As you know, Emily and I have started all over this year. We have begun again from scratch, working towards a better, more relaxed relationship. Now, as we have reached the first stages of riding again, I have to learn to behave in a completely different way when I am in the saddle.
In our journey, we have steered away from “mainstream horsemanship” and towards a natural communication based on mutual responsibilities and trust. We have taught Emily to think for herself and look for solutions whenever she is unsure of what to do. And it is only logical we keep on doing that, even when we climb in the saddle.
So how do you give a horse her responsibility while riding her? It’s very simple, actually. You do nothing.
Sounds easy? Wait until you have tried it. It is a lot harder than you might think to hand over control. Well, you don’t really relinquish all control, of course. But not guiding every step and controlling every small movement, it does feel strange for someone who is schooled in a “classical” way. (Or maybe for other people too, I’m not sure.)
Okay, so what we actually do is that we give Emily the sign to make her go forward in an easy walk. As soon as she responds, we release the pressure and return to being neutral, a passenger. The reins of the halter hang loosely and the one riding adopts a relaxed pose, going along with her movements. Only when there is the need to change something does the rider come into action. That could be when we want Emily to change to a different gait, make a turn or something else we might need to make clear to her. And even then, we try to keep the aids as simple as possible. If we can only use one rein, we don’t pick up the other, if we can handle it purely with our legs, we don’t involve our hands, etcetera.
Keeping up with this kind of riding makes it very easy for Emily to understand what we want. There is only a single aid at a time, which she should be able to process. If not, we grant her a bit more time or ask it in a different way. But at least there are no confusing counteracting signs and no more signals than she can handle.
For me, it has been, and still is, very hard to make the transition to riding like this. For almost fifteen years, I have been so used to softly keeping contact with the mouth through the reins, aiding every turn with both hands ánd both legs and basically acting as if I had to manage a lot to make the horse move where I wanted it to go.
It gave me a sense of security, of control, to feel the reins and know that I could always rely on those to steer me away from danger or slow down. In reality, it just causes the horse a lot of confusion through all the many small stimuli it gets and probably makes it less likely to react in case of emergency.
This idea of the reins being equal to security has nested itself so deeply in my mind and reflexes, that I find it very hard to give them up. Especially with Emily, whom I know can get tense and ready to run very quickly. Now, when I ride Emily, I have to really focus on not doing anything. Not giving sneaky aids with my legs, not shortening the reins every time she moves her head, not trying to correct every sidestep immediately.
But while I am still struggling a bit, Emily is doing great under this new philosophy. No longer does she bottle up stress and anxiety, but shows it immediately so that we can help her get rid of it right away too. She also seems much more confident walking around, instead of seeking constant confirmation. When she knows her responsibility, she will carry out that task until she gets told otherwise. It all makes her much more relaxed (though not yet completely okay with all things riding) and much happier.
And to be honest, have to accept being a passenger really is a good exercise in mindfulness. It requires a distinct amount of zen-ness which I could use in other parts of my life too.
So Emily and I will definitely keep on training and getting the hang of this new riding, and we will keep you posted.
Have a great week!