We often talk about harmonizing with the horse. In fact, one of the most desired goals of riding is for the horse and rider to "be one" in movement, rider and horse traveling as if with one mind and body. The communication is so seamless that it appears that the horse is a mind reader and the rider simply sits there and does nothing.
What we rarely discuss is how we get to that level of connection. And one of the most overlooked aspects of harmonization comes not from the horse becoming one with the rider, but within the rider herself.
A Physical Language
Horses communicate almost entirely through physical means. Watch a herd for a little while and you will see herd members send signals through their body language. One horse steps into a horse's physical space to tell him to move over. Another horse swings his head in a rotating movement to indicate his excitement. The horse that lowers his head in the proximity of another demonstrates his trust. The "keeper of the herd" (the one who watches out for everyone) lifts his tail, raises his head straight in the air with flared nostrils and lets out an electrifying snort that warns the others of impending danger.
And so in order to be effective riders, we must learn to communicate to the horse through physical means.
In our initial riding education, we are taught how to use our various aids in isolation from each other. There is a good reason for that. During the first several years of riding, your body must learn to coordinate itself in a way that it has never had to otherwise. Just staying in movement with a horse requires so many micro-adjustments in the body that it takes quite a lot of energy and attention to learn to begin to follow the horse.
By teaching single aids, your instructor helps you break down the control that is required to get your body to communicate effectively with the horse. Move your inside hand this way. Shift your outside seatbone that way. Inside leg means this. Outside leg means that. Upper body can control the horse's balance. And so it goes on and on.
The problem occurs when the rider continues using single aids long after her body has developed the enough coordination. At some point, we have to move away from separating our aids and becoming more "holistic" with our messages.
Single aids send single messages in a disjointed manner. One aid in and of itself can be compared to a word in a sentence. So if your hands are saying one thing, your leg another and your seat still something else, you can imagine the resulting communication that the horse feels: confusion!
A word can communicate one aspect of a thought, but a sentence puts it all together into a concept. And so it is with the aids.
Once your body can coordinate all the aids, you convey a much more complete, unified idea to the horse. (Click here to tweet that if you agree.)
Two Steps to Avoid Confusing Aids
United. Attached. Together. Coherent.
These are all words that describe how it feels when your whole body is expressing one complete thought to the horse.
It seems like it takes years for you to become efficient enough to have those body parts move together rather than one at a time. But it does happen.
1. Start With the Seat
Everything starts with the seat. So if you want to turn right, sit on the inside seat bone and turn your entire torso in the direction of the turn. If you want to halt, start the half-halts at the seat. If you want to do a flying change, change seat bones from right to left.
You get the picture. Don't start with the hands, head or legs. Start with the seat!
The rest of the aids follow the seat and must work in conjunction with it. ALL of them should be in alignment with what the seat has initiated. If you are turning right, turn your whole body, from the seat, to the right. The head, hands and legs should point in the direction of the turn. The reins will automatically fall into place and the legs will position accurately on their own, simply because of the positioning of the body.
That's it, really! If you can begin everything at the seat, and support the seat with the rest of your aids, you will send one message.
When to Separate the Aids
There are times when you need to pinpoint the use of one particular aid. Let's say that you notice that your horse is drifting to the outside of the circle, "bulging" through his outside shoulder. You can probably change just one aspect of your aids to bring him back into straightness. In this case, an effective half-halt on the outside rein might do the trick.
But the key is that this aid is a correction and is quickly applied and released as soon as possible. It simply redirects the horse.
The rest of your aids should continue to be positioned into the correct bend of the circle.
The moment you have the desired response, you should go right back to being "as one" in your aids - all asking for a bend toward the inside of the circle.
So, the next time you feel your aids giving separate signals to the horse, try to unify through your own body and see what you horse thinks of it. If he strides deeper, swings better through the back, snorts and/or softens through the body, you know you are on the right track.
If you feel somehow more cohesive yourself, you know that you are on your way to riding with better clarity.
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What do you think about riding "as a whole"? Let us know in the comments below.
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9 Amazing Effects From Lifting the Horse's Back While Riding: What exactly is the result of a lifted back? What does it look and feel like?
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