I've spent most of the month of October considering the two challenges of riding all my horses the same, and developing my own style. This requires that I know what I want from my horses - how I want them to feel and respond, which results in how they look under saddle. I've ridden a lot in October, and I'm beginning to get a handle on this, and my horses are responding accordingly. (This post, and the others in this series, have been added to a new sidebar: Where We Are, and Where We're Going.)
Here's a practical example of where I'm going with this - the three rides I had today on Dawn, Red and Pie. Each horse is different, and we're working on slightly different things - tasks - in our rides, but it's really beginning to come down to the same thing with every horse in terms of the fundamentals - the tasks are just to-dos on top of the foundation that needs to be there. My horses are very good teachers - where we struggle - where there's an absence of feel between the horse and me - this is usually an area where I'm not sticking to the requirements for how I need to ride for the feel to be there on my end. If I offer the feel, the horses meet my challenge with astounding honesty and willingness.
My morning started with Dawn. It was 37F, with a howling wind and wind chills in the upper 20s, and the arena doors were wide open. Dawn had been wearing a lightweight blanket for turnout, but that came off for our ride. There was another horse in the ring, who was all amped up and rushing and pulling and radiating tension. Dawn was very alert, but paying attention to me as we led into the arena.
We just went about our business. I mounted up - Dawn stood on a loose rein. We did our walk warmup on a loose rein, and then moved up to trot, starting with very light contact on the reins. After a minute or two, we added some loose rein stretching down work to our trotting. Dawn was all business, relaxed but also forward. I need to work more on riding the hind legs with her - when I don't she tends to cut the corners. We also did some canter work - just plain beautiful - and then went back to our relaxed, forward trotting. I told Dawn what a wonderful mare she was.
In the afternoon I rode both Red and Pie and they were both fabulous as well, and both were lavishly praised. It was still very cold and windy. Red and I had a session with more trotting than we've done. He starts out a little stiff - I think we're dealing with some hock arthritis - but improves as he goes, until he gets tired. We did some very nice trot work - forward and engaged, with good softness. With him I need to work on not trapping him between my leg and hand, or moving my body, and riding his hind legs through feel instead - if I use too much leg he fusses and either slightly resists going forward or gives me a transition that is too big. If I use too much hand, he tends to go behind the bit. He's great at teaching me "just right". He's not as relaxed as Dawn in his work yet, and I need to focus more and relax more at the same time to give him this feel.
Pie was next. The ring was very crowded, and the big overhead doors to the barn aisles were going up and down as people came and went - none of my horses have any problem with this, although in Pie's and Red's case they've only just "met" the doors. Pie was attentive and forward and dealt with all the commotion and horses without batting an eye. He did some great trot work, including bending much better into the corners - I was paying attention to riding the hind legs instead of his head - and we finished with some lovely leg yield at trot back and forth through a line of cones down the center of the arena. His softness was excellent - it's really there now at the walk and trot, canter is still a work in process although he's been improving very rapidly.
So with that summary, and those examples of what we're working on, here's the outline of what I want from my horses and what I'm doing to get it - what I have to offer them to get them to offer me back what I want.
Relaxation and forward. Getting those two things, together, both working, is a wonderful thing. But what do those words mean? Relaxation: softness of the whole horse from jaw to tail, and down through the legs, where the core is engaged and the top line relaxed. But even more importantly, relaxation, and softness, are also mental - unperturbed concentration on the task at hand: calm in the midst of action - this comes from the inside of the horse. Forward comes from the hind end of the horse - horses are rear wheel drive. From forward comes engagement and quality of gaits, and this all feeds back into the horse being soft and relaxed. If you have these, you have everything. It's a lot more than mechnics, though - there's a specific feel of the whole horse as I ride that goes with all that, and I have a clear idea of what that feel is - we have it more and more often, the three of them and I.
What do I have to offer my horses, all of them, to get this consistency from them? I have to offer my own mental and physical relaxation and softness, and focus, so they can join me there. I have to ride the hind legs, by being part of the horse, and "in" the horse - riding from the inside of the horse, not just applying aids to the outside of the horse. There are some mechanics involved in all of this - a soft, following contact with zero pressure - just a live contact with the horse's mouth - that's a softness the horse can meet. I often ride with only the weight of the reins. Keeping my posture and body position neutral so I don't interfere with the motion. A soft, following seat. Going with the horse, and not blocking or bracing. Maintaining my focus and attention, and centered calmness. Feeling of the horse, and offering a feel back to the horse - it's a circle.
I know exactly the feel I want from my horses, and every day we get closer to being there, with the whole package. It starts with me, and my horses are teaching me what to do, every day and every ride.