Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Bearable Lightness of Being

There have been some interesting points brought up here and over on the Equine Mind Meld page, about lightness in our horses.

I'm talking about how they ride, not how much they weigh BTW. Or how much I weigh, either. For me lightness comes through the entire horse, through all of me, and joins into an instantaneous awareness and response to each other.

This is the goal I work towards, with every horse, on every ride.

My thoughts about lightness started back with my first horse Mort. He wasn't all that well trained, I didn't know what I was doing and he didn't feel obligated to tell me much. What we did have was time. Endless hours and years of experience together. I rode bareback most of the time and got tough enough to spend all day in the hills and not start to ache until the sun began to sink behind Pikes Peak.

We swam, we jumped, we ran, we walked (once in a while) and the togetherness, combined with our breakneck approach, combined to create a rhythm between us. One that kept me firmly anchored on his back and Mort able to tell the difference between a squeeze from my calf to make a turn and a grab from my legs to keep myself astride.

I certainly never thought about our relationship as one of lightness. If you ever tried to hang onto Mort in the spring when his blood was up you'd understand. It was a lot like water skiing behind a barge. There were plenty of waves to knock me over, enough power to about rip my arms out and absolutely no control of direction.

We still had lightness. He would always stand stock still while I lit a cigarette (please don't tell my mom). He would trot and lope with, what I swear was, just a thought from me. We could be flying through a field and I could guide him through rocks or trees with barely a shift o my weight. I could feel where he was going by a muscle twitch and tell what was coming by the flick of his ear. This, to me, is lightness.

As an adult I went and got all trainerly. I learned to expect a response to each action, I learned to create action, where my seat bones should be place, what parts of the horse separate parts of my body controlled.

I walked into a world where I could take my horsemanship and the horses I rode further than I had ever imagined possible.

I also became clunky and unsure of myself. I had to relearn timing, find a new feel, everything was new and awkward.

My horses eventually became loaded with tricks and buttons, but none of them had the instinctive lightness I had shared with Mort.

As the years went by and I became more technically advanced I kept going back to the feel of Mort.
Sonita, bless her non - conforming heart, and I eventually got there. It was through her I started to really think about training horses. Why was I doing it? What did I want for me and the horses I rode? I wanted to compete. I wanted knowledge. Most of all I wanted the lightness I felt with Mort in all aspects of riding. Not just once in a while, not at my horse's whim, but I wanted that near mind reading experience at all phases.

So, I started looking for it. I'm beginning to think I'm closing in on it.

I know developing extreme lightness takes time.

It takes practice and deep thinking.

It takes dissecting what we learn and truly understanding the purpose behind it. Then strategically using what works.

I'll be exploring this over the next few posts, I'm going deep on this one. After our story telling of course.


  1. Wow, I feel so blessed, your posts are coming so fast I can't seem to read and digest one before the next is posted. I'm slow.

    I used to have a Mort, but he was an OTTB. When we were in the "zone" doing a hunter course on him was like spreading butter. When he wasn't with me, it was like riding a tornado. After we retired from jumping he became my trail horse, riding the trails on him was like doing a moto cross course in a Ferrari. What a blast. How stupid was I? Still, he could read my mind, and sometimes on a nice day on the trails, I'd close my eyes, drop the reins, and feel like a centaur (there ya go Becky the fox).

    I'm looking for a similar feeling of lightness and togetherness with my gelding now, but my body feels a lot clutzier. I'm working on it, but I know I've gotta be at least half of the equation.

  2. I use to have a Mort, but he was a Morgan cross.... Everything you described was the same with us. I could not put a saddle on properly so I rode bareback for the first 3 years. I raced, jumped, swam, played tag, you name it and we did it without a saddle. I would wake up in my little pup tent with him hanging his head over top without halter or hobbles. He was ready for another day of fun. Just him, me and a back pack at the age of 14 and tons of wilderness in Northern Alberta. We had "ZONE". I am now 50+ and doubt that I will ever feel like that again but I am trying.

  3. Yeah it's frustrating that I haven't gotten there yet with my gelding. I can stop him with a shift of my weight but I suspect that's mostly because he just loooves to stop.

    My "Mort" and I had gotten to that point. Same thing: he was not the best trained but we had a thing. I do think it takes time together and I know I really haven't put enough time in the saddle.

    That and the clutzy stiff crooked body thing....

    Really looking forward to the next few posts here!

  4. If Mort appeared in the flesh on your door step today, what would you do with him?

  5. sheesh - I've known that for years...turn him into the cow horse he could have been.

  6. I love that feeling :) and I'm getting glimmers of it with my warmblood mare now, those moments where she is soft, light in the bridle and transitions with a breath. Magical :)

    I still have my mort, but as the years go by I realize that sassy little Arab mare knows more than I ever have her credit for... It was I who was untrained, and well, I thank god for her patience (well she wasn't all sunshine and butterflies, but she never killed me even when I pulled so hard her poor little mouth was bruised :(((( )

  7. I liked the flick of the ears part. My horse talks to me with his ears constantly. He always knows that I have decided it is time to canter, even when the thought has barely finished forming.

  8. I had that connection with the horse (Rusty)I owned and showed as a youth and into my teens. Same kind of thing that mugs and others have described. I could think it and he just knew what to do. I guess the reason that it is different from the lightness that I feel in a finished bridle horse is because while he was broke and we had that connection he wasn't really "trained". I did all the "training" and we competed at 4-H level gymkhana and equitation, trail etc and did pretty well. I knew nothing about lightness or engaging hind quarters, or lefting shoulders or, or ,or.... I am going to keep looking for a combination of what I had with my old horse Rusty and what I have felt in the finished bridle horses I have been fortunate to ride. Hopefully Mr. Semper will put up with my fumbling around and we will work it out.

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  10. I feel that the more I learn from instructors trainers, the clumsier I get.... Like my awareness of what I do gets in the way and my internal wires get crossed causing my body to get twisted. My guys is very patient with me, thank heavens.

  11. I’ve heard other speak of that almost mind-reading relationship, lightness, togetherness and that’s all that matters to, all I want. Even if I never get there it's the journey the possibilities that drive me.

    Another great post and one to chew on.

  12. I think you laid it out perfect, Mugs: could it be that when you're a kid and have a horse, the horse usually is the center of your world? And also, when you're a kid, the survival instincts haven't quite kicked in and you're willing to do just about anything?

    I think that's the huge difference between a kid and an adult (especially the poor adults- like me- who only started riding once they got their own job and could afford lessons). While a kid's horse might not be a perfectly trained horse, all of those hours spent together certainly count towards the telepathy.

    Which isn't to say an adult couldn't get there as well, but there are more things to get in the way (parental and financial obligations, doubts and second guessing, etc).

    I'm looking forward to your postings on the subject!

  13. Question -

    You are talking about lightness with the horse - how much is training and how much is more of a sympatico response to the moods of horse and rider?

    I am thinking about lightness on demand. Like getting on the horse who "knows better" and getting a heavy "don't want to" response on a particular day. Or how about the horse who is not physically capable of coming up in his shoulders and moving with "lightness" and ease....he is not trying to be a clunker - he wants to do what is right - he just can't - yet.

    Are we talking about 2 different forms of light? A light where not only is the horse tuned into your wants, but where he is physically capable of being light through his body, and giving the best possible ride?

  14. I think the constant theme is that we, as kids, had TIME to ride and play and learn.. as adults we tend to have to schedule "barn time" and since it is scheduled time, we tend to lay out a plan of attack, but it daily, weekly or monthly.. this week I want to work on my transitions, I know that I lean 1/4" to the left and it changes the dynamic of lead departure.. uhm.. as a kid I sat up there bareback and worked on a left lead until my mare took it without me having to move much more than a thigh muscle.. I didn't over analyze it, I just rode it and felt it and was tickled to death when my half arab mare would "do" what I asked when the kids on "bought broke" horses had to give "commands" to get a horse to do what I asked..

    I honestly think if I could just "ride" as much as I used to that most of my horses would be as responsive..

    I am rambling..

    I want to ride like I am 13 again.. even if I could ride bareback everyday for hours, would it be possible? I don't know, but I would love to try it :)

  15. deedee sonnyduo@yahoo.comJanuary 12, 2012 at 11:47 AM

    oh, mugs. Have I mentioned lately how much I love your blog. Recently have been upping my leadership quotient with my confident, sluggish horse on the ground. Suddenly there is lightness and speed between us. Now I need help exploring how to bring that to the saddle and riding.

    My husband gets lightness - but he is a newbie and has no idea how or why. The horses love him unconditionally.

    I will have to work thru the process to get to lightness. Thanks for any help I can glean.

  16. I am so excited to dive deep into this! I've ridden light, but I don't feel like I ever *created* that lightness in a horse. I've been sort of rattling around this issue on my training horses... but having trouble getting them on the same page. I definitely think this lightness has to be mutual between a horse and rider, built on respect and trust.

  17. Oh, the Bliss. Our best times were on the trail exploring. All the moves we learned in the arena with lessons finally made sense to her.

    The Centaur feeling, when the rest of the world fades away except the wind in your face and hoofbeats.

  18. Looking forward to this!
    I feel that lightness and togetherness are two sides of the same coin.
    Which is why I love riding, and why I am hooked on dressage. Those precious moments when you feel like a centaur are wonderful.
    I am 49 in a couple of weeks, and I still play around bareback. Not because I lack a saddle, but because I am lazy and I keep warm in the cold. Feeling a bit crazy sometimes but still having a lot of fun (and my horse too). It is the sense of joy together with your horse that really beats it all!

  19. I feel very grateful to have found this wonderful, thought provoking, delightful blog.

  20. I think it is more about time, lots of time, without too much of a plan. As adults, I think we overthink, and that is what makes things awkward and clumsy. I've been riding my mare, Jet, for seven years tomorrow (happy Gotcha day, Jet!), and my cues to her are almost instinctual, to the point it's hard for me to explain to someone else how to ask her to do things. I'm fortunate to have a horse who is tuned in to that level.

    One day last summer, I was sitting sidesaddle on her, just chatting with friends, when my buddy's gelding got the full cheek part of his snaffle stuck in my pants and tossed his head. I started over backwards, but my lovely Jet sidestepped right back under me. That's feel, in my book.

  21. I have been thinking on this a bit and I think there are definitely some different sorts of "lightness." One type is the type that many sensitive, hotter horses have, the other is a more thinking, partnership type of willingness. The reason I think this is from my own experiences. I've ridden a pretty fair number of horses in my life.

    In high school I had a part arab mare that had been pretty much arena soured on barrels and poles. I bought her cheap, rode her outside a lot and did run barrels on her for a bit, until it became obvious she really hated it. We didn't have any particularly special bond. She liked to work. She'd stop showing up to the barn if you stopped riding every day. She was so sensitive, that just thinking about switching directions would get a smooth flying change. Turning my head caused enough of a weight shift to change directions. She was extremely sensitive. Stopping her was also like stopping a freight train. Standing still was not her forte. She was sensitive and willing, in her way, but not really what I'd usually call "light."

    I also had a young gelding that I took to college with me. I rode him hundreds, perhaps thousands, of hours. He and I had a true partnership. He was not as sensitive as the part arab mare, but he was absolutely willing to try for me and even liked just hanging out with me. Teaching him lead changes was a chore, and I always rode him with spurs, and sometimes needed them as a reminder to get lighter, but we absolutely trusted each other. I could ride him in or out of an arena without a bridle. I knew, without a doubt, that when I said "whoa," he would stop. Every time. I still remember the awesome feeling of pulling his bridle out in the middle of a trail ride by ourselves, loping down a dusty mountain road and putting little "11s" in the dirt. So cool. I probably could have made him lighter, but that would have taken a lot more spur, and, frankly, a lot more dedication on my part, to maintain the dispatch and "yes ma'am" response that truly light horses have, since he was not extremely sensitive, by nature.

    I think true "lightness" is probably a combination of a horse sensitive enough to heed very subtle cues and the trusting partnership that develops after hundreds of hours working together. I don't think every horse has it in them to be truly light, although most horses can at least be willing partners, and that's pretty good, itself.

  22. With some of the people I ride with we often get to talking about lightness and softness and the relationship between the two. To take that second term a little, when I talk about softness I'm talking about real relaxation from the horse, where everything is smooth and lacking in resistance. You can get lightness without softness easily enough - I often see horses that react to very light cues, but they are still tense and almost edgy about it. Their responses have a slight twitchiness about them.

    If you compare that with a horse who is soft right the way through, you get the same speed of response but there is a different quality to it. A while ago I had the luxury of sitting on one of my teachers' saddle horses and the feeling I got from that was unreal- I could sense that everything I could ask for was absolutely available to me, I just needed to ask and he would be there. I can guarantee that although many people would read that and think they know exactly what I'm talking about, almost nobody has experienced anything close - there just are hardly any horses trained to that level, but now I have felt it, I have to find a way to get there.

    It's tricky because this is where we get onto inside-of-the-horse stuff and it's way easier to ride the outside of the horse than it is to ride their mind, but when you get into that place where you're just working with their thought and yours, it seems to me that's where the real magic happens.

  23. I wonder if the word 'light' to some people is the same as another person's 'soft'. I have a DVD by Mark Rashid called Developing Softness in the Rider. They distinguish between lightness and softness - Mark's wife Crissi rides a horse that would be considered 'light' by some people, but is obviously not soft - interesting to see.

    I have not had the experience yet of riding a really soft horse. Occasionally my little mare and I feel like we're mutually 'together' - it feels absolutely wonderful, but is fairly rare so far. I tend to live in my head too much, but I'm working on it. Until I can consistently be "with" my horse right NOW (aware of where she is mentally, etc. rather than where I think she should be), I doubt I can develop softness/lightness.

  24. "Once the horse gets to responding, then you try to get the response you are asking for with less. You try to cut down what you are applying and get more response with less pressure, until it almost gets to be just a thought.” Tom Dorrance