Essays of an Equestrian

I received a comment from a reader called Katerina who asked me the following;

“Can you please write a bit more about how did you use the energy to move him and what did you mean by this ? I’ve hear about something like that from Nino Oliviera like ridding your horse with your mind only but haven’t been able to find info on it.”

Well Katerina that’s a great question and as such I decided to post it here so more folks can see it. So let me give it a shot! This is how I, an amateur, interpret it.

In the beginning my horse didn’t want to react to my leg. So much so that I’d put on a pair of spurs. This led to a terrible habit of lifting my heels to get forward and brought me totally out of proper alignment. You might consider it a quick fix, but it was not a good start to a solid riding foundation. Plus it would rub the hair in that area and make it all scruffly looking.

I began riding with an instructor whom I found going to the Zettl clinics. The first thing she wisely did was rip the spurs off of me. They haven’t been back since. She then had the hard task of re-educating my muscle memory to use my leg and my seat to send my horse forward without the habit of lifting the heels. It took literally years. (Another thing that makes me feel stupid!)

Both she and Herr Zettl made me do thousands of exercises utilizing transitions. These came in a few forms, some of which I’ve described on previous postings. If my horse did not react to a forward cue of my leg I had to learn how to back it up. The term my instructor used was “whisper – shout – whisper”. It works like this: You give the leg aid to go forward. Horse doesn’t respond at all or doesn’t respond the degree you want him to. You tap with the whip. He goes forward. You give leg again, he should go forward. If not, or not to the degree you wish you tap again. Sometimes one tap isn’t sufficient. Then it’s tap tap tap or whatever is required.

When it comes to the tapping of the whip it is as light as you can be and still get the job done. You start with the softest of taps that you can.

My horse is one that tapping on the butt might be buck inducing. For this issue Herr Zettl told me it was alright to tap on the shoulder to avoid the buck.

Okay, so that’s the basic part.

Now you go out on the rail. You are riding a nice forward walk. You squeeze just a little for trot and it should be there. Herr Zettl would always tell me “When you ask for trot it must be there”. You don’t ride the trot with a few small weak steps and then warm up to a better trot from there. The trot must be there and affirmative from the first step.

Now you’re trotting and you sit, using your seat and legs to bring the horse forward back down into a walk. I know that sounds counterintuitive but hey, that’s just a nuance of dressage. You ride him forward into the walk. That means not taking rein. You are slowing your body but still giving the leg, and room to go forward with the hand. Not throwing the contact away, but just giving a teenie tiny little bit.

You then begin walk trot transitions. You may have to use stronger aids in the beginning, but after a few minutes of this the horses really do catch on and the aids will get lighter and lighter. My instructor would have me do an exercise called 10 – 4.

Ten steps of walk then four strides of trot. You had to pay attention because in the beginning, you might have to cue for the trot during step 7 of the walk in order to nail the trot transition precisely after step ten of the walk. As you do a bunch of transitions you might have to change your cueing to step 8 of the walk. Then step 9.

You must ride so that you do PRECISELY ten steps of walk, four of trot – no more, and no less. The same holds true in the downward transition (which again you are moving forward to the downward transition by stilling your seat, but giving room to go forward a teenie tiny bit with the hand and a forward cue with your legs.)

If you try this exercise for twenty minutes you will be mentally exhausted. It is so incredibly hard for a rider to keep the attention span for that long, especially if others are in the ring riding with you. At my best I can do thirty minutes, and by then I just don’t want to ride dressage any more LOL.

As you progress from minute one to minute ten to minute fifteen you will note how responsive your horse will get. You then up the challenge by seeing how subtle your cues can be to still be effective.

With enough correct practice you can get to a point that all you have to do is think it. When you “think” it, there are teenie tiny reactions in your muscles that your horse picks up on and will react to. It’s all a matter of getting him to realize that reacting to that teenie tiny muscle movement is the reaction you want from him.

In addition to 10-4 there are other exercises. Herr Zettl would also have me do a lot of these as well. I walk my horse and then cue for trot, and the very second he moves forward for trot I cue for walk again.

We’d also do changes within the gait. I’d ride a working trot and then would shorten my steps, then go longer, then shorter….. longer….. shorter. It was desirable to keep the tempo and rhythm. See how long you can do this one too.

The same can be true for work at canter doing canter/trot/canter transitions or canter lengthenings and shortenings.

Canter/walk transitions are my favorites. On a truly happy note, they are also the way you begin to train the changes.

Once I understood this progression of lessening of the aids I realized I had actually known it all along.

That’s exactly what you do in western riding classes where you use a long rein with little or no contact. When I rode western, my old quarter horse was so broke to death that all I had to do was ‘think” it and he’d do it. My current horse is not broke to death but if I keep on learning and moving forward myself, we’ll get there.

I hope I’ve answered your question to your satisfaction. If not, please let me know.


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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.