I overheard some riders complaining like old campaigners. Asking a horse for bend sounded like the Hundred Years‘ War. They weren’t mean, just grumbling that it was hard to make the horse do what they wanted. Their voices heavy with dread, I had a feeling that their horses probably weren’t wild about them either. Bottom line: If it all feels like forced work it’s hard for anyone to be enthusiastic.
I’m almost superstitious about the power of words; our thoughts effortlessly take hold in this world and we should pick them carefully. I think these riders had good intentions and loved their horses. They just communicated it in a dowdy, Church Lady sort of way.
Of course riding well is a challenge. It’s addictive and frustrating and sometimes counter-intuitive. It involves an outlandish level of control of own our body, which is easy to confuse for trying to control the horse’s body.
Then some loud-mouthed trainer (me) says, “Breathe, let it be simple.” Like there was even one easy thing about simple.
We’re humans; we think too much and use our senses too little. Then if we do manage a good moment, we want fifty more right now. Our enthusiasm that makes us greedy so in the next heartbeat, we’re trying way too hard.
Are we fighting their resistance or our own?
Here is the first thing to know about stiffness in horses: It’s real. They are literally tight, usually to the right because the muscles on the left side of his body are contracted. In other words, even when walking straight, the horse has a slight left bend. Simply using your rein to pull him his head to the right will result in resistance for a very good reason–physical discomfort.
Stiffness is honest. He isn’t being belligerent or disobedient; it isn’t his diabolical scheme to make you crazy. While we’re at it, dogs don’t fart on purpose either. Get over yourself; it’s a much lighter ride without the ego. Consider that resistant side of your horse as natural as being right-handed. Now you can begin the help him become ambidextrous. The other word for that is balanced.
Start your ride with a warm-up on a long rein. It takes twenty minutes for his synovial fluid to warm his joints and if you put him to work before he’s physically ready, you won’t get his best work. But the way, your own synovial fluid doesn’t warm any quicker.
How to ask a horse for bend:
Step one: Forget your horse has a head. Then forget you have an inside hand. Bend refers to a curve the length of his body, not just his neck, and as inviting as it may seem, it’s never cued by pulling on a rein. Instead feel his shoulders… right there between your knees. Begin riding to his soft side, usually the left direction. Notice that as he walks forward, your legs follow the swing of his barrel as light as bird’s wings. As you glance down to your hands, you see his withers right between your hands, as he walks straight. Your movements mirror your horse’s, not bigger or smaller. Think oneness.
Step two: Still on a long rein, walk a large circle by turning your waist and letting your inside calf pulse as your horse’s barrel swings to the outside. So it’s like your inside leg emphasizes the swing out, in the attitude of a leg yield: Inside leg to outside rein. Be tiny; understate all your movements. Match the rhythm of his walk and peacefully visualize his withers gliding toward your outside hand. Continue this pulse quietly and wait for a response.
Now is a good time to NOT grab the rein. Feel your inside leg slowly warm your horse’s shoulder like a gentle massage, and in a few more strides, he might swing more, or blow, or his stride will get longer. Hopefully his neck will stretch out a bit as his spine and ribs release. Say Good Boy and reward him generously. Let him know he’s on the right track even if it isn’t perfect. Build his confidence to try again. And yes, let it be simple. You’re massaging him into a bend without pulling, and all the while, his stride is big and loose. This is exactly what you want.
Step three: Reverse direction at the walk, so now you are going his stiff direction, usually to the right. The reins are still long and hinting at resistance. It looks like a counter-bend. Ignore it; it’s just his natural position to start. He might even be anticipating being pulled on, meaning stiff from memory. Lucky for you that you have forgotten his head and your inside hand. Instead, feel the swinging rhythm with your new inside leg. Pulse light and sweet, in rhythm with his stride, and expect nothing. Let the circle be imperfect in the beginning and know that his resistance is honest. Slowly warm his shoulder like you did the other direction, but be doubly patient with his physical reality this way. Slowly his withers will melt toward your outside hand. Let him release it, give him time to experience it. Those contracted muscles are not going to melt in a day. Be patient, and let the bend develop. The moment when your horse feels that warm balance and supple shoulder is the moment you start to look less like the Church Lady. Call it trust.
Become familiar with the notion of sending your horse’s withers to the outside on curves. It’s a different way of stilling our over-controlling brains by being more aware of the feel of the ride. As the warm-up continues, change direction frequently; so much so that you can’t quite remember which side was stiff in the first place. Fluid turns, relaxed and forward.
There’s a sweet and somewhat selfish reward that comes from training this release method. On cold, stiff days, you can give him the time and rhythm to loosen his back and open his heart to the dance. On the days when you are stiff with worry or fear or just mental buzz, he can give you relief by welcoming you to the present moment. With each stride, he’ll gently massage the stiffness out of your spine by gently rocking you back and forth to softness.
Reciprocity is the true name of all horses and it’s a sweet place, riding on the kind side.
Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.