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Horses as Teachers

Developing a Feel for Riding through Acquaintance with Many Horses

By Kristin Hermann

Horseplay Magazine, 1985



Developing a feel for riding is a process of experience that one cannot be taught. It is acquired through riding many horses. By straddling many unfamiliar backs (one of the benefits of not owning a horse and suffering the stagnation of riding only one), I have had to be sensitive to each horse's differences and needs. Focusing on only one aspect of training, such as getting the horse on the bit, is the same narrow-minded approach as riding only one horse. Good riding comes from remaining open-minded, receptive and perceptive to developing the horse according to its individual needs, and not by dominating the animal with either artificial aids or single-minded training tactics.


Learning to ride only one horse is like putting the animal in side-reins and saying, "I taught my horse how to go on the bit." The time involved in riding, the development of feel, the patience through trial and error, are all part of the educational process.


As students of dressage, we know that the basics, such as forward, straight, calm, and supple, can be applied to each horse. Yet some mounts do not stride as well forward as others, for some horses are not straight because of varying stiffness, and a calm animal is not always the case, particularly with an American Thoroughbred who may be an ex-race horse.


As with the rider, so it is with the horse. Initial individual basic training is required just to get the kinks out, before progressing to more sustained training. Overcoming the varying weaknesses in each of my mounts gave me strength and knowledge of what dressage is all about: making the most of our horses.


The Hot Horse


Freedom of movement is an initial step in engaging dressage, but what about the Thoroughbred, which usually has too much forward momentum and freedom of movement? Riding hot horses teaches one a lot about the art of containing energy in a relaxed, calm, and fluent manner without stifling the horse's forward thrust. Learning how to harness a young Thoroughbred's energetic stride between your legs, seat, and hands helps to provide this valuable lesson.


How does one attempt this without destroying the animals natural gait? Spirals, longeing before riding, or down and out to relax the muscles that are about to buck and twist you out of the saddle in a joyous release of stall freedom. All of the above will help, but most importantly, the rider has to learn tactfully to apply half-halts in order to harness, thus balance, the energy into an impulsion that can be driven forward.


What about the horse that does not stride forward so eagerly? Surely the flight instinct is there, but from standing around in a safe pasture all day and/or in a 10-foot square stall, the horse becomes stiff in its movement. Camel was such a horse, a 16-hand palomino Quarter Horse with a gorgeous flaxen mane and tail - beautiful to look at, but his disposition was obstinate and his muscles inflexible. He took half-steps down hill, a too sure-footed animal that lacked the confidence of covering ground by striding out. Obviously, he had no freedom of movement. This horse taught me the importance of forward momentum, because without it we had nothing.


When I started riding Camel, he was stiff, and, as a result, lazy, and had to be taught to walk and move forward willingly. I began by stretching his back and neck into 'down and out' at the trot, and eventually, months later, his muscles became supple, and I basically began teaching the horse how to walk forward freely. Mind you, my legs developed in the process, and the rewards of loosening up his restricted movement and flat gait created such an elasticity in his stride that a visiting clinician remarked that he would like to have moving pictures of Camel's trot, because he displayed a good example of a swinging, or pulsating, back.


In the process, Camel's name also changed to Camelot. At seven years of age, he had never bucked, but now, with his newly acquired elasticity, he is full of such flexibility that every romp in the field is a display of his suppleness.

Camelot still has some stiffness, such as toeing-in on his right side, which makes bending him right, or riding him straight all the more difficult, but most horses such as Camelot will forever have their individual quirk that keeps the rider either compensating or continually complementing with training. Probably many of us are missing a lot of training and valuable lessons by riding already balanced and prepared horses!


The Horse with the Crooked Front Leg


Another teacher of mine, What Better Proof (his official racetrack name), had a crooked front leg. He toed-out from the knee down; probably he tucked himself a little too snugly inside his mother for those 11 months of fetal development. "You cannot change the bone structure", the blacksmith told me over and over, "but the muscles can be adapted and suppled to enable the horse to have a better balance." What Better Proof taught me what it really meant to bend a horse around my inside leg. There was no problem positioning and bending him left. His muscles easily gave way into the outside rein, but going right, he was much less flexible.


I, and the owner whom I was helping to ride, used Proof's conformation fault as a valuable lesson for ourselves. We had to ask the horse for more bend going right, and obviously, going straight was not enough - we had to put this horse straight, just as Camelot had to be taught to stride forward. We knew what it felt like to have the horse straight or positioned going left and we had to get this same feeling going right.


The owner unfortunately wanted to ride only this horse. Since it was his first encounter with dressage, would he forever think that each horse required so much bend going right? In failing to attempt other horses, he denied himself the opportunity of taking progressive steps for developing a feel for riding.


The Ewe-Necked Horse


Another educational experience I encountered was riding a ewe-necked horse, Mr. Ella. Mr. Ella had straight legs and plenty of forward momentum (an ex-race horse, too), so my only immediate challenge was to round his back and neck into the bit. Every time I tried to feel his mouth with contact, he evaded by putting his head up, concaving his neck and consequently his back, as a safety mechanism for protecting his over-sensitive mouth. I could have stuck him in side-reins on the longe, draw reins while riding, and forced him onto the bit with such devices, but instead, Mr. Ella taught me the most valuable lesson: reaching for the bit.


Although I cannot deny the occasional use of a German Olympic Training Martingale, I used no such gadgets with Mr. Ella. Again, I began by teaching "down and out", loosening his contracted and concave back and neck by elasticizing the muscles. He willingly responded and reached forward. (Little did he know that contact with the bit was where he was destined.) This slow process of feeling his back develop under me months later gave way into his drooling and sucking the bit as a baby would the nipple.


At the same time I was working with Mr. Ella (we had developed an informal relationship by then), a young impressionable rider at the same stable was learning how to ride her pony on the bit - she wanted to learn dressage. Her instructor introduced side-reins, which the pony wore daily until the poor thing was lame. Obviously, this over-zealous technique of placing the head just so did not enable the muscles to give way into that elastic suppleness that dressage is meant to be. Using artificial aids is good as an additional educational tool, but not for depending upon, since with this kind of abusive use, they take away the pleasure, process, and feel of dressage.


By my riding so many teachers, I have reached the point that a look at a horse's conformation, or watching horses in motion, will convey to me what they have to teach. Longeing a horse, or watching it move freely on its own, is a good way to observe its efficiency of movement and to reveal any stiffness. However, to feel the animal underneath you is best. The interaction between equine and rider cannot be learned by any other method than experiencing the feel of many horses.


For some riders, the process of developing one horse leaves no time for riding others, but the more opportunities one takes to straddle and remain perceptive to each horses needs, the more proficient, knowledgeable, and feeling one will become in dressage.


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