Published in the July/Aug Edition of Equestrian Life
I read a lot of books and do like to share some of other people’s ideas that I find are helpful. Mark Rashid is a well known American trainer and writer initially from a western orientation. I have enjoyed several of his books but particularly enjoyed reading about what he had learned from the Japanese Samurai traditional self defense discipline of Aikido. He describes the master demonstrating a defensive manoeuvre, the students having great difficulty understanding how he was achieving the results. The master explained that he wasn't moving the outside of his body, only the inside. Now this is exactly what we must do to convey our more subtle aids to the horse. The horse is able to attune himself very finely to what we do on the inside of our bodies.
I have written before about the feeling you can develop for the horses mouth. You can feel with your hand if his jaw is relaxed. However it is only likely that he will relax his jaw if your fingers are relaxed. You don't necessarily give the rein, you just soften your fingers. The movement wont be perceptible to the onlooker; only to the horse. A firmly clenched fist on the rein will be felt by the horse to be quite differently to a softly closed fist on the rein.
Similarly, the aids we give to make the steps higher, more collected, or to lengthen or extend in a pace will often not require us to move, only to change the tension or muscle tone in our bodies. These are isometric 'movements'. The muscle remains the same length, but the tension in the muscle increases.
Recently, we have been watching the stunning dressage tests at WEG. These riders are the masters of moving the inside of their bodies, yet remaining still in relation to the horse. The difficult transitions between piaffe and passage are done without aids which we can observe, yet the horse understands perfectly. We tend to think of the aids as something we can see, we pull the rein and make it shorter, we kick to go forward. So often we see riders using their legs in a way that the heel goes back, the toe goes down. This is not necessary or helpful. The leg can remain in the same place yet the horse will know if it is applied with tension, or applied with a soft breathing type movement.
Next time you ride, think about this idea of riding by moving only inside your body. See if your horse will react to these tiny aids. Chances are he will. If he doesn’t, try to teach him to be more sensitive by asking first with an 'inside the body' aid before you actually move. Remember a light aid can be followed by a firm aid, which if ignored is followed with a strong aid. We might initially train with a large movement, for example a wide opening rein in a walk pirouette will encourage the required bending and turning. However, as he becomes more familiar with the movement, the opening rein need only be suggested by a softening of the fingers. No actual movement with the hand is required. Only the movement inside your body, the isometric use of the muscles.
He will actually follow some of the isometric movements you can make with your big postural muscles too. Stretch up and a little away from his neck and he may make the steps higher. This type of transition within the pace is the way to collection.
I would encourage you to play with the idea of movements within your body and see how he reacts to it. You and he will slowly become more attuned to these subtle movements and as such more attuned to each other.
By Kerry Mack