any more attractive to me. I had no need for it, no interest in it and no desire to experience it. That was back in the 80s.
Fast forward thirty years, when something happened to me to change my perspective. I broke my back, as loyal readers of my blog know. Before my accident, I was fit, so I expected to heal quickly. I’m tough, so I expected to get back in the saddle quickly. I fully (and naively) expected that I would be the same rider I had been before my fall. I was wrong on all counts.
Sure, my skeleton mended. But the collateral damage that all the doctors ignored — the muscles and tendons and ligaments that had also suffered when my back broke — had been injured along with my spine and continued to deteriorate as I spent my days immobilized in a back brace.
When I finally got back in the saddle, my body didn’t work the way it used to. I was crooked and stiff and slow and every jarring motion sent a small shock wave up my spine. I got a sheepskin seat saver. But I had lost my seat.
The belly button may be the most neglected part of the rider’s anatomy. Too bad it has that silly name, or riders would probably talk about it more.
Luckily, Shannon Peters does (and I owe all my knowledge of riding with your belly button to her). One day, I watched her teach a student who was having trouble bending her horse, both getting tighter and tighter as they struggled together. Shannon suggested that the rider point her belly button where she wanted her horse to go and voila! – what was once hard was now easy. The rider became softer and the horse bent easily.
Could it be that simple? Yes. If we’re not afraid to talk about belly buttons.
As instructors, our primary tool is language. Of course, we’re happy to demonstrate what we’re talking about on a horse, or stand in front of a jump to prove to a rider that they can stop straight and quickly once they’re over it, or hold the reins from the ground to help a rider develop feel, but it’s most often what we say and how we say it that helps our riders ride better.
Denny Emerson said it perfectly today on his Facebook page — “The litmus test is in the individual ability to know what is valid, and the ability to transmit that validity in a way that others can discern it.”
That’s why talking about belly buttons is magic. Telling riders to point their belly buttons where they want to go is actually no different than instructing students on “the spiral seat.” Unfortunately, like the half halt, “the spiral seat” is a dungeon of confusion. As a phrase, it makes no sense. It sounds convoluted and no one understands it. You can try explaining the twist in the torso that defines the spiral seat but why bother when you have a belly button?
It’s one of those oxymorons of horse training that in order to make our horses straight, we make our horses bend.
Let’s leave for a later post the question of what straight actually means, since straightness varies depending on the level of education of horse (and rider). For today, let’s stay with the basic working definition of a “straight horse” — a horse that moves without favoring one side (or one direction) or another.
We start working on making the “bad direction” as good as the “good direction” by riding our horses along curved lines — in circles, serpentines, bending lines, shallow loops, etc.
Most of us are also taught that the best way to bend our horses is with diagonal aids — the oft-repeated “inside leg to outside rein.” While this orchestration of aids is extremely effective, it requires knowledge on the part of the horse, and independent aids on the part of the rider. This is part of the reason it so often fails.
If I say “no horse is perfect,” I won’t be surprised to hear that I’m wrong, and that one of my readers has a horse who is perfect.
That’s because one of the things I believe is that once you believe you know everything there is to know about horses, you will make the mistake of making a blanket statement that applies to all horses, and then one horse will come along and prove you wrong.
So let me say instead, “no horse is perfect but there may be the exception that proves the rule.” In fact, I’d love to meet that exception.
Until that time comes, I don’t expect perfection. In fact, I expect problems. Especially trailer loading problems. They’re as common as high-fructose corn syrup in processed food and just as troublesome.
I’ve worked with horses who were in trailers that blew apart while traveling…who thought it was more fun to play than to load…who would rather lie down and die than put a hoof on a ramp…and who were allowed to decide if they wanted to get on or would rather not.
I learned the Monty Roberts way, and use the dually halter with a lunge line or long-line for horses who need to re-learn how to load. The pressure-release method usually works, and once you get a feel for how much pressure you need and when to release the pressure, you can turn most problem loaders around. It’s not that difficult, and it’s easy to pass along the skills needed, so once you’ve fixed the horse, you can help the owner to keep the horse fixed.
Unfortunately, the pressure-release method didn’t work with the most recent horse I had to retrain to load, who spent nearly two weeks with a well-known Monty Roberts protege, working on loading. When it was time for him to go home, he still needed three people and two longlines to get him on the trailer.
Right now, there’s a very active thread in the dressage forum on the Chronicle of the Horse bulletin board. Thirty-seven pages have been filled in the last six days by dozens of posters.
It’s all in response to a blog post by Catherine Haddad Staller, also on the Chronicle of the Horse, entitled “It’s Time To Train the Trainers.” When I read it, I thought the message was clear: riders are deficient in the basics, and that’s the fault of the trainers.
Clearly, however, the message was not clear. Because my interpretation of Catherine’s words were only one interpretation, and in a minority. Some people read the blog post and felt insulted. Some people read it and felt that it insulted every adult amateur in America. Some people felt it was high time that someone said something about the problem. Others felt that Catherine should stop talking altogether.
There wasn’t a lot of middle ground. Catherine has strong opinions and a somewhat brash delivery. I find her blog amusing even when I disagree with her. I have a feeling that we could sit down over coffee and hash it out and still smile at the end. I understand the sense of humor that could lead her to write a sentence like this:
“These people are trying like hell to learn the most basic principles of riding and are struggling along at the pace of a rabid garden snail.”
One poster on the bb, who happens to be a vet, pointed out that since snails are mollusks, they don’t get rabies, but that’s beside the point. The point is that it’s sometimes hard to hear what people have to say because of the way they say it.
Brevity may be the soul of wit, as Polonius said in Hamlet, but I have yet to manage it. Still, I’m going to try, since it’s frustratingly difficult to find time to blog these days.
So let’s cut to the chase.
How do you correct your horse’s mistakes?
First, it’s important to ask yourself why your horse is making a mistake. Is he just learning? Does a physical problem (lack of fitness, pain, etc.) keep him from being able to do what you’re asking? Do you expect too much too soon? Is your horse a loser? A jerk? Satan? Or…is it all your fault?
I hate to say it (well, actually that’s not true and as you can see, I’m really having trouble with this brevity thing) but chances are it is all your fault. Don’t despair. I’m here to help.
My first advice is to stop thinking about your horse making mistakes, don’t blame him or her, and start thinking about how you can help.
When your horse makes a mistake, you’ve ruled out a physical problem and your horse is not a rogue (a term I don’t apply lightly), then your horse’s mistake is one of two things:
On his blog, William Miklem talks about the importance of what he calls the “fifth leg” for an event horse, who needs to be able to balance in order to stay safe. It’s important for a jockey’s hand to sometimes act as a “fifth leg” in order to support a horse who is running on empty and needs to make it across the finish line. The same is true of a young horse learning to balance downhill across open country.
Ultimately and if possible (which excludes fatigued horses) we want the “fifth leg” to belong exclusively to the horse, although we may use our hands initially as a “fifth leg” crutch to assist the horse in finding its own balance.
All too often, unfortunately, we see the use of the hand as a permanent “fifth leg.” The only job of that “fifth leg” is to support the rider or hold the horse in compression as a substitute for self carriage. Just as a tight flash noseband acts as a poor stand-in for a quiet mouth, “contact” (that popular synonym for pulling on the horse’s mouth) acts as a stand-in for a true, feeling and sensitive connection between the rider’s hand and the horse’s mouth.
Riders who always provide their hands as a fifth leg for the horse end up at some point like poor Laurel and Hardy — the “third leg” — in today’s picture. Carrying all the weight of the horse, when the horse should instead be carrying them. If only their horses were as content as the grey on the piano.