Reciprocity: A Softer Ask, a Softer Bend

WM Clara ShoulderI overheard some riders complaining like old campaigners. Asking a horse for bend sounded like the Hundred YearsWar. 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.

37 thoughts on “Reciprocity: A Softer Ask, a Softer Bend

  1. Thérèse Cartier

    I definately love the way you think and the words you use always take us in a soft place, “your legs follow the swing of his barrel as light as bird’s wings”, could not be softer… Apprehension is my Nemesis as I am about to mount my poney again after 14 months of down time for me and 6 months for him. Alhtough he’s been trained by older kids for the last 2 months, being a very reactive horse, I am apprehensive of my first mount and hvaing legs like bird’s wing will be a test of the trust and respect build during all the time past together healing our mutual wounds. It’s there, I know; last week, as I was drinking from the garder hose, he gently put his mought next to mine and start dinking with me. That’s trust or thirst, nevertheless, what a moment of pure and profound joy he gave me! I will bring this immage in the arena with me, ralaxed and forward! Thanks again Anna, your the best.
    Thérèse

    1. I understand your situation, Thérèse. It’s a precious and important time. Keep breathing and go slow. I’m sending my best peaceful thoughts to both of you… love him drinking with you! Bon Chance!

  2. JKS

    This speaks to me so, so much right now. For most of his 23 years, my Handsome wasn’t asked to flex, or bend, or collect. Then he got me, and he’s now a French Classical Dressage horse. He didn’t appreciate the change of discipline too much at first but he was willing to try it, and being the smart guy he is, figured out pretty quickly that all the annoying sideways crap I was asking him to do was actually making him feel pretty good overall. Now, after a year of hard work, he’s suppled to the point where I can actually get a fairly decent shoulder-in out of him. And then, back to basics, because every step up finds us another thing his body won’t allow him to do (yet). So it’s longer warmups, and more time in-hand before we even mount, targeting the weak and stiff spots in his old body. Every moment spent on basics improves us both, and makes us better partners. The calendar says he’s getting older, but his body says he’s feeling younger.

    1. What a great comment, and most of all, good for Handsome. Good dressage work makes an older horse stronger and more supple. Love him seeing the high side of “all the annoying sideways crap,” and most of all, love him feeling younger! Good job.

      1. JKS

        I know I’ve found the sticky spot when he swishes his tail so hard he hits me in the back of the head with it. He’s an excellent communicator. 🙂

  3. Loriann Dowell

    I started to feel this with Tia in the one lesson we had with you. Wish we were closer…. BTW, we’re retiring Lily (palomino mare) from the program. She deserves to be somewhere she likes her job because she takes it very seriously.

    1. I wish we were closer, too, for a bunch of reasons. And you’ll find it again with Tia. Bless Lily, she has stayed in my mind. She is such an incredible horse and I wish her the best on her way. I agree, she is a serious mare and it’s a hard job she does. I appreciate that more and more. Give everyone a scratch for me, humans and horses alike.

  4. Thank you Anna. I appreciate your skill of instilling the rhythm into your writing. I’m saving this article to read when I can’t sleep…I’m already looking forward to silencing my mind and the many dreams of such a rhythmic and peaceful connection. Where you go in the mind, you’ll go in the body. Thank you.

  5. Tysons Corners Retreat & Wellness Center

    Lol Oops. Sorry, meant to forward that. 🙂 Great blog! Love it! Thank you for being willing to put your words out there.

    Joanna Tyson Dunlap Director of Operations Tyson’s Corners Retreat and Wellness Center (512) 556-6702 http://www.tysonscorners.net

    >

  6. I felt my mind and my body relaxing while reading this. How peaceful it sounds to ride with the quiet rhythm of the horse’s body. You have such a way expressing exactly how I try to ride, but unfortunately don’t have the knowledge to accomplish. I don’t even know what the term “ride the buckle means”. Riding with my many limitations, the best I seem to be able to do is ride relaxed and try to be mentally present and always patient. Breathing and looking up and out help me when I get nervous. I love reading your posts, and appreciate them so much! I will try when I ride my boy tonight.

  7. LOVED this! It sounds so much like what I tell my mother, who is having a blast practicing this very subtle communication with her little Appy. Taking the time to be so mindful in your riding yields such amazing results – emotionally as well as physically! Will be sharing this!

    1. What fun for your mom and her Appy, to be “Dancing cheek to cheek”. I little different than Cole Porter envisioned, might even be better. Thanks, Lia.

  8. Absolutely gorgeously expressed Anna. Any more action than what you describe and I call it “over-riding” and over-riding physically disconnects us from our horse. What I had not thought of myself, was massaging the shoulders with the movement. I expect you’d have to be careful to do it with more thought than actual action?

    1. The massage is described as a “pulse” which in our vernacular is just a quick touch. I chose the word “massage” to differentiate from a kick, partly because it isn’t seen as aggressive, but nurturing. And the big deal; that stiffness in a horse is a literal restriction of movement, not a disobedience. Hope you are doing well, Jenny. Thanks.

  9. Robyn

    Such a timely topic! My lovely mare turns 18 in a few weeks. We are both stiff, our answer is usually brace & get the job done and over with (not a pretty picture). My hands and her past get in the way but slowly my trainer has been helping me to soften my hands, feel with my body & to be there soft and trusting for my little lady. Last week, loose reins, she had the sweetest bend, caught in a photograph, yes my heels were up but she could not have cared less, it felt good, it felt right! Your words inspire our journey. Thank you Anna.

    1. Wonderful, and I don’t care about your heels right now either! It sounds like you are working with a wonderful trainer, both human and equine. Good for you. And now photographic proof! Gotta love that! Thanks for your great comment, have a great summer in the saddle. I’ll trust your mare to take care of you.

  10. Rosemerry Preston

    Praise the Lord , this is good! Can’t wait wait to get on my horse and focus on this…such good advice from you always ….thank you!

  11. Suzanne in NC

    I know I am late to this blog – but have a question. I read this and tried to do this Saturday on my mare. I am 5 feet tall, very short legs and a pretty big quarter horse mare. My heels come to the large part of her barrel. When you say message with your legs – when you say “inside calf” I’m not sure that mine are in the same place as most peoples??? Is there anything short legs can do? I did have a struggle feeling the sway…slow learner here….

    I love your blog – thanks for all the mental exercise you have given me. My horse thanks you too.

    I have retired so my email has changed – but the first thing I did was make sure you had my new email…..

    1. Hi Suzanne. Oops! In your case, I think you might use your whole leg, but if this makes sense, use it NOT like you do when you ask her to go forward. Sally Swift used to say that the inside leg should work a bit like a post. Meaning still and strong…in rhythm and very quiet. That should work for you in this pulsing exercise. Does that make sense?

      Congrats on retiring and thanks for asking!

  12. Kerstin

    Can’t wait to try this out with ‘my’ 18 year old Canadian/Percheron cross mare when back from traveling. Sienna works at a therapeutic equestrian center. I have been half boarding her for 13 years. She carries many unbalanced riders. She loves dressage. I am sure she’ll appreciate this gentle present approach. Thanks for your blogs, Anna!

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