Saturday, September 8, 2012

Horses Are Rear-Wheel Drive: Feeling the Hind Feet

I did a post a while ago about riding the hind feet.  What I was trying to say there is how important it is to feel what the horse's feet are doing - particularly the hind feet - in order to be able to influence how the horse moves by cuing at the proper time, so the horse can more easily do what you ask.  But I think there's more to it than that, based on what I'm trying to do together with my horses now . . .

First, I believe it's important, for all riders at whatever level of experience, to learn how the horse moves and what that feels like on a footfall basis to the rider.  Having some coaching from the ground can make this easier, but you can also do it yourself, by noting what the horse's shoulders, hips, back and barrel are doing at each point in a gait.  If you have someone on the ground, you can practice saying "now" or "left" or "right" when a particular front or hind foot is on the ground.  And, once you get that figured out, there's another, even more useful, thing to practice - being able to identify, and say "now", or "left" or "right" when a particular foot is just leaving the ground - that's the point where you can influence the direction and energy of that foot.

Horses are without doubt rear-wheel drive - or they should be - there are plenty of horses out there pulling themselves around on the forehand with a full-body brace going on due to how they've been trained and ridden.  If a horse is moving in self-carriage, it's the placement and energy of the hind feet that determine every motion and direction, and the hind feet have to come up under the body in order for the horse to balance and move efficiently. It's easy for us to focus on the head, neck and placement of the front feet, since that's what's in our field of vision.  But give that up and focus on the hind feel and feel their movement, and how their movement relates to the rest of the horse's body - that's where the real stuff is.

In order to properly feel the hind feet move, and where they are and what they are doing, it's important to let go of braces and blocks in your own body so that you can move with the horse and actually feel what is happening.  Letting your hips move and back unlock, and shoulders and hands move with the horse instead of pulling and bracing, will let you feel what is happening underneath you.  It's also important to eliminate pushing and leaning and driving with seat or legs, or holding with the hands - those are just blocks to movement and make it much harder to feel and influence the hind feet.  Using gadgets to cause the horse to assume a particular posture or "frame" - what a useless word that is - just interfere with developing this, since it's ultimately based on feel - feel by you of the horse and feel of the horse by you - it's all one thing - how can a gadget have feel?

Everything comes from the hind feet - lengthening and shortening of stride, backing, bend - that inside hind leg needs to step under - lateral work of all types, jumping, the moves a cutting horse makes, everything - there's nothing the horse does that isn't determined by the placement and energy of the hind feet.  The horse balances using the placement of the hind feet, and the movement comes from that point of balance.

The first step is to develop awareness of what the hind feet are doing.  The second step is to influence the hind feet by cuing softly with timing that corresponds with a hind foot leaving the group and being available to move in a different direction or with a change in energy.  The third step is to influence the movement of the hind feet by feeling in your own body how a movement would feel if you were doing it yourself in your own body and offering the horse that feel.  The fourth step is to feel the movement as if you were the horse and were placing your/the horse's hind feet in the way you want.  That's what I've been doing with Dawn on our flying lead changes - I simply mentally feel her/me cantering - left hind then left front/right hind diagonal then right front - and at that instant when the legs are off the ground I/we do the change to right hind then right front/left hind then left front and it just happens like that - no cues, no nothing - there's nothing in the world that feels that good.

It's important to acknowledge that being on any step of this progression is a very good thing - it means that we're listening to the horse and that we care what the horse is doing and saying to us, and not just treating horses as mechanical objects to be used, manipulated or coerced - it's a completely different way of thinking about our interaction with the horse.  I've been on the path to get where I'm going for about 10 years now - I may be a slow learner - my horses would say so! - and every step on the way has meant a valuable improvement in how I ride and interact with my horses.  What I'm trying to say is that we don't have to be experts or perfect to benefit from engaging with this and undertaking the journey - even beginning riders or those beginning to try to ride this way - maybe especially these people - can get a lot out of starting down this path.

Now I'm a long way from being proficient at any of this, but I'm learning and my horses are teaching me.  This mental connection I'm trying to develop with my horses is the essence of softness - the horse being continuously available to move in any direction with balance and grace - and it comes and goes between me and my horses - the connection is there and then it fades out and then it comes back, but that's what I'm looking for now that I know what it is and how it feels.

There will be a post soon about the important challenges Mark Rashid set me at the last clinic in June - to ride all my horses the same and to develop my own style . . .

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