Calm and Forward
by Bonnie J. Hilton (A Horse Training article copyrighted by Saddle & Bridle Magazine.)
Anyone nearly bucked off recently? I almost ate dirt a few days ago and I know this horse and I should not have had a problem. This horse is not a rambunctious youngster. Although sensitive and quick, this horse is seasoned under saddle. So what went wrong and why? I ll give you a big clue, I was the problem. The horse was not the problem. Unfortunately, I needed a wake up call. That big buck was a good one. It scared me enough that I started to think about what I was doing, how I was doing it and why I was doing it. I didn t like the answers.
Thirty years ago, almost a mantra, from Podhajsky, recited in my mind before I would enter the covered school (indoor) were the words, calm, forward and straight. I m not going to define straight at this time, I want to focus on calm and forward, because that is why my recent riding problem developed. In The Dressage Formula, by Erik F. Herbermann he states, The three cardinal principles of riding are: Forward, Calm and Straight. He defines calm as, The horse is calm when it is psychologically at ease; in a cooperative, unagitated state of mind. The horse is not calm when: (a) adversely affected by outside stimuli, (includes the rider). (b) High from being in the stall for a long time. Overfeeding of grain combined with insufficient work. (c) When it is nervous. I would like to add a little extra to the understanding of calm, as a trainer, and that has to do with balance. When a horse is pushed out of his balance, in hand or under saddle, calm will be lost. Fitness level, range of motion and balance are intertwined. Herbermann defines forward as, Horse going actively in correct rhythm. An unconstrained, fluid motion, neither rushing nor lazy.
I have to laugh at these definitions because I can apply them to myself as a rider. When I don t achieve the state of calmness and forwardness needed to ride effectively and compassionately, I shouldn t be on a horse. Are you working an active warm-up program for yourself and your equine that produces a fluid forward movement? Do you often ride in an agitated state of mind and how often do you ride when you could be called rushing? Do you rush your equine for performance or attempt to constrain (collect) the equine before they are physically able to comply?
I have been falling into some of these traps lately, not a smart thing to do when dealing with horses. How we get wrapped up in end gaining. We have heard it time and time again. The horse knows how to be a horse. Every few years we have new individuals come forward with different approaches to this same teaching. Personally, I like the masters. I wish we would spend more time in the past, it was a slower time. The horse hasn t changed much, we have. In 1983 Erna Mairinger compiled the lecture and demonstration notes from her late husband Franz, the Australian master and coach of the 1960 gold winning team, into the book Horses Are Made To Be Horses. If he were still alive today, and I could be fortunate enough to work with him, this former member of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna would put me in my place. (Probably on the end of a longe line!) His words offer simple wisdom. Remember, riders don t have trouble with horses. It is the other way round. Horses have trouble with riders.
I was very happy when I read the following from Mairinger, but I was a bit chagrined as well. The rider can still ride in his old age. He has learned understanding and tolerance and the value of the maxim go slowly, and so he is a better rider than the ever-hasty young. I had got caught up in the hasty part again and it almost caused me certain injury. Please make a big mental note of the two words understanding and tolerance. We need to apply them to the equine and to ourselves as well.
In going back over some of Mr. Herbermann s words, I found a passage and some notes in the side column that I must have penned in 1987 during a dressage seminar. My notes stated that this passage should be quoted at all times. Along with calm and forward, I had been ignoring this noteworthy advice. We should come to recognize our own limitations, thereby not demanding work from the horse that we ourselves are incapable of controlling. Out of this self-acceptance we will learn to gain enjoyment from small daily successes. It is far too seldom appreciated what a mammoth task dressage riding assigns to the horseman; therefore we see so frequently riders over-facing their horses and themselves, and inadvertently having to resort to force, home-baked aids and trickery, in order to produce SUPPOSED results.
Please, I would like you to forget the word dressage, because it has become so muddled of late, I avoid using it unless I give an in depth definition of the term. Just think about your riding, whatever it may be and how you think about the horse you are on, even if it doesn t belong to you. Do you ever consider the limitations of the equine and what their needs are on a daily basis to achieve performance? As instructors, those of us that teach should not be found guilty of not fostering a better self-acceptance in our students. There should be more joy in small daily successes. If the horse should be calm, thus I feel the rider should be also. We should recognize our own limitations on a daily basis, not only physically, but mentally.
I don t always understand the masters, because I didn t live and ride during their time line. Lt. Col. A.L. d Endrody wrote Give Your Horse a Chance, which first appeared in 1959. The book is in depth from a Hungarian author, so conjures up mental pictures of eventing from the post World War I and II eras. He makes a comment which is indexed under forward intention rider which has cost me some brain cells to get around. He states under an explanation of the following function, (where I might add I made my first big mistake in producing the buck), The function of following is the rider s conduct in pursuing the movements of the horse in a smooth manner, inspired by a go-ahead spirit. The rider should enter wholeheartedly into this pursuit, engaging his entire willpower in the process. When he is determined to adopt this attitude (and only then!) he will be able to discharge the motional part of the function without difficulty. The following is a continuation of giving and therefore it is linked directly to the finishing phase of the giving. The go-ahead spirit and willpower sums up a big limitation behind much of our frustration.
I got on this horse and did not ride calm and forward. I didn t negotiate at all. I didn t allow the horse to go forward as it needed to and I wasn t riding forward in my mind either. I had my plan and never gave the horse any consideration as to what his plan was. Where was my head? As you will see later, it was lost in end gaining.
Molly Sivewright, author of Thinking Riding states in a section about the rider s influences on the horse, The aids the language shared by horsemen and horses as they live and work together. Then as she defines aids, she gives as her first priority, The rider s will disciplined, trained thought, concentration, communication, determination, and the many other facets of the mind.
In Misconceptions and Simple Truths in Dressage, Dr. HLM Van Schaik wrote a one sentence statement after a chapter on aids, I end this chapter urging my readers that we apply the aids to help the horse, not put him in a mould.
I was so asinine as to mount a horse in less than a calm spirit, not giving to a forward attitude of mind and attempting to put the horse in a mold or frame before they had any time to come to terms with what my plan A was all about. I didn t stop and think whether they could comply either mentally or physically at the time. I deserved to get bucked off. Luckily the kind, sensitive gelding I was on only gave me the one big one, in an attempt to get my attention. If he had wanted to hurt me, I wouldn t be here writing this. It is amusing, that after the buck, I dropped my plan of impressing the owner (now you know I was in to end gaining) who just happened to be present, which is not a common thing for us to contend with and I allowed the equine to work its mental and physical kinks out.
Remember that at the beginning of this article I did say that I was the problem. I didn t get any more resistance, because I didn t try to force the performance. From Herbermann, We must learn to distinguish between judicious leadership needed to guide the horse with firmness and persistence, and arrogant dictatorship which is enforced through the thoughtless subjugation of the animal.
Along with the end gaining so prevalent in our field and contributing to the wide chasm that exists within the disciplines, is the problem of self-acceptance. When you get caught in the hard place between trying to produce results to gain black ink on your ledger sheet or your personal ambition for recognition (or to impress the owner) and your initial reasons for ever getting involved with horses, your own feelings of self-acceptance will get unclear and the horse will suffer. To quote Herbermann again, The chief motivator of our attitudes should be a love for the horses. When this theme encompasses all our intentions it fosters the humility and learning attitude which aid the rider to persevere through the difficulties encountered on the road to discovering the horse. As instructors we need to stop a minute and really think about this. As trainers we need to really put on the brakes and do some self evaluation. Calm and forward is not only a riding objective when you really think about it. It is a way of life.
I have to end with words from Mairinger, because they not only reflect my aspirations for my future riding, but also that of my older students who are facing the same limitations, and they make me smile. Through practice and experience we team to do things with as little effort as possible. This applies most particularly to riding. The horse does the work; the rider appears to sit there. He can compete at 80 years of age if he has trained his horse correctly. Where are most mistakes made? What produces resistance and fight from the horse? What on the other hand, is the key to success and enjoyment in old age? The answer is simple applied common sense.
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