Essays of an Equestrian

Continuing on this training sequence I’ll next discuss another exercise which is also most valuable. It was also taught to me by the same Master.

I’d like to first pause to mention something. Despite my horse having once been a racehorse when it came to riding he was “forward” challenged. When unsure of himself, or unhappy with a given situation he tends to shut down. I’m pretty sure he did this as a racehorse as well and I imagine that despite how many times they’d flail a racing bat on him, he’d would just go slower and slower.

So again I had to learn technique since I was precluded from using force. Additionally, at that time I had an instructor who insisted that I not wear spurs as I had developed this horrid habit of raising my heels way too high, and placing my leg way to back in order to engage the spur. It became too much of a crutch.

I had to learn to switch from crutch, to crotch as it were. Well perhaps seat is a lot more accurate. It was not easy to make this transition and it frustrated me. It took years before it became muscle memory and habit. And to this day, I do not wear spurs and these two exercises are why I am able to do that.

This exercise calls for changes within the gait, no matter which gait you are riding. Let’s start with the walk.

You’re walking your horse forward with good marching steps and a long and low neck. Slowly and gently you pick up the reins. You bring the horse to a working walk, still marching forward. Then you still yourself, your body’s subtle change of movement not as free flowing as it was before. The horse should then also shorten his stride. If done correctly the rhythm will be maintained.

It’s just the steps getting shorter, not the horse taking slower steps. Next, free up your body, have your mind think longer strides now and the horse’s stride should lengthen. When both you and the horse are in sync together doing this, continue on, but in circles and on both the long and short diagonal. Try doing it on a serpentine (large one where each loop brings you to the opposite side of the ring.)

Shorten the stride for the curve and lengthen again on the straight part. Lengthen and shorten strides again and again. See how light and subtle you can make your body. See if you can “think” it, and it happens. Now, let’s try trot.

You’ll begin in a nice forward working trot. You have a gentle contact and you’re still not worried about the head set. You are posting and you want to try and use your post to try and affect the length of the horse’s stride. To go longer you post bigger, moving your pelvis more to the pommel of the saddle. The rhythm is still maintained.

You’re not posting faster, you are posting longer. The arc your hips make is longer. If you need more forward, put more emphasis on the “down” of your post by making it heavier. Horsey should then engage another gear. You can feel it, and it’s awesome when you do.

(As an aside, back in the day when I’d flail my legs and try to use my seat I’d squeeze down and make a grunty noise. Once, with the instructor urging me forward in a rather loud voice, I squeezed so hard I dripped a piddle. When you’ve dripped a piddle, you are working way too hard!)

Now, we urge the horse to go shorter in his steps, yet maintain the same rhythm. We no longer post long, we post shorter, a bit more up and down as opposed to swinging towards the pommel. But not big up and down, low up and down. Longer, shorter, longer, shorter. Repetition makes you and your horse more in sync.

Rhythm and tempo must be maintained. Gee, I guess I need to define rhythm and tempo, don’t I? (Should have done that before!)

Tempo is the number of beats per minute. Rhythm is the regularity of those beats. Imagine a metronome (which incidently people do use when they ride): The tempo is the number of beats it ticks per minute and rhythm describes the period of time between each beat. Even rhythm means that there is the same amount of time between beats 1 and 2, 2 and 3, 3 and 4 and so on. You should also note that optimum tempo varies from horse to horse.

You should also do the exercise in a sitting trot. Personally, I find those far more fun. To go longer free your hips and imagine your hiney on a swing and you’re in the part of the swing where your legs are just about to go forward. It’s like sitting heavier, but down and forward. Often you see riders who exagerate this part too much and who seem to be leaning back. That’s too much and incorrect.

Think subtle.

As you do these exercises try and think of it as playing. You’re playing with your horse to see how subtle your aids can be and still get the reaction you want. Close your eyes if it’s safe to and you’re comfortable doing that. Just feel. Don’t complicate it and overthink it. Just do.

The same holds true for canter. Sit heavier for a slower canter. Be stiller. Let go of your hips more for a larger canter. Concentrate on just feeling.

As you do these exercises, slowly increasing the difficulty by coming off the rail, remember that it’s play. It’s a two way communication between you and your horse. Experiment. “If I do this, then you’ll apparently do that!”

You may end up practicing this for months. It’s quite alright. It’s the basis of dressage. It becomes part of your toolbox. Again, don’t worry about head set. The reason is twofold: first, you are doing an experiment to see how altering your body alters your horse’s body. You have to learn this and the best way is to play, without the pressure to be perfect at first. Secondly, when the horse is going naturally forward, and your position is correct, his neck and head should fall into their proper place and may only need an adjustment by a slight playing with a rein or two. Again there shouldn’t be a change in tempo or rhythm, just a change in the length of the stride.

When I started this exercise I didn’t have a metronome. So I’d sing. At first out loud, but then I had to chill it to brain. The reason was that the song that I picked which fit my particular horses tempo was “The Stroke” by Billy Squier, specifically the “stroke me stroke me, stroke, stroke” part which just didn’t seem fitting in dressage circles.
Please don’t focus on how you look. Focus instead on feel. How does it feel? You can feel it when your horse is rocking the gait because his back will come up and he’ll flow.

My goal is to get this horse as tuned to me as my last horse was. I rode in many a western equitation class and with my old horse all I had to do was to “think” a gait and it would be there. That’s what I want with from my current horse too. I just need to ride well enough first. If I get it right, he will be there because he wants to be there.

Be happy when you do any exercise and ride in lightness. Be in a good mood and ride with the idea that you actually LIKE your horse and that you and he can do this. Pat him often and if he’s a pansy puss like mine who gets off on sweet talk too, shower him with that. Be generous with your praise. It means a lot to them, it really does.

And remember, it’s baby steps.

The quotes on the bottom of this page should now be reread again, and read often.

Ride well my friends.

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The good will of the horse is like the scent of a rose. Once it is gone, it is gone forever.