Last fall author Kip Mistral approached me about turning my posts on horse and human training into a book for her publishing company Editions Mistral. (Click here to take a look at Dressage Sabbatical by Rose Casler) When I agreed, I started out with the intent of making sure people understood that from the horse’s point of view, they just are not built to carry weight on top of their backs because their entire torso is held up by a web of muscle and connective tissue slung between their shoulder blades. If they do not have the strength, skills, and dexterity to carry a rider, they will be so stressed and tense just trying to stay balanced they won’t be able to respond to the rider’s demands. And until the rider can sit quietly enough in the saddle to know where their hands and feet are and become able to change their positions and their qualities consciously and distinctly, the horse will not be able to differentiate meaningful movements from their rider just scrambling to stay in the saddle.
When both horse and rider are fit, they are able to respond to each other. The rider can develop independent enough aids so their movements are meaningful to the horse. The horse not only understands what particular movements might mean to their rider, they can make those changes quickly and smoothly. This lays the foundation so that the horse can follow along when the rider begins to separate and coordinate those aids. Then both horse and rider can both begin to play with all the possibilities that may arise from the logical application of the aids. The methodical progression of mutual understanding of the aids builds a relationship where both horse and rider can enjoy their time together. Developing your own sophisticated version out of the basic kinesthetic language of the natural aids is one of the great joys of riding.
Working out the process of getting both horse and rider in condition to genuinely enjoy riding got me thinking about my criticisms of what I see on the show ring and the training arenas. What I have taken to calling the second level ceiling because of the number of dressage hopefuls that never get past the second level tests in competition seems impassable for far too many aspiring riders. While trying to work out a way to get riders past what seems to be an impenetrably hard line, I talked with a musician friend of mine about this gap in the learning process. He said that he was greatly encouraged in his own efforts by hearing one of his jazz heroes explain that the way he mastered a new technique was to go in his sound proof garage, and make every mistake in the book and then more than a few extras of his own creation while he practiced, sometimes for months, Once he figured out how to stop making horrendous noises and fixed the mistakes that led to them, he was able to accomplish what he wanted on his instrument.
When I applied the idea of learning from your mistakes to horsemanship, I had to take the horse into account. In my experience, in order to be able to learn from your mistakes on horseback, your horse has to like you and trust you enough to forgive you when you mess up. My horses and I build a rather large vocabulary of voice commands that we have agreed on through groundwork before I ever get on top. Sharing that vocabulary not only makes barn life much much easier, it saves us both a great deal of frustration as training progresses. If the horse understands what you want and has learned you will listen and respond as best you can when they express what they are experiencing on the ground, they are usually more willing to try again and again under saddle. Then you can risk muddling along trying things out until you both figure out what it is you are trying to accomplish.
If your horse has decided you are trustworthy because you have demonstrated that you are willing to observe and reflect on your own behavior, and most importantly, change what you are doing so the horse can understand and cooperate with you, the second level ceiling may just melt away as you and your horse develop a more sophisticated conversation and you explore what you can do together.
So the project became a matter of several books, not just one, and the series starts with befriending your horse on the ground. I’ll let you know the instant a book is available, but meanwhile I will be preoccupied with putting them together. Check my page on the publishing process here. I will also be pulling most of the horse related posts off the blog to keep the copy-write issues clear, so there will be changes.
And my blog posts may continue to be erratic, but for a much better reason than wrestling with metabolic acidosis, anaphylaxis, and adhesions!