Monarch and Violet; (she is wearing the perfect shirt)
A reflective teacher, like a reflective student, can improve or deepen learning by adjusting to insights gained through introspective thought. As I was thinking about the last two sessions with Violet, I realized that the horse shifting his weight at the halt was triggering Violet’s fear. Most likely, this is what happened just before Violet’s horse took off bucking on the day of the accident. During the first session, Monarch stood quietly for her to mount, and she was able to manage her fear. When we halted to adjust her foot in the stirrup, her shift in weight caused Monarch to adjust his feet to better balance her. This weight shift under her caused serious fear. On the second session, Monarch stood quietly for her to mount, and she didn’t stay in the saddle long enough for Monarch to shift his weight. On this day, I wouldn’t focus on desensitizing Violet with a horse that needed to shift his weight for balance. Instead I would teach Violet to feel and identify what was happening underneath her. Then I would teach her to influence the horse’s movement through her aid requests.
Again we began with bringing Monarch in from the pasture, leading, grooming, and tacking. Then I explained to Violet what we would do today and why. I wanted her to understand that a horse that shifts his weight is usually not getting ready to buck, but is striving to take care of his rider by getting into the best balance possible to carry her. I also wanted her to know that she could tell what was happening underneath her and she could influence it, instead of being a helpless passenger. Today we would practice mounting, identifying where each of Monarch’s feet were, and using a weight (seat) aid or leg aid to influence or change Monarch’s feet.
Before Violet mounted, I asked her to tell me her fear number. She said it was probably a 7 or 8, so my goal was to bring that number down through concentration and understanding the horse’s movement.
We reviewed last session’s sequence for mounting. Begin with deep breathing. Wait for the horse to stand quietly, pet him, grab some mane with the rein, put your left foot in the stirrup, stand and wait. If you feel confident, lightly swing your leg over the saddle and sit gently. Then I asked Violet to close her eyes and feel Monarch. “Which foot is ahead?” Correctly she replied, “the left hind.”
“Let’s see if you can get him to step forward with his right hind by gently tapping with the calf of your right leg.” Tentatively Violet tapped, and Monarch stood immobile. “Why do you think he didn’t go?”
“Because I didn’t tap hard enough?” Violet questioned back.
I explained that when you ask a horse for movement, you must ask with intention and clarity. “You could have asked as lightly as you asked, and he would have stepped up if you had really intended for him to walk forward. I don’t think you really wanted him to move. This time, think forward with the right hind as you ask with your right leg.” Her aid was clearly communicated, and he took 3 steps forward.
When Monarch returned to halt, I asked Violet to again identify which foot was ahead. Again, she identified the correct foot; this time the right hind. “So if you want him to move forward or just square up, which foot do you need to move?”
“The left hind,” was her correct reply.
“So how will you ask him?”
“With my left leg.”
“Good, Violet; now show me.”
This time their communication was much clearer, and they walked forward another 2 steps. She identified the feet position, moved him off, and then I asked for her to dismount, just the way we had practiced. Swing the right leg over the saddle, take your left foot out of the stirrup, lay on his back, and slide down. We returned to the mounting block and played this game many times.
When I felt she was ready, I took Monarch’s rein as she moved him forward. Instead of stopping after a few steps, I asked her to focus on when the hind feet hit the ground and call out the hind footfalls to me. She focused on her horse’s movement and called out “right, left, right, left” in the correct sequence and rhythm of Monarch’s walk. Before she had a chance to worry about what they were doing, actually riding a horse again, I brought them back to the mounting block. She dismounted, remounted, and we played the new foot game several times. Before she knew it, she had ridden all the way around the arena! I asked her what her fear number was, and she replied “2, well maybe 1.”
“Did you realize that you actually rode all the way around the arena?” It was a good note to end the session.
As we were untacking, I repeated the lessons of the day:
- usually a horse shifts his weight to put the two of you in better balance.
- You can feel where the horse’s feet are and know what he is doing through focus and feel.
- You can influence how a horse moves through the way you give aids and through your intention. Your aids must be correct through timing and feel, and you must give them with intention. You can visualize what you want him to do. When you are clear in your mind, you can communicate better with him.
“Please remember to write what you are learning and feeling in your journal.”
Reader note: Horses are almost intuitive in their response to their riders and handlers. They achieve this uncanny ability to “read your mind” through their superior sensitivity. (A horse can feel a fly land on his back before it bites.) When we think something, we give ourselves away through a subtle weight shift in the saddle or body language on the ground. Horses pick up on our subtleties, so they already know what we will ask before we’ve given the aid. This, of course, is a double-edged sword. If we give the aid poorly, roughly, in the wrong moment, in the wrong balance, with a stiff body, with tight reins, or with contradicting aids, the horse will learn the wrong response. All but the sensitive rider will blame the horse for the wrong response, rather than looking to one’s self for the root cause. On the other hand, ridden in lightness with sensitive aids, the horse and rider create a movement of such beauty, it becomes art.