I need to make sure my idea of lightness is understood. I guess I can start by explaining what it is not.
It is not a horse so unwilling to touch a bit I am feeling all over the place because all that’s happening is my horse is ducking and dodging faster than Bugs Bunny getting shot at by Elmer Fudd.
It is not a horse so reactive to my leg he bolts to the side when I lean over to open a gate and accidentally touch him with my spur or calf.
It is not a horse so intent on anticipating my every move I can’t make a mistake and never get him to recover.
These are all scenarios I have witnessed with horses described as “light.”
The phrases soft mouthed, light in the bridle, sensitive, or, needs a light hand, all set off alarms in my head when I see them in an sale ad for a horse.
Why? Because all horses are sensitive, they can be dulled like the second day on a number two pencil or sharpened like the chopper blade in my Cuisinart (that sucker bites!) by the treatment they receive in the course of their life.
Soft mouthed? Again, all horses feel pain when their mouth is mistreated, how they respond to it depends on who the horse is and what’s been done.
Light in the bridle? I prefer my horses to be solid thank you very much.
Needs a light hand? They all do. Every single one of them.
So when this becomes a promotional tool I have to question how well the owner understands any of these things.
For me, lightness comes from the understanding between horse and rider. My part is to learn to ride. To really, really learn. This means putting in the hours on the horse’s back until I instinctively know which leg is where, mine and the horse’s at all times I need to know by feel when a horse is going to move with me or against me and be able to resolve a bad situation or at least ride it through and to reward a good one by a slight release or a brief moment of peace.
I need to feel my horse through my reins. I ride western, so this is a literal statement for my finished horses. I need to know my horse is with me through the slightest lift of my hand or squeeze of my fingers. My bit should be nothing more than a communicator and I want to know my horse is a solid presence on the bit, ready and feeling my hand. I know the contact is more direct in an English bridle, but in my experience the feeling was very similar. A good horse is there.
On my horses part I want a reasonable response to every cue. I want the horse to move where he should be when he should. I want his hip, shoulders, head and feet to be ready to respond as I need them to, almost without thought.
So do I have all these things? Hell, no! It’s my goal, what I strive for every day, every ride. Not with impatience or anger, just awareness. I ride with an imaginary ¼ inch of air between my horses and me. Every time I move out of my air buffer I try to understand why, then change it. I haven’t had a horse yet who didn’t understand, then appreciate my air buffer. They soon learn to try to maintain it too.
So how do I get this lightness?
I try to get it by combining the riding I did as a kid and the riding I do now. As a girl, I just rode. As long as the horse went where I pointed him I was good to go. Long before the idea of teaching him stuff crossed my feeble little brain I was learning how to hang on. My horse directed the action for the most part, I just hung on. By doing that I was learning to feel his movement, his reactions, his train of thought and to react to them. Eventually I could tell what side of the trail he would choose, when he would spook, when he would run and when he would refuse, just by the feel of him.
As I grew up and began to want more I start to want him to react to me, read me by feel, know what I wanted and how I wanted to respond.
Unfortunately, I’m not as good at showing a horse what I want as the horse was at showing me. So I have to break everything down.
Before I spin my horse he has to understand forward, hip control, shoulder control and to translate what I mean when I block one direction while asking for another. I am going to teach each step and know we both agree before I go on to the next.
Each time my horse and I figure out our goal my next step is to get the same response with less action from me. This is how we become light. If my horse only has a muddy concept of what I’m asking for then he pretty much can’t get lighter. I’ve created the muddiness myself and can’t expect him to see through it.
I have to be able to feel the cause of his resistance and understand it before I can get rid of it.
The longer I ride, the more subtle I’m becoming. By teaching my horses lightness through solid, clearly understood cues, they are pretty easy for anybody to ride.
Reaction and action can become one and the same thing if we just keep working at it.
It’s work well worth it. If I keep working at it I might just get it.