I remember a few years ago I was riding my mare in a Buster McLaury problem solving clinic. She was all jazzed up, prancing around and chewing the bit, eyes wide and twitchy. We were working on moving the hindquarters, then bringing the front quarters across. Dee and I had been doing this move for hours and it seemed all I had accomplished was to make her more hot and more irritated. Buster rode along beside me and asked how I was doing and wondered if the bending had helped her relax some. I said no, actually, she seems worse!
“Hmm.” He said. That’s Buster’s way. That’s the polite way of saying “let me think for a second while I try to word out what you’re doing to upset your horse.” Finally he said, “Why don’t you try less?”
I was a little incredulous. I had hardly been touching her at all. In fact, I felt like I had my legs inches off her sides for fear of her really going through the roof. I was trying to ask her to move her hind end over a step without it flying around at mach speed and with the forehand heavy, but it seemed I could hardly shift my weight without upsetting her. Actually, come to think of it, Buck Brannaman told me in a clinic once that it looked like I was trying to pop a wheelie on my horse.
So I told him, “I’m not doing anything!”
“Well, do less. Just think it. Don’t move, just think it and wait.”
I kind of stared for a second at him. Sort of wondering why I hadn’t thought of that in the first place? But I sat there, and thought about her moving her left hind a step up under her and to the right. She sat still for a moment, and finally, a big exhale, and a clean step to her right with the desired leg. She seemed grateful that I finally stopped yelling at her, and lowered her head and neck down like she’d been waiting for that all along. I was amazed, and embarrassed I hadn’t caught onto that earlier.
That was an amazing lesson for me, and I’d love to say I learned a beautiful lesson and now every horse in the world and I are in harmony and surrounded by butterflies, but unfortunately, my journey has not been quite so linear.
It happened again. This summer I rode my little Morgan gelding Geronimo in a Brent Graef clinic. He is so named for his wild eyes and strong will, intelligence and mysterious behavior. We were working on a very simple excercise: weave through the cones and barrels. I was struck with how *$%*#$#* hard it was to turn around those little barrels, and this horse is athletic to beat the band….So after a while I started to get frustrated with myself. It felt so heavy, so terrible, just trying to turn a little left and a little right. What on earth could I be missing??? I was opening my inside leg, opening my leading rein, and it felt like every time his entire body was going the opposite way except for his jaw, which was being pried around by my rein. Terrible. Not what I was after at all, but here we were.
With Brent’s help, I discovered what I was after. Before turning, while still going straight on toward the obstacle, I’d initiate the turn as I was doing by turning through my hips and shoulders, but the kicker was to shift my tail bone over just as the inside hind leg was stepping up. So if I wanted to turn right, I’d shift my tail bone to the left as his right hind was stepping forward. This helped him set his hips under him and lighten his shoulders for the turn, all without my having to bump him behind the cinch with my right leg or haul on the right rein. He was light, relaxed, and loose through his body whereas before he had been tight, unflexible, and heavy.
Since the clinic, I have been pondering and thinking and wondering…do I really need that leg? Do I really need that rein? Am I relying on my hands to accomplish things? I thought I had light horses, but imagine a really light horse. One that you could think about it, and have it done. Or to move your rib cage and have the horse shift beneath you. That is what I am after, and I wonder how many times I’ve firmed up on a horse who was doing its best to accomplish what I was asking, but unable to because my body was blocking him somehow. In each of these situations I’ve described here, I was in the horse’s way, and once I got out of the horse’s way, they were both able to move smoothly and with relaxation.
So do you really want a light horse? It takes tons of self discipline, thought, and self awareness. Do you know where your hip flexors are and can you move your ribcage independently of the rest of your body? Are you willing to put in the time to make a lighter horse by being a better, more aware rider?
I owe more apologies than I can count to all the horses I’ve firmed up on without wondering if it wasn’t something I was doing that interfered first. The more I learn the more I find that I need to learn more, and the more I take time to think about things, rather than just react.
Leslie Desmond told me when I rode with her this past winter, “horsemanship is a thinking person’s game.” I always knew that to be true, but as time goes on it gets “more” true. I am grateful to my teachers and my horses who bring me to such important realizations, and hope to be receptive enough always to recieve more further training from them.