Violet’s Story, Part 4 “developing feel”

The next four lessons would take Violet from timid avoidance of riding to eager confidence in her lessons with Monarch.  The lessons continued to be scaffolded to build on Violet’s growing understanding of the biomechanics of rider and horse movement, her growing insight of what had happened to her, and her growing confidence in her ability to communicate and ride horses.  Violet began each lesson with ground training, (leading, grooming, tacking), to build confidence and readiness to ride.  We also monitored her fear number before and after the lesson, while discussing key learning for each lesson.  Both hands-on experience and reflective practices, including discussion and journaling, were beginning to pay dividends.  At the beginning of lesson four, her fear number was a 7; she ended that day on a 1 or 0.  Lesson Five she began on a 3, ending on a 1 or 0.  Lesson six she began on a 1, which I explained was actually wise.  Exercising healthy caution around big animals keeps us safe!  Many accidents happen because a lack of fear degenerates into carelessness.

My goal for these lessons was for Violet to connect her increasing feel of the horse to her increasing confidence.  After reviewing key skills, strategies, and insights, Violet showed more confidence in mounting.  In lesson four, I told her we would begin using the whole arena to identify what Monarch was doing with his feet.  I would continue to walk by her side, with Monarch on a lead.  She would concentrate on feel, breathing, and intention, so he could walk with a relaxed gait.  As we walked forward, I asked her to feel how the horse needs to swing his belly to the side in order for his hind leg to step forward.  By concentrating on the belly swing and the beat of the walk, she could tell which hind leg was on the ground.  We played games influencing a specific hind foot to move and calling out the hind feet as they made the beat.

It was time to develop the halt and to influence tempo and stride to nurture her growing confidence.  Violet needed to experience how much she could influence the horse she was riding.  She was beginning to believe that a well trained horse would not hurt her.

In learning halt, Violet was quite amazed that the halt came from her body and breath, not from touching or pulling back on the rein.  In the walk, I asked Violet to sit up very tall, take a deep breath, and release her breath into the horse while keeping her tall, elegant seat.  It was powerful to see how this lesson changed so much in her- how she felt about riding, her skills, her horse, her confidence.  A new game commenced: begin the walk from the requested leg, walk quietly, halt, and resume walking.  Walk-halt-walk-halt in quiet concentration.  Which foot is on the ground?  Which foot is taking a step?  Is he square?  Can you ask him to step into squareness?  Questions, feel, requests, response from horse and rider…

In lessons five and six, the focus would be influencing stride and tempo.  Violet had graduated to the longe line; I was no longer at her side, ready to rescue her.  She was ready to problem solve, to adjust her position, her breathing, her rhythm, and her balance to correct or change her horse.  After practicing walk, halt, and “where are the feet,” it was time for Violet to increase the stride in the walk.  Since she could feel the swing of the belly and when the hind leg was pushing off the ground, I asked her to play with those feelings to make Monarch’s stride longer by touching  his side with her leg, (not her heel), as his hind foot left the ground.  She felt him take a bigger step.  We played the big step-small step game.  Then, I asked her to see what would happen if she changed her rhythm.  As she began to tap her legs in a quicker rhythm, right leg-left leg- right leg, left leg, Monarch began to speed up.  To slow him down she stopped tapping and slowed her “walking seat.”  No rein, and she was able to slow his walk!

“This time use your leg to ask him to step over, to make the circle bigger.  Use your leg in the rhythm of the walk, now when he’s pushing off.  Good.”  We played the leg yield game to influence direction and increase her confidence in controlling her horse.

“How could you trot?  What would be different?”  I did not ask Violet if she could trot, because I did not want her to put her focus into what her skill and fear levels were.  I believed she had more skill than confidence, so I asked her to tap into her knowledge and to figure out how to influence Monarch to get him into the trot.  She had noticed that sometimes when she asked him to increase the speed of the walk, he would jig, so she said she would use her legs.

“How would you use your legs?”

“Kick him.”

“Do you want him to take off into a big trot?  When you kick, you use your heels.  Instead of kicking, tap him with both your legs.”

Violet gave Monarch a light tap; he ignored her.  “Think about how strong the tap should be to get him to listen to you.  Think about what you did in the walk to change it.”

This time the tap was stronger, and he want into a slow trot.  “Very good.  You changed your intention, and your aid became much clearer.  Now follow with your seat to keep him in trot.  Very good.”  After a circle in trot, I asked her to think about how her seat moves in the walk.  As Violet thought about the walk, her trotting seat slowed, and Monarch broke to a walk.

As they walked on the longe, I asked Violet to tell me what just happened.  “When I changed my seat, Monarch walked.”

“So how can you slow a horse?”  I asked.

“Slow my seat.”

“Okay, let’s try that…”  We played the walk-trot game, and Monarch made many transitions.

“Now let’s work on keeping the rhythm in the trot.”  Since Violet has loose, following hips, the sitting trot was beautiful.

“Let’s see what you need to do to slow the trot without having Monarch break to a walk.  Ask for trot.  Good, is this a slow or fast trot?”


“So if you slowed your seat, do you think he would trot slower or just walk?  What could you do to get a bigger trot?  Yes, tap with your legs…keep the rhythm…just one tap.  Good, now when you slow the rhythm, think slow trot- not walk….Good girl….and big trot…..and slow trot…..and walk…and halt…and walk….and halt….and walk…and trot…and slow trot….and big trot…and slow trot…and walk…”

After playing the transition game, we worked on rising trot.  The looseness Violet showed in sitting trot stiffened, making the rising trot behind the motion and forced.  We returned to the ideas of feel and follow.  This will take more time to develop, so later lessons will focus on Violet developing feel and fluency in rising trot.  The end of lessons five and six left her eager for the following week’s lesson.  This eagerness replaced the trepidation that used to begin her lessons and the relief that used to end them.

Violet was finally ready to pick up the reins and ride on her own.  Lesson seven began with our usual review: no high fear number, just a healthy 1 for safety.  Then we reviewed the mounting sequence, breathing to influence relaxation for her and movement for Monarch, rhythm and aids for walk and halt.   After walking beside her while reviewing everything she was learning, we discussed the reins.

“The reins are to improve the quality of the movement, not for turning and halting, except in emergencies.  To turn, slow down, change gaits, or halt, always ask with your seat.  Then you can refine the request with your rein.  Now you will increase your sense of feel by following the horse’s movement with your rein.  A horse balances in the walk and canter with his head, so when you feel his head rise and drop, follow the movement with your hand.  This way the rein will always be the same length.”

After three months, Violet was ready to pick up reins and ride on her own.  “Show me how you hold the reins.  Very good.  Now before he begins to walk, show me how you will follow with your hands.  Yes, keep the elbows soft, elastic, like you are rowing a boat.  Good, and ask with your legs for him to walk on.  Yes, keep following with your hands.  Look to where you want to go….breathe……elbows soft…..think of the rhythm with your arms and legs and push him back to the rail with your leg in the walk rhythm….very good…when you feel that he wants to fall in, push with your inside leg to keep him on the rail…’s easier to correct when you feel the quality changing, instead of waiting until the movement goes bad.  Good, get ready for the corner, and turn your seat.  Did you notice how he followed your seat in the turn?  Your body followed your seat too, so you didn’t need to pull on the inside rein to get him to turn.  Very good.  Same with this corner…good.  How will you stop?  Show me.  Yes, you stayed tall and slowed him with your breath. How will you start?  Yes, now keep the rhythm with your arms and legs….  Ready, and turn your seat in the corner…and again in the corner…good with your rhythm….now turn off the rail into the middle of the arena with your seat…go straight to the rail and turn the other way and change direction….”

That day Violet rode independently, with confidence.  As I stood in the center of the arena, Violet and Monarch became a team.  She was the leader, and he was her willing partner.  The following weekend, we would travel to Longmont to see if an older Lipizzan would be a suitable match for her.


3 comments on “Violet’s Story, Part 4 “developing feel”

  1. Kirsten McGough says:

    What a remarkable chronicle this is! Beautiful work Cheri. Your love of horses and your teaching skills are joined in perfection. One does not need to be an equestrian to find this journey you’ve taken with Violet and Monarch as something quite extraordinary. I look forward to reading more.

    (The picture you posted of Violet and Monarch in Part 3 I actually mistook for Marissa. Maybe it’s the helmet.)

  2. Mary Milian says:

    Hooray for Violet!!

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