by Mitzi Summers
In a former article, I wrote in detail about the importance of being flexible in schooling a horse or helping a rider in order to attain set goals. The goals need to be realistic, and in accordance to the ability, strength, and mental and physical readiness of both horse and rider. There will be strengths in some areas and weaknesses in others as in any other sport.
I believe correct riding to be the most difficult sport. First of all, of course, it involves two creatures with completely different natures and priorities. To note, the horse is a prey animal, whose chief emotion is fear and main goal is survival. His eyesight is different, his biomechanics, his sensitivity to sound and touch. He lives pretty much “in the moment”, but also has one of the most awe-inspiring memories of any mammal.
The rider or trainer is truly a complex being, who finds it extremely difficult to truly concentrate. We are distracted by personal problems — tight boots, weight gained or lost, and how much we dislike the telemarketer who interrupted our television program. We are also predators, and I believe that most horses recognize that we could eat them if we wanted — especially horses that have developed learned helplessness through abusive training techniques.
To become a skilled and empathetic rider it is necessary to develop the physical ability to attain an independent seat. This requires many hours of concentrating on allowing your body to learn how to ride a horse through balance, with correct posture and to develop the ability to use each of the aids independent of each other. One of the most useful ways to reach this goal is by being lunged on a schooled horse with correct gaits. It has been estimated that 60 hours of lungeing, many without reins or stirrups, is a base line of time.
Make certain that the person who is guiding you through the lungeing exercises is skilled and has an eye for your correct position. Practice done incorrectly will not be helpful. A truly independent seat allows a rider to be useful to the horse and able to clearly use their aids correctly. It is a never-ending process.
The improved rider now has the ability to use an inside leg independent of any other part of their body, or to weight a particular seat bone without affecting the contact on the reins. Now it all has to be put together so that all of the various parts of the body work in concert — telling the horse the same thing. If the horse does figure it out all is well, but if they misunderstand it is usually the horse that gets the blame.
In helping a horse with a particular problem, it is necessary to have a fairly competent rider — one who has developed feel and the mental and physical attributes necessary. This is why lessons from a responsible and leaned trainer are so important, so that a rider can attain these abilities. From there, it is developing an eye and intuition to determine what is working and allowing the horse to improve, and what is hindering the process. It is important to realize that if it is evident that what you are doing is not helping the horse improve, or is obviously leading to tenseness or mental or physical fatigue, then different approaches must be utilized. This is why it is so important to study with as many competent instructors as you can, to read, to study, to assess what one sees at clinics and shows and the internet, and to be able to separate positive reinforcement methods from those methods which are done strictly through preformed conditions and misunderstandings of the correct progress of the horse.
An example happened recently when I was teaching in Washington State. An older horse, a bay mare named Goblin, needed improvement in several areas. Goblin’s owner Robin was a skilled rider, but Goblin was also used as a school horse. Good school horses are worth their weight in gold, but the fact of the matter is that in their job they need to learn to accommodate riders who are learning and not riding very well. Goblin had learned to travel very much on her forehand, which resulted in not pushing through her haunches and also inverting her back. When Robin asked her for more push from back to front, all Goblin could do was to take the increased impulsion and become even heavier in front.
The position of the rider was important in this session. Robin had to make certain that she rode in the way that we wanted Goblin to move. She had allowed herself to mimic Goblin in her body when she rode her. (Horses are very good at training us). I made certain that Robin rode with open and wide shoulders, looked up, and copied a bit the position of a good saddle seat rider. I explained to Robin that this was just temporary, until Goblin understood and could physically respond to less obvious aids. Robin needed to be certain that as she lifted the withers and shoulders of Goblin that it was done by still increasing the drive of the haunches. It worked, and was actually fun for both of them. Robin could feel the way Goblin lifted and the increased power of her push from behind. Goblin actually started to swing through her back and her whole facial expression improved. Her ears came forward, and she moved more readily.
It is permissible to “go beyond the envelope” for a bit in schooling as long as it makes sense, the positive results are obvious, and the horse or rider improve without causing discomfort in either of them. The science involved is in recognizing the correct movement or position for that PARTICULAR horse and rider and working with them accordingly.