Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Incredible Lightness of Being lll

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. 


Nicole said...

Bravo, you described that well. I feel the same way.

Whywudyabreedit said...

This is the first time I can remember you mentioning the 1/4 inch of air. Such a simple concept! I can't wait to try it! I bet it is way harder than it sounds...

Di said...

Great post, well put. I feel the same way. Can you explain the 3/4 inch cushion of air please?

mugwump said...

Di- it's imaginary. I imagine a 1/4 inch of air space between me and all contact with my horse.
I want to maintain it at all times.
So if I'm crooked, my seat bone and leg will be breaking into the air spac.
If my hands are uneven, or my reins, again, I'll invade the air space.
Every time I cue, it's an break in the space again.
When I first cue (oops, next article) I will have to break in, because neither I or my horse understand what it takes to get the job done. As time goes on, I'm continually trying to see how light I can become and still get what I need.

My goal is to just "bump the bubble," a cutting horse term,have my cue be know more than pressure on the air space.

KD said...

Well I have to read it a couple more times to let it sink in.

Do you keep slight contact or just enough rein so that if you do tighten, squeeze or lift it's felt?

mugwump said...

KD - with a standard curb I stay loose.
I maintain a slight contact with both the spade and the snaffle. said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
RHF said...

I've been thinking a lot about how we muddy up a horse's training... and finding all sorts of silly habits I never knew I had. It's amazing how simple riding really can be if we don't let ourselves complicate it.

scsarah said...

What a wonderful, thought provoking post mugs! So much so it has taken me more than a half a day to put my thoughts down on paper. I can only hope that I express myself as well as you do.

I think that lightness we are all seeking is blocked many times by us. Well, at least I block it.

I suffer from what I call static. There are two types of static in my life: mental and physical.

The mental static: family worries, work worries, frustrations, anxiety, prissiness, anger, FEAR, etc.

Physical stresses such as my daily aches and pains of getting older, a braced body that collapses the shoulders, pops up those heels, tights those hips until I feel like a paper clip holding a stack of paper so thick you know that paper clip will catapult through the air with the least amount of provocation.

When I’m full of static my riding sucks. Only way to put it. It SUCKS.

But there are moments, brilliant shining moments I have that lightness, that oneness with my horse; that riding with a thread.

What has dawned on me recently is when I have let the static go I’m riding in the here and now, as my horse lives and rides in the here and now.

When I hear nothing but my horse’s footfall, when I can tune out people coming and going around the barn and in the arena, I know I am riding in the present, and my horse knows it as well. That is when we have a lovely dance.

I have also noticed that when I do not have the mental static playing against me and my horse, the physical static is lessened as well. I guess the heel really is connected to the hip socket, and hip is connected to the shoulder bone, which is connected to the back bone, which is connected to the brain.

Without all my static my cues are more subtle.

Without all my static I feel him more. And when I can feel him in the present, I don’t over cue (would make a great post, over cuing) which is a HUGE problem with me.

With static in my mind/body, I don’t feel his try, his give, his willingness, or his softness.
Without the static I know where his feet are. I don’t have to look at his shoulders to see where his feet are; I feel them.

Without static he knows I am with him in the here and now. He knows I am not dwelling on problems with family or dwelling on problems we had in a ride last week/month/year. We are working on what needs fixed today, or what needs learned today. Or he feels I just want to be there with him.

Without all my static, when he does what I ask, I let him be, instead of nagging him for more. Another HUGE problem with me….nagging for one more step or one more lap. I need to learn to shut up.

I wish I could find that light spot…. that quiet spot when it is just me and my horse working quietly together, more often.

Training myself to train him, well, all I can say is what a ride it has been. And what a ride it will continue to be. I don’t care how long it takes. I will just enjoy the ride in the here and now as often as I’m graced with it. And pray I’m graced with the here and now more often.

Thank you again, mugs. Wonderful post.

Jill said...

Thanks for sharing more of this!

It's difficult to get it with every horse I ride, but it's something to aim for, for sure.

I rode western this morning and then had a dressage lesson this afternoon and fortunately (I think!) my rider faults and crooked parts (hips, left wrist) are just as bad in each discipline. In my lesson, the trainer pointed out a couple of things instantly, and as soon as I lightened up, really, they were solved. Funny how so much tension creeps in when we're meant to be thinking 'lightness, forward, happy.'

Heidi the Hick said...

So interesting!!! More expanding of the brain!!!

Your concept of the air buffer zone is fascinating. I'll be thinking of that now. I always tried to visualize the opposite- that my butt was stuck to the saddle. I'd like to try this different way of thinking about it.

I really like the part about a horse who needs a light hand. I agree with you - they all do.

They can shake a fly off one square inch of hide.

They can feel our cues.

penny33 said...

Thanks for a great description of what you mean by lightness, and I felt it the other day. I spent a lot of time while riding my mare consciously trying to "feel it". And I felt it at the most unexpected time...I was ponying my somewhat rambunctious yearling off of my mare the other day and the yearling was feeling very fresh. As I'm loping circles on my mare and fighting with the opinionated 500 lbs baby I realized that this is what you meant. I was making no conscious movements, I wasn't thinking about how perfect my seat, hands, and legs needed to be. Yet...we were loping perfect 20M circles at a beautiful cadence, relaxed and in sync despite the crazy yearling. It's amazing how things fall into place when you quit thinking and just make it happen. It made me think about that guest post about the therapy horses a couple weeks ago. Maybe if we quit obsessing about perfection in our horses and just asked them to do a job we would achieve our goals as a by product.

mugwump said...

penny33 - It works for the horses too. When they're doing a job they forget the tensions and just get it done, at the same time they use all the training we've put in them in order to complete the task.

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