The Counted Walk Part II- Adding the Horse

Unfortunately for him

we usually blame the horse,

and generally wrongly.

In all probability

He has responded to the aids actually applied

And not to the aids we think we have applied.

The fault is nearly always with the rider, who,

not knowing the language of the aids correctly

Has failed to make himself understood, or

Has even expressed the exact opposite of

What he wished to say.

Horse Training, Outdoor and High School

By E. Beudant

Once you can consistently, at will, lock into the energetic field as it flows through your body and feel your footsteps slide along the ground without ever breaking their connection to it and you and the horse both have some level of comfort and proficiency with all the preparatory exercises, it is time to start putting the pieces together. If you have done all the preparatory ground exercises on the longe line, you can ask your friendly assistant who has been longing your horse to ask the horse to stand while you practice implementing these aids.

You can attempt this exercise without such a friend, as long as you have done the preparatory ground exercises with the horse (click here), make sure your requests are clear, and you keep your sessions brief and pleasant for the horse. Most especially, keep your expectations focused on your learning how to communicate with the horse, not the instant perfection of their response. If you have an arena to work in that is great but not essential.  Just make sure that everything around you is business as usual so both you and the horse can concentrate on what you are doing.

Once mounted, at the halt:

  • Check your seat
  • Check your leg position- your heels should rest just along the end of the horse’s ribs
  • Check your reins and make sure they are just long enough that squeezing your fist takes the slack out of them with your upper arms hanging comfortably at your sides
  • Keep your arms and hands fixed in place
  • Breath and ‘pluck’ with one heel
  • The horse should arch their back and raise that hind leg briefly
  • Release and relax all your arms and legs without losing your position, then
  • Breath and squeeze the diagonal hand
  • The horse should ‘smile’ and mouth the bit
  • Release and relax all your arms and legs without losing your position, then
  • Keep your arms and hands fixed in place
  • Breath and ‘pluck’ with the other heel
  • The horse should arch their back and raise that hind leg briefly
  • Release and relax all your arms and legs without losing your position, then
  • Breath and squeeze the diagonal hand
  • The horse should ‘smile’ and mouth the bit
  • Release and relax all your arms and legs without losing your position
  • Praise the horse, and stop
  • When you drop the reins and relax your seat and legs, the horse should follow suit and stand calmly
  • Dismount and  do something you and the horse enjoy

The important idea to understand in applying the plucking movement of the heel on horseback is that when the horse feels your heel move, the position and tension of the leg does not change.  The ankle ‘fixes’ just like the hand, it stiffens briefly, getting the horse’s attention, and then only the heel moves:

  • Leaving the horse’s side abruptly, brushing down and away from their skin as though you we flicking off a fly.

This is especially important if you decide to wear spurs. You are flicking the very end of the spur through the horse’s hair and across the surface of their skin stimulating the abdominal muscle to contract. You are not turning your toes out and digging your heels and spurs into the horse’s sides, which tells them to freeze as their abdominal muscles spasm. And you are emphatically NOT kicking the horse, lifting your lower leg and jabbing the spur into the horse’s side, leaving them bruised and bloody, confused and resentful.

These are suppling and educational exercises where you are asking your horse to respond to the distinct aids of the hand and leg exactly as they did when you were asking from the ground. If your aids are to be coherent to the horse, your body needs to be able to absorb the impulsive power of their movements when the horse responds. If you are to be able to ground yourself through the horse’s legs and hooves, you need to sit with aplomb, settling into the horse’s center of gravity and energy.   If I substitute seat for steps in the ba gau instructions, this is the result:

If your seat is not

Well rooted

You will not be able to hold

Simple postures

Long enough and

strong enough

for them to be of

any real benefit…

Apply one aid at a time and keep your movements very deliberate, precise, distinct, and most of all mild. If the horse gets restless or confused, it is most likely because your movements are too strong or your balance and/or timing is off so you are sending mixed messages. Precise and distinct aids require a balanced and harmonious alignment of your spine and limbs:

Sitting your horse

Also requires

Proper alignment

That harmonizes

The shoulders and hips,

Elbows and knees,

Hands and feet.

These six harmonies

Compose a functional position

That helps the body

Remain centered.

Page 79, The Whirling Circles of Ba Gua Zhang

by Frank Allen and Tina Chunna Zhang

Asking the horse to gather itself up with your weight on its back makes tremendous demands on their body. So err on the side of caution especially in the beginning, and dismount after ten to fifteen minutes maximum.  If your schedule allows, you can work several such short sessions in one day, but do give the horse plenty of time to eat, roll, rest, and wander between. The horse needs to get accustomed to balancing the weight of the rider and figure out how to respond with ease while you need to familiarize yourself with how this particular horse feels under saddle as they respond to your requests. So:

  • Focus on receiving the rocking arching movement of the horse’s back in your seat bones as they lift each hind-leg.
  • Focus on feeling the elevation and lightening of the forehand when the horse ‘smiles’.
  • Pay attention to how the energy comes up the stationary hind-leg, through your body locking you into the saddle from the waist down, and then continues on down into both your and the horse’s active leg to the ground again.

If you tense up in your back and seat while applying an aid, you interrupt the flow of energy and distress the horse. Keep in mind that:

The rooting of the counted walk

Draws energy up

the rear weighted leg

across the hips

and down the light forward leg.

As your intention shifts forward

This energy travels

Back underground

Up your rear leg

To complete a circle.

If the horse responds to your requests by gathering themselves up onto their tippy toes, the energy is moving in this circular fashion.  Be joyful and calm, and remember that the release and relaxation is a vital part of this exercise. The movements are not complete until the horse relaxes as you relax. Then you can praise him mightily and hop off. 

Always keep in mind that it is the SYS (stretch-yawn-syndrome) triggered when the horse ‘smiles’ and the resetting of the tensions held within the myofascial tissue that is the most vital element to this work. The body-wide field of connective tissue holds everything in place, as its name implies, as it absorbs and distributes the stresses and strains of movement but it can take the body six to eighteen months to repair and realign myofascial tissue.  The horse may appear superficially fit as muscle tissue responds to demands quickly, and bone takes a only little longer, but tendons, ligaments, and fascia are the slowest to heal and to respond to stress..  Making sure that you and the horse are working correctly for short periods in the beginning will pay off in the long-run, regardless of whether you are rehabilitating an injured horse, re-schooling one that has learned to cope with poor riders, or starting a young one from scratch.

Problems with the Counted Walk can range from too much feed and not enough exercise, to an ill-fitting saddle, to an obscure injury, as well as your own tension and mistakes so be open-minded and forgiving of yourself and your horse.  Go back to the ground exercises to find out where the kinks are and figure out how to release them before you try again.

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