The disability from which I suffer
Is a great handicap
But there is a bright side to everything
And my inability to apply the aids strongly
Has been a great lesson to me.
I can use but very little force,
And the results obtained by my weak efforts
Have convinced me that horses
Are generally over-ridden;
That much more strength than is necessary
Is habitually used in applying the aids.
The rider must reduce
His actions to the very minimum
And leave the horse
The greatest amount of freedom in his
Horse Training, Outdoor and High School
By E. Beudant
I have to admit that schooling at the walk was not my first priority when I got my first Spanish Colonial horse to train. I like speed, and so did he, so we made a deal that we would split the decision on how fast and which way. If I had a direction in mind, he could choose the speed, but if he was adamant about the direction, I was equally adamant about the speed. Once we got the kinks worked out, this usually meant we would start out across country rather briskly, do some schooling on the public lands accessible where I live, and then walk home.
Before we got the fine print straightened out, walking home was a challenge. I hate it when horses begin to jig, prance, sidle, balk, rear, and bolt the instant they head towards home. So, I concentrated on making sure that each and every step we took was straight, regular, and rhythmic all the way home. The walk my horse gave me under these conditions was everything I asked for and then some. Each hoof arose out of and settled back down into a subtle sliding field of energy that held a timeless moment where it felt like there were infinite options for the next movement. We could stop, or leap, or spin, dance sideways or in one spot, or run, or walk one more elegant powerful step. It was not the fastest way home or the most relaxing, but it was definitely the most rewarding. Especially once we got the idea of transitions within a gait down pat. Being able to discuss whether we were walking a ground-covering stride on a loose rein, or tippy-toeing along the energy fields always brightened my day.
Decades later, I came across this quote from French horse master Racinet that spoke directly to my experience of persuading my horse we could walk home without him losing any of his presence or enthusiasm.
‘When the horse understands that
He cannot accelerate
Cannot offset his haunches
He takes the movement in charge
(self-impulsion and carriage).
The he raises spectacularly his withers,
Walking as if he were ‘tip-toeing’
The steps neatly separate
From one another;
The walk proceeds from
One instant of quasi-immobility
to another instant of
Linked by a kind of sliding step
of the front legs…
the rider can almost withhold
and let it drop at will
as if he were dropping drops
from an eyedropper…
The exquisite balance created by this exercise
may be taken advantage of
for teaching difficult movements.
Page 44, Another Horsemanship
By Jean-Claude Racinet
My enthusiasm was not widely shared at the time, however. Most people were baffled by what I was trying to accomplish and those few who had inkling of what was happening were frightened by it. They felt most out of control at the very moment I felt the most possibilities for communication with horse were blossoming. My efforts to share my experience with my not-so-very-eager experimental subjects were pretty much a failure as this horse in particular had no tolerance at all for tense unbalanced anxious riders. The scant handful of times I let somebody else sit on him he made it absolutely clear that they were there by his great good nature because they were certainly failing to live up to his standards.
The move that impressed me the most was when he took one elegant bold impulsive step literally right out from underneath the person the instant they were settled in the saddle and equally promptly stopped, leaving his startled and baffled passenger precariously perched just behind the cantle. I suspect he was sure that he was doing exactly what had been asked for as he could have dumped them easily at that point. Instead, he stood there patiently as they dug their heels into his flanks and clawed their way up the reins in order to clamber back into the saddle. He seemed aware that they were doing their best not to just slip the rest of the way off his behind as he heaved a great sigh, giving me a wary half flick of an ear and rolling an eyeball wearily over one shoulder. He seemed to be wondering just what he was supposed to do with yet another worthless human that could not stay put in the saddle for even the one single stride that they themselves had asked for. That was when I realized was going to have to figure out how to prepare the human side of the equation a whole lot better before I even considered letting any else try to ride him.
My staying on my horse when he moved this way was not a matter of strength, because I rode him long after I had begun to lose the use of my right leg. My left leg would get me up in the saddle and I could swing the right leg around with my pelvic and abdominal muscles, and then arrange it in place with my hands once I was seated. It stayed there out of inertia not coordination so it was a clearly question of something other than strength or balance that kept me on his back. One day we were ambling along on a loose rein along a dirt road after one of the utility companies had leveled it where it went through some rolling terrain. We had hit a section where the banks of the road where about the level of my waist on horseback when suddenly there was stink-bug or bombardier beetle all of an inch and a half long in the road in front of us that stopped and stuck his backside up to send a stink bomb at us. My horse apparently did not want to get bug stink up his nose, so he leapt straight up in the air with all four feet and came down about 5 feet to the side on the top of the embankment without so much as shifting a hair on my head. He then rolled a gleeful eyeball back my way, walked a few more steps and hopped back down onto the road once we passed by the fearsomely objectionable beetle.
It felt to me as though we had an energetic connection that allowed him to carry me over hill and dale, leaping and dancing in the breeze, with absolute security. Just trying to describe the energetic lock that clicks in between a compatible horse and rider to sustain such seamless moves has been challenging enough. Since I could barely put it into words for myself, I have not been at all sure how to teach it. Thankfully, the ba gau martial arts practitioners have been struggling with the same sort of problem for a few thousand years. Here is their approach to developing one’s human energetic awareness and connection at the walk that is not so very different from Racinet’s advice for the horse
Walking very slowly
And focusing on feeling
In your legs
Helps develop this rooting process.
When this circle of energy is
Firmly inserted into
Your circle walking technique
You ‘ll begin to project energy
Forward from the tips of your toes.
Travels in front of the walker
And under the earth
Creating the sensation of being pulled
To stabilize the structure of the walker.
Page 78-79, The Whirling Circles of Ba Gua Zhang
by Frank Allen and Tina Chunna Zhang
I introduced the ba gau circle walking exercises as a means of developing your own awareness and balance on the ground. For most people, practicing the mud tread step (click here) enough for it to be an automatic kinesthetic pattern, opens the doors so you can start concentrating on how those steps change the way the energy flows through your body. If you are one of those who needs to concentrate on the energetic flows and fine-tune your movements that way, start with your focus there, as the correct movement and the energy flow are symbiotic:
- If your attention is on making sure the energy is flowing smoothly, your posture and steps will slow and regularize themselves
- If your attention is on making sure that your posture is accurate and your steps are slow, and regular, the energy will begin to make itself known
Either way, practice until you can consistently, at will, lock into that energetic field as it flows through your body and feel your footsteps slide along the ground without ever breaking their connection to it.
Then you can start practicing the ankle action for the heel pluck (click here) that you will need to communicate with your horse while mounted. Up to now, you have been letting your foot follow the movement of your leg so it can settle onto the ground correctly while circle walking. You still want to:
- Look in the direction of your circle
- Allow your head, neck , shoulders and waist to follow your line of vision
- The right (inner) foot continues to step forward in a straight line
- The left (outer) foot lifts forward
- The left toe turns inward
- The ball of the left foot touches the ground in front of the right toe
- The left foot slides onto the ground with a toe in/heel out position
But now, you want to focus on the moment where the toe moves in and the heel moves outward just as the foot settles onto the ground. Try flicking your heel into position emphatically enough to raise a bit of dust and leave a ridge of dirt on the outside of your footprint just as the toe touches the ground. As always, practice until you are equally adept on both sides. When you can add the heel flick to your circle walking without losing either your connection to the energy or the regularity of your steps you can start figuring out how to apply all you’ve learned on the ground to your time in the saddle.