By Mark Russell
Article Appearing in PRE Magazine Spring 2011
Artistry and lightness in riding is often an elusive goal for riders although paving the path to its development is really very simple. The integration of a few basic principles and adherence to them throughout the training process will create a scenario in which responsiveness and lightness will flourish.
These principles include a blending of Artistic Dressage with Natural Horsemanship techniques with a mindfulness of self and by asking only for what the horse can provide both physically and emotionally at a particular point in time. These principles create trust and relaxation, and their continuation through the training process will advance both horse and rider to their goals of lightness.
Both Natural Horsemanship and Artistic Dressage training principles often mirror each other but there are significant departures especially in the gymnasticizing process with the alignment of the spine, impulsion, engagement and balance found in Artistic Dressage. However, Natural Horsemanship methods, increase accessibility to lightness and provides an excellent foundation to further training.
The Reality We Present to the Horse is the Reality That He Lives In
One of Natural Horsemanship’s most significant contributions to the development of the horse is its approach to the training process from the perspective of the horse. This includes an understanding of who our horse is and how he learns: qualities to which we temper our approach. The horse learns from us every moment we are with him and each of his behaviors, no matter how subtle, reflects a message he is sending us.
Importantly, this process includes mindfulness of ourselves: where we are emotionally, what information we are sending the horse through the reins and through our seat. There is a continuous back and forth conversation between us and our horses every moment we are with him whether intentional or not.
The Release Builds Trust and Trust Creates Relaxation
In the early training (or retraining) process our requests of the horse need to be as small as possible to elicit a response; the smaller the request the better his understanding of what we are asking for. When we ask the horse to perform a movement, knowledge of his language is important for us to recognize his subtlest response. We pay attention to any effort on the part of the horse and let the him know that we noticed.
For example, one exercise I perform early in training is to teach the horse to step each front foot to the side in a halter. I first begin by asking him to release his head to the side and I reward immediately with a release in pressure. However, if he only cocks his ear to the side, this still indicates that he is responding even though the response is minute. I accept this effort and release to it as he is probably responding the best he knows how. Over time as I ask for more he will begin to learn to think through my requests as he trusts that I will respond. However I must remain consistent in my releases and in my acceptance of his efforts. As he develops understanding I soften my requests and our communication can become infinitely subtle and light.
Directing, not Blocking, Energy
Another important avenue to achieve relaxation is allowing the horse to dispel energy through movement by letting him move in a safe place or on line. As the horse is allowed to go freely forward we then begin to refocus him and direct his energy. Allowing forward movement early in training will support it when the horse is learning more complex movements later in training.
Back to Art
Although this may all seem a departure from Artistic Dressage, it is not. Artistic dressage forsakes force. A horse that has been brought down the path of learning in his comfort zone will easily learn balance without brace.
Channels of energy will be opened in the relaxed horse which the rider can then direct. Once the basic principles become a staple in the horse’s training we can begin to advance the concept of relaxation through releases of the jaw, poll, neck, through the back and hind end of the horse. Flexion, impulsion, balance, and freedom of movement will thus come easily.
An attentive and conversant rider creates a scenario where their requests can comfortably be followed by the horse. The outcome will be a horse who will be able to express free flowing energy and movement which is a pleasure to ride and beautiful to watch.