The hand belongs to the horse-
I ran across yet another questionable study on the relationship between the horse’s mouth and the rider’s hands that stated that most riders’ hands move 4-6 inches at every stride with the implication that this was a bad thing. What was not mentioned is that the horse’s entire body, but especially their head moves at every stride. The movement of the horse’s head is minimized at the trot, but as the trot is defined by a period of suspension where all four legs are briefly in the air, in that gait the entire body of the horse moves up and down. The canter incorporates both the nodding movement of the head found at the walk and the up and down movement of a period of suspension.
Researchers and subjects alike failed to mention the importance of the rider’s hand moving as it is following the movement of the horse’s head. It is most peculiar that the whole idea of the rider following the movements of the horse is missing from most contemporary training manuals and research when the first and most fundamental thing a rider has to do to stay on the horse is to learn to follow the horse’s movement. The next priority is for the rider’s hands to be able to freely follow the movements of the horse’s head. It is only once this harmony is established that genuine communication between horse and rider is possible. Then, essentially all cues in riding consist of:
• A brief and purposeful interruption of the harmonious movement between partners
To the non-horse person and the casual spectator this stage of schooling horses can appear a most peculiar obsession. Maintaining a regular walk, trot, and canter in a small enclosed space hardly seems worthy of the time and effort invested. Riders persist in it because it is essential to an educated horse’s responsiveness. It is only with practice that the subtle communication flowers into harmony. Persuading our human monkey mind to sustain such a calm, attentive, responsive awareness of ourselves, never mind maintain our awareness of the subtle changes in another living being, is no small task. Spiritual seeker J.G. Benet illuminates our normal state of obtuseness this way:
In the first place,
To put your arms above your head
Was perhaps to some people an effort,
Because they thought this was a ridiculous thing to do
In a lecture hall.
But nearly everyone made this effort,
Whether they thought it ridiculous or not.
Then came an illustration of our will
Over our own body.
You put your arms over your heads
But with very few exceptions-
and those mostly people who had done it before-
You did not make an effort to straighten them.
It was only when I drew attention to it
And said ‘straighten your arms’
That you realized there was an additional effort to be made.
So long as you were making this additional effort
Most people’s arms continued to be straight
But only until we began to count.
Then the effort of stretching your arms
was diverted to the counting
and the unusual way of counting
engaged your attention
so that you no longer made the additional effort
of stretching your arms…
Two factors are involved in this:
One is the ability to and decision to make a certain effort
And the second is the work of attention.
Even if I decide to make a certain effort
I can only do so as long as
a sufficient quantity of attention is available…
When that quantity of attention is used up
(if we use it faster than we produce it)
Whatever decision we may make
Whatever necessity there may be
Continue to control our attention.
Page 55-56 of Is There Life On Earth by J.G. Benet
The ability to be continuously aware of our own plurality of actions and immediately responsive to multiple actions of our mount at one and the same time takes an enormous amount of attention. It takes dedication to develop that quality of attention so do give these exercises your best effort, whether or not you think them ridiculous, and see how the practice affects your riding over time.
Becoming conscious of our own diagonal movements is a great help as the trot and canter are essentially diagonal gaits. Regardless of whether or not you think you did enough crawling as a little one, it helps to become aware of these cross-crawling patterns as an adult. As it turns out, crawling is not only a step towards walking, it is an essential step in our neurological and motor programming. It is also the closest we two-leggeds are going to get to the kind of coordination of our four legged partners exhibit. Try these movements to loosen up first:
- Lift right leg, knee up
- Touch knee with left hand in front
- Lift left leg, knee up
- Touch knee with right hand in front
Play with this a bit until you can repeat the pattern quickly and easily. Next try:
- Lift right leg, heel up in back
- Touch heel with left hand behind
- Lift left leg, heel up in back
- Touch heel with right hand behind
Again, play with this pattern until it is smooth and automatic. Slip in a few steps any time you have to walk, even if it earns you a few funny looks. Days when you want more of a challenge try alternating front and back as well as right and left. When you feel confident and coordinated, move on to the Fire palm sequence:
• Raise the left arm up, palm in,
• With the right arm down palm out
• transitioning smoothly to
• raising the right arm up, palm in,
• while hanging the left arm down palm out
Once you have got that mastered, start Mud Tread walking (click here) once again, but add the hand/arm movements:
Walking the Fire Palm sequence:
• when your inside foot is settling onto the ground
• Your outside hand hangs down, palm out
• As your outside foot lifts,
• Your inside hand rises, palm in
• As your outside foot settles
• Your inside hand hangs down palm out
• As your inside foot lifts
• Your outside hand rises, palm in
• As your inside foot is settling onto the ground
• Your outside hand hangs down, palm out
• And repeat
Test the smoothness and balance of your movement by holding an inexpensive plastic champagne glass full of water in each hand. When you can flow through the movements without spilling any water while walking the circle and spiraling in both directions, try doing them while standing on a small indoor exercise trampoline. If you are lucky enough to have a friend or two doing this same work, now you can go on to working with a partner. Our ba gua zhang instructors say:
The primary training exercise
Used to develop
The skills of
Awareness, angles, and power
In ba gau zhang
Is called Rou Shou
Which simply means
It is truly worth pestering all and sundry to find a variety of soft hand practice partners. One of the most confusing and misleading statements riding instructors repeatedly make is describing contact with your horse’s mouth as a single invariable constant state. I suppose it could be, but then like any conversation that degenerates into repeating the same phrase over and over again, what might have begun as meaningful interactions quickly becomes irritatingly repetitious gibberish. If you want a conversation with your horse, if you want them to attend to your hands, you must first learn to listen to them through hands that respond to their every slightest shift.
Practitioners face each other
In opposing front to back stances
Join their wrists together
And spiral their arms together
In a figure eight pattern
While shifting their weight back and forth.
When they are familiar with this pattern
In a solid stance
They begin to walk back and forth in a straight line
While maintaining the spiraling pattern of the arms
Which is driven by a coiling
Of the legs and body.
When Rou Shou practitioners
Can maintain their arm spirals
While moving in a straight line
They begin to work the pattern
Walking in a ba gau circle
Changing directions periodically.
Page 58, The Whirling Circles of Ba Gua Zhang
by Frank Allen and Tina Chunna Zhang
While the next step in ba gau is to seek out the weaknesses in one’s partner, our focus is a subtle and harmonious partnership. Weakness in an opponent translates to imbalance in the horse. Once we are aware, this imbalance is our opening for communication with our horse. Riders tend to ask their mounts to change when they feel most stable, i.e. when the horse has at least two if not three feet bearing weight on the ground. This is the time the horse is least able to respond. The moment of instability, when one or none of the horse’s feet are on the ground is the instant where change is possible. Learn to recognize that fleeting moment of softening and responsiveness. Remember that:
The freedom of the elbows,
Their ability to bend
In order to follow the horse’s mouth
Is an absolute prerequisite
To any good horsemanship
Page 27-8 Another Horsemanship
by Jean Claude Racinet