“So there’s feel and timing and when that feel and timing is right you can’t imagine how effective it is to the animal. And there’s a time when it will work. And there’s a time when you’re a little too late, or you’re too early. It’s the preparation. Being ready to fix things up.”
Tom Dorrance was once asked what elements were needed to become a good horseman. He replied “feel, timing, and balance” and says in his book “True Unity” that years later he still hadn’t been able to expand on those words. The are, in essence, the most important elements in horsemanship, and for me, in life!
Of course each of those words is loaded with meaning, changing its implications from moment to moment, and from person to person. And obviously, they are easier said than done! I have known about these three words for years, and have been striving and struggling, sometimes more gracefully than others to achieve them.
In learning piaffe and passage, I have been given an old PRE stallion in his late 20’s. Now, I have always told my students the horse knows if you know or if you don’t, and usually it is the rider’s lack of finesse or timing that causes the horse to fumble. In this case the problem was me, as this old stallion continually gave me the “middle hoof”. I could not for the life of me bring life up in this old smarty pants, and I huffed and puffed like a fool arund the arena, feeling like I was disemboweling him with my spur, while my instructor shouted “more leg! Use your leg!” at me. I could not possibly imagine how I could use MORE LEG. I was all leg’ed out, and I am in fairly good physical shape. When I finally did get a nice canter transition, I felt like I had to maintain the canter at any expense because I would never get it back! This old guy was having a good laugh at my expense, and I knew it, but the harder I tried, the worse it was. In piaffe and passage, without impulsion, without LIFE, there is no collection, and without collection and life in a harmonious blend, there is absolutely positively no piaffe or passage. Just flat, horrible, crap. At the end of the lesson I limped woefully back to the barn while the stallion went back to have a good chuckle with his buddies.
I went home and agonized about it. I rewatched the lessons in my mind, read about it, thought about it, talked to friends about it, I dreamed about it at night. I just couldn’t do it. On other horses I had done beautiful passage and piaffe in the past few weeks, but this guy was in it to win it. This poor instructor so far had only seen me ride like a pile of junk, and I was determined to do better, but each day I did worse.
I was trying too hard, and growing more tense. I knew I had to change something. I knew the aids, I knew I needed life, and I would get piaffe a few steps and think here it is , here it is! …just keep it..one more second… but I would lose it going forward into passage. Every time! My instructor would say words like “dancing and rythm” but to me it was all I could do to keep this guy from falling over dead.
Then I was struck with a truth I had known all along! The aids in RHYTHM, not just horrible flopping around like I was doing. All along I had been thinking I had to have life before rhythm, but for him it seemed important to have rhythm before life. He would not tolerate my sub-par feel and so had chosen to tune me out completely. It was all about feel – feeling the horse with my whole body, relaxed like I were part of him so we could dance together, not fighting against him – the balance between maintaining the energy in place, and keeping a soft connection without shutting the energy down – and Timing – or rhythm in this case. The timing of the aids in the rhythm of the dance. I set forth after many a cup of coffee the next day to try and try again with new determination, a more relaxed attitude.
I could not believe the different attitude this old stallion was giving me. He was alert and happy, his terrible and choppy trot which I was commanded to sit the duration of the lesson became smooth and fluid, canter transitions were a dream and he was alive and happy! So when it came time to piaffe and passage at the end of the lesson we danced away together, and finally I felt the rhythm.
How wonderful it is to be in the “dance” with the horse, and how beautiful it feels to both the horse and the rider. Those fading little moments where everything is just right makes the journey so much more worth it!
I know there will be more bumpy moments for me in the future, but I hope from this experience I have stored in my physical memory somewhere how good it feels to achieve feel, timing, and balance, even if just for a little while…