Turns, Turns, Turns

Generally speaking,
The aids in schooling a horse
On turns and circles are as follows,
And they are applied in the sequence given:

1. Looking the way he intends to turn or circle the rider very slightly shifts his weight to his inner seat bone and stirrup
2. He applies his outer leg just behind the girth
3. He lightly feels the inner rein, giving and taking.

John Richard Young‘s Schooling For Young Riders

I think I have encountered more confusing, incomprehensible, contradictory, and flat out cruel instructions for teaching horses to turn than any other aspect of training:

• Some trainers make a great point of pulling or tying the horse’s head down and/or around from side to side both while the horse is standing still and while moving. This disassociation of the position of the horse’s head from its type and direction of movement is counterproductive, even if all too common within the confines of the show ring. The near total lack of communication between horse and rider does not work so well out in the open, as the horse all too easily becomes ‘rubber-necked’ and /or over-bent in their effort to avoid the pain of the bit and the arbitrary overuse of the reins. Eventually, no matter how the rider pulls on its head, the horse blindly goes anywhere it pleases.
• Other trainers theorize that if the rider throws the horse far enough off balance, they will end up turning in an attempt to stay on their feet. These riders make a point of pulling the horse’s head off to one side while mounted, sometimes even away from the intended direction, while kicking and or hitting them on one side, and/or sliding to one side of the saddle. The horse usually does stagger about in attempt to compensate for the rider’s imbalance, and eventually most horse and rider seem find some crude middle ground that seems to work well enough for those who do not aspire to any degree of finesse.
• Still other trainers, particularly those proclaiming themselves to be western, sidestep the whole issue with rein cues entirely and either spur the horse on the shoulder or slap them upside the neck and head with a metal and/or leather bat when they want them to turn. If the rider is precise and persistent enough in this brutality, eventually, the horse learns to jump away from the oncoming blow. While this might result in a few horses whirling about in a spectacular effort to avoid pain at the wave of a hand or the clank of a spur, it rarely results in a sound, reliable, responsive, or willing partner outside the show ring.

That the hands follow the seat seems to have been so glaringly obvious to most past horse-masters that Baucher actually wrote:

The use of the wrists,
in the changes of direction,
is so simple
that it is unnecessary to speak of it here.

Baucher, F. (2011-12-06).
New Method of Horsemanship
Including the Breaking and Training of Horses,
with Instructions for Obtaining a Good Seat.
(Kindle Locations 741-742). . Kindle Edition.

For the rest of us, it is important to understand that when your body language is coherent and makes sense, the horse turns right along with you. The influence of the three aids, seat, legs, and hands, is then automatic and synchronistic. Your movement is coherent and comprehensible to the horse. Yet, even in dressage circles, almost no one mentions the simplest, most effective, most versatile, and least traumatic method:

• Center yourself on the horse,
• fix your hands (click here),
• and turn the entirety of your own body, from toes to eyes, in the way you wish to turn
• Release your aids and return to a following hand (click here)

This most natural and humane method is mostly likely ignored nowadays because profits and prestige are not readily acquired by telling clients that there is no quick fix. If there are problems, it comes back to basic training and proper preparation. Both the rider (click here) and the horse (click here) have to know how to circle and have built the strength and coordination to do so by themselves before they can succeed with the rider on top.

Assuming that you have acquired these basic skills and want to fine tune your riding, then the conversation turns to the quality of your turn. How sharp of a turn you want to make, how much ground you want to cover during the turn, and how fast you want to be going are important factors to consider. Once again, the ba gua practices might give us a peep into how we can prepare ourselves to work with the horse.

• If you are riding cross-country at a gallop or over a jump course at speed, you have tremendous momentum and yet it takes very little to shift the direction. In ba gua terms, these kind of turns are like moving water energy, yielding on the edges but with solid massive weight behind, like a wave crashing on the beach or a river hurrying to the sea. The edge of the water conforms to every nook and cranny on the shore, but the water continues on its way regardless.

• If you are herding cattle instead, you need to be able to define your space, hold your ground, and react instantaneously and appropriately while always promptly returning to a centered calmness. These kinds of turns have a tremendous quiet reserve of energy that adapts itself to the environment. Although the surface of the lake may ripple in the wind, or overflow in the rain, the essential body of the lake remains unchanged. These would be considered an aspect of still water or Lake turns in ba gau terms.

• With Wind energy, one turns around one’s center, whether those turns are the elegant canter pirouettes of High School riding, or the rollback and spins of the reining horse. In ba gau terms, lateral movements on horseback would also be considered Wind movements with the horse dancing across the landscape in perfect equilibrium, moving as freely as the wind.

The Water, Lake, and Wind, Palm sequences can greatly assist the dedicated practitioner in becoming more aware of their own body and the many subtle body changes required for a particular type of turn. A conscientious rider strives to aid the horse in their movement, not interfere, so keep in mind that any place there is tension in your body, it will translate as resistance to and in the horse. As you find your balance and regularity in your movements, your arms will be become light and resilient. It will feel as though they are floating, or being carried by the energy coming up through your feet, instead of weighing down your contracted muscles. When moving this way becomes habitual, you will feel light in the saddle. Your struggling mount will be profoundly grateful that you are no longer an awkward burden, so pay attention to how your body feels as you hold each Palm. Slow down, breath into the tension, and work towards a few smooth accurate steps. Practice makes perfectly wrong as well as perfectly right, so strive for quality rather than quantity. Practice any of the Palms while walking Mud Tread circles (click here).

• Start by simply holding one Palm position while circle walking
• Focus on releasing any tension or discomfort in your body
• Focus or meditate on the distinct feeling of each Palm throughout your body
• Make each change of direction an expression of the Palm as you switch inside and outside hands
• Trying walking serpentines, changing directions every half or quarter circle
• Vary the degree of bend in your joints, the length and speed of your steps ( click here)
• Vary the speed and number of steps of your changes in direction

You can do this meditative practice with all eight Palms (click here and here). These last three Palm sequences are:

• The Water sequence with the inside hand palm up arm straight out at shoulder height, outside hand curved over head, palm down, both fingertips pointing towards the center
• The Lake sequence with the, inside, arm straight out at shoulder height and the hand palm out, the outside arm is curved across torso, the hand also palm out. Both wrists are bent so the palms face the center, fingertips pointing upwards
• The Wind sequence with the outside arm curved across torso in front, the inside arm curved across torso behind, and both palms facing away from the body

Anytime there are problems you can always go back to the horse stance (click here)

Once you are comfortable with these exercises, it is finally time to consider how to use your hands with your horse (click here)

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