When was the last time you got on a horse and simply asked for forwards? No direction, no goal, other than that your horse must keep moving? Probably back when you were a beginner rider, unaware that you could also be in charge of speed, direction and way of going. As more experienced riders, whether we get on to actively school our horses in an arena, participate in a competition or head out on a ride purely for pleasure, we’re doing something. I learned this earlier in the summer when I did a passenger ride on Prince.
To help improve Prince’s confidence (in himself and me!), our instructor had me ask just for forwards – no other commands, Prince was to choose the direction he went in, I was to just sit and, if necessary, put my leg on. I quickly learned that not only is this harder than it sounds, but that as a rider I communicate without thinking in a variety of ways. I found it easy to not put any pressure on the reins, and to not direct Prince with my legs, but keeping my balance still and not using my head and shoulders to influence his choice of direction was very difficult. This also made it quite hard sometimes to stay on and in balance with the horse!
I fixed my eyes on a point just in front of his poll, and Prince decided to turn in small circles initially, which soon made me dizzy! The solution to get out of this without telling him where to go? Ask him to go faster – small circles are impossible at speed. What sounded like a fun experience quickly turned into an exercise of great concentration, and proved the fact that riders do not just sit there! Rather than thinking about where I wanted Prince to go next, I had to think about where he might take me and how quickly, so that I could stay balanced and not get in his way.
I repeated this exercise and the next one when I next rode, and this time it was the other exercise which got me thinking. The next step on from being a passenger was that we followed the rail. I was told to stay as close to the arena fence as physically possible without kneecapping myself, and that I was to imagine Prince’s two tracks to be a green zone. Anything to the inside of those two tracks (if Prince tried to move on three tracks, or flexed too far to the inside) was considered the red zone, and I was to correct his position.
Again, I learned how much I fiddle and nag as a rider – when Prince was doing the right thing, I was to leave him alone, but I found this very difficult. I was paying close attention to his shoulders and how he was moving generally, and constantly felt myself twitching to try and tweak and correct where there weren’t really corrections to be made. Because he was, after all, in the green zone, moving forwards. But there I was, trying to get a little more movement this way or that, so I was fighting all the time to stay still.
What I learned from these exercises is that less is more, and the less you do, the less you need to do, as you and the horse become more attuned to each other. Micromanaging your horse creates a need for him to be micromanaged, whereas if you leave him alone, teach him to do his job and then trust him to do it, you create a more sensitive horse and a more compassionate rider. While I’m not resolving to sit and do nothing – because I do have responsibilities as a rider – I will try to do less.