Thursday, 22 October 2009

Could horsemanship be simpler than we think?

I'm no trained rider - that's for sure! Most of what I know I've worked out as I go. Over the years I've heard so much about how to ride though. Loads of phrases like 'on the bit, 'a good seat', 'on the forehand', 'outside rein inside leg (or it might be the other way round, I'm not sure)', 'take up a contact', 'drive the horse forward'. I have no idea what all this stuff means - I mean that, I really don't, and what's more, I don't want to know either.

I've watched a few people ride who I thought looked pretty comfortable. I'd like to ride like they do really. And I've learnt quite a bit about how it is mentally and physically best for the horse if he goes in a certain way. I've worked out that you can pretty soon trash horses if you don't look after them and you ride them wrong. I've taken that on board.

I was wondering if I pitched up on a remote island, and there were some horses there, untouched horses, and I'd never seen a horse before, how would I get along with them. This is quite a big island, by the way. Big enough for me to have a bit of a farming operation going, so over the years I build up my herd of cattle and my flock of sheep. I eventually get round to taming one or two of the horses and it's not long before I work out that that bit of curved back there just behind the withers looks about right to sit on. I also work out that for control and steering purposes I need something on the horses head, so I make a bridle (I guess I'd start with a bitless, so that's the first thing - I'd miss out on all the communication I get with the horses' mouth).

So there I go, riding my horse all over the place, getting the jobs done, rounding up the animals, stopping and starting, twisting and turning, and working out the best way for me and my horse to get along. But this time I wouldn't have all the helpful information that I have picked up along the way in the real world. I wouldn't know that I needed to spend twenty years working on my seat, or that I needed to study the great masters to learn the art of riding. I might just work out that it's best not to fall off too much though, and that things are easier if I have a bit of balance between me and the horse when I go for a turn. I'd probably work out that that balance I feel in the turn is pretty nice to feel in most of what I do too, and I'd probably work out that that balance, when I find it, can only really come through for me and the horse when I relax.

I do sometimes wonder if we have maybe made it all a bit more complicated than it is.


Kate said...

Could well be - humans love overcomplicated systems!

Glenatron said...

Humans love to make it sound like they know something other humans don't so they can feel special.

That said, I think Tom's idea that one could naively grow effective riding is not entirely accurate. I think that someone who could see what was going on with absolute clarity, who could really do all that observe-remember-compare thing pretty much perfectly, but I'm not sure that person exists. The closest thing you might have in a historical setting is the way that the American Indians responded to horses- they hadn't seen them before but they understood flight animals and they had a certain empathy that allowed them to achieve some amazing things if the accounts are to be believed.

jill said...

I've always thought, when it stops being fun, riding, that is, I'll have to find something else to do. I think some folks forget that being with/on the horse is supposed to be fun and enjoyable for you and the horse. That's my goal at least. If ya start thinking too much, it becomes a chore, it tends to go south quickly. Maybe that's part of the flow or feel that folks strive for.

rifruffian said...

oh!....and here's me thinking clinicians knew everything. (wrong again..)

Tom said...

Rifruffian - I'm pretty certain that the nature of horsemanship is such that knowing everything is not part of the deal.
I sometimes feel I have made a start!

June said...

I think you are lucky if you can work it out for yourself. I had riding lessons on riding school horses for twenty two years before I finally found someone who was able to teach me to ride. Sure, I could get on a horse and control it but I couldn't really affect its way of going.

These days I can get on most horses and have control of their feet, at least after a little while, and get them to lift their backs and soften, but I didn't work that out for myself, and I'm not sure I ever would seeing as I hadn't in 22 years of lessons. Now, I know what it is I'm doing that has that effect which means I can usually reproduce it, which is very helpful!

Sometimes I wonder if it is because I had riding school lessons for 22 years that made me lose my creativity and prevent me looking for alternatives but I don't really think so. I guess I'm just not that creative so if someone can tell me how to do it it helps a lot!

June said...

And that leg into hand stuff makes complete sense now. If you're asking a horse to soften you often find they slow down, so you end up using leg and hand at the same time and the feeling is one of pushing the horse forwards into the hand. What they forgot to say with the leg into hand stuff is there's a RELEASE involved too. Leg into hand and RELEASE. It's the most important part of it and no one in the traditional world ever mentions it. How on earth can the horse have any idea that he's done what you want if you don't tell him with a release? I guess its because the "talented" riders do it automatically so don't know they do it but for the rest of us it needs to be spelt out.

Tom said...

June, what I am trying to say is that ultimately you do have to work it out for yourself. After 22 years you realised that you needed to look further.
That is my point really - because of the way things are set up where people expect the teacher to help them, they come to rely on that teacher. If we think for ourselves hopefully we wouldn't spend years before realising we are getting nowhere.
To some degree I agree. Why spend time 're-inventing the wheel', except that this is me, learning in my life, and it's enjoyable.
I like that saying that goes something like this - you can't teach people something, but you can create an environment where hopefully they can learn something.

I think I understand what you are saying about softness, leg to hand, and release - but I said inside leg to outside hand - what's that about then? Isn't it a good example of how a lot of riding teachers talk in riddles.

June said...

Actually, I got lucky. It was a single lesson with a different instructor, because the previous one kept letting me down, that made me realise there were other options. Prior to that lesson I thought I was doing okay. One lesson was all it took for me to work out how to feel where all the legs were underneath me and what they were doing and suddenly a whole new world opened up, which was one I'd been looking for but had never really articulated it. It was just obvious that was where I wanted to go when it was presented to me. It simply felt right.

One of the best things about this new "system" was that it set you up to recognise the feeling you wanted to get and what you had to do to get it, so it was very much about self teaching. I still think you need someone on the ground every now and then as your body tends to cheat you and not do what you think its doing but in between lessons you can make a lot of progress. I guess the saying you quoted sums that up! The new instructor set up an environment for me to learn.

Yes, I've never got that inside leg to outside hand thing. It must be an instruction given if your horse is falling in but if that is the case there are much better ways of fixing it, lifting the inside rein a fraction for example, being one solution.

My favourite instructor riddle is "use your seat". No wonder you see so many people shoving with their bums. How else can you possibly translate "use your seat"?

rifruffian said...

well, pleasing to read and realise I am not the only one who fails to understand so many of these riding riddles....

Kate said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kate said...

Tom, I have been thinking about this a whole lot. I can't imagine riding in a vacuum, without the constant babble of voices (mostly cyber ones) about how you should do this, and that, and what you shouldn't do, usually upon pain of death!

Maybe it's because I am such a simple girl, but I can find it immobilizes me, and I feel unable to get on my horse sometimes without worrying that I am doing some enormous harm by not using a cue in the right way.

I think if you were learning to ride a horse outside of this context, and without the long array of instructors many of us have been seen (my first riding lessons involved instructions to grip with my knees and kick with my heels-it kind of sets you up to be a bit braced doesn't it?!) the freedom you would experience to work things out for yourself would certainly give you fighting chance of doing something that worked for you and your steed. (If I was on a desert island I would be riding a black stallion of course).

I think you would miss heaps and heaps of really useful stuff that generations of great riders have discovered and developed-but you would probably get some basics down really well.

If you started riding without a saddle you should learn about balance, and that 'gripping' with various parts of your body tends to ping you off the horses back. So that should encourage you to be relaxed. I doubt that the balance you had with your horse would be as refined as what we might look for now though, but it would be pretty functional.

I guess you might work on certain 'moves' with your horse as they would be useful for work, and you might come to enjoy them so much that you would develop it further.
But, I think you would miss some really fundamental things about horse anatomy, that might lead you to do things in a different way than you might now.

Maybe you could set up some kind of social experiment what Channel 4 would run?

rifruffian said...

Kate, the most important word to me in your reply is.....'functional'. It's the most interesting aspect of my own adventure in horsemanship.
Could this be what Tom is on about?

June said...

Not sure if functional is enough though. You can have a horse working upside down with a hollow back that is functional but it probably won't be functional for as long as a horse that is working with its back lifted.

Or at least that's the theory. Do we really know what's best for the horse? We think we do and logic would suggest working in a "suspension bridge" shape is better but we don't really know it for a fact. All we can do is our best with the knowledge we have available at the time, but with more knowledge our best probably becomes better.

June said...

Oops, didn't quite finish that one.

Meant to add, its sorting out useful "knowledge" from useless "knowledge" that can be tricky sometimes!

There's so much about dealing with horses that just is. Sometimes there's a reason for it and sometimes there isn't. Changing the status quo is quite daunting, especially if your horse is on a livery yard and what you're doing is a little different.

Tom said...

'Functional' is a word that can be interpreted in relative terms. I would say, 'functional' should mean, in the correct way, so it wouldn't include riding your horse upside down, not in my book anyway.
I'm going to get all philosophical here - I can feel it! When I wrote this post I was really thinking about one thing - humans do have a habit of complicating things.
Look at life for a start. You can make that pretty complicated and I'm certain that doesn't make it easier, or you can keep it pretty simple and that seems to work pretty well.
Then look at groundwork with horses - there are whole books written on that. You can have or invent fancy theories, there are loads of them, and you can even carry out strange contorted actions to communicate with your horse, or you can simply 'control the movement' - that works as well or even better actually, than all the complicated stuff.
So then I started thinking about riding. One of the mysteries that I believed in for example, is how to get your horse 'off the forehand'? Is that a mystery? Not really - but if you tried to take on board everything that 'those who know' advise, it could easily seem a bit beyond most of us ordinary riders. But if you just sit on your horse and feel the balance when your horse isn't on the forehand, then at least you know what it is you're after, and so does your horse.
But no-one ever makes it that simple do they. It's always, you have to sit like this, or like that, or you have to train your horse in that way or this way, or, worst of all in my opinion, 'only the most talented riders can do this'.
And then I got to wondering, if you sit in balance with your horse, could you be sitting wrong.

June said...

Tom wrote "And then I got to wondering, if you sit in balance with your horse, could you be sitting wrong."

Lol. That's it in a nutshell I reckon, but I think it is a whole lot easier said than done!

Right now I'm trying to go sideways with my horse but with the horse as one piece, not with a bend in the neck. Sitting in balance with that is proving quite interesting and not that easy. Neither of us have quite worked it out yet. When we do I guess I'll wonder why it was so difficult.

I agree with you totally about the comment "only talented riders can do that". Actually lots of people can do what talented riders can do. It just means they have to work out what it is the talented riders do. The talented riders don't know what they do which is why I think riding has remained a mystery to so many people. I don't think it is particularly useful to be taught by your "average" talented rider. That's where the riddles come from!

rifruffian said...

Well Tom this little blog of yours pennd on 22 Oct has certainly provoked a little thought within me. (most unusual LOL).

Your written idea as to what you might do on your desert island.....well,I'm lucky to keep my horse on a stock trading farm, both cattle and sheep. They don't rear anything there, its all traded in and traded out in a very short timespan. So I do get the chance of some unfussed stock herding and I do think its a fab way to enjoy time and work out a riding partnership with your horse.....also, since my horse lives out all the time I do sometimes observe him making, naturally and alone, many of the fab and fancy moves we all would like to achieve ridden....Now as to what we manage to pick up and assimilate and achieve in this civilisation (that's a loose word!) in which we live..... my few thoughts about that are....there are many equitation teachers out there who are not too good at it.....and with respect to the internet I find it to be most useful with respect to horse care, maintenance, handling but not reaaly for riding.

Yes Tom you do have a point; horsemanship is simpler than is often made out.

Tom said...

Thanks to June, Glenatron, Rifruffian and Kate for your comments. I really appreciate it. I think it is quite helpful, and interesting to get a bit of thoughtful dialogue going, and also it's great to challenge/discuss each others views too.

I think the thing is, as I delve into this horsemanship lark, I come across stuff that of course, people have come across before - but it's new to me and I get excited about it. It's just great to share other people's experience around this same stuff. Sometimes I actually feel quite shy about my horsemanship, and I know that is partly because of the way the established horseworld puts stuff across. It kind of spreads a feeling of inadequacy amongst mere mortals. I don't like that, and it kinds of gets me crusading a bit. I know all that stuff is a lot about my ego and my insecurity and so on, but I feel like horses are such good fun, it's a shame that a lot of people almost have this built in assumption that good horsemanship is the province of the few who know.

June said...

I too get excited about stuff that's new to me.

I'm fortunate in that I'm somewhat insulated from the outside world since my horses all live at home and the clinics we do are at home. I very seldom come across "traditional" horse people any more and when I do I'm quite shocked that they still exist and haven't discovered what to me seems like a better way of doing things. They often see themselves as good horsepeople but their horses don't behave as if their owners are good horsepeople, which is what counts really.

I think it pays all of us to be humble about what we do, but Tom, I don't think you need to be shy about your horsemanship. You do it with thought and integrity, you make a pretty good job of it and best of all you keep questioning and learning.

Glenatron said...

So there I am having problems with my shoulders on a large circle, first they drop in, then they wobble out and as they drop in I pick them up and put them back on the right line and then as they pop out again I sort out our alignment again and still the circles aren't consistently round and most importantly for me, it's not getting better which is usually a pretty good sign I need to change what I'm doing.

And I think about someone saying "ride the line", which is one of those great enigmatic horse trainer phrases that can mean almost whatever you want it to, but at that moment for me it meant "stop thinking about the horse and think about the circle instead." Then I wasn't micromanaging where each foot went or worrying about changing the bend, I was just riding in a circle. And because I was concentrating on where the circle was, I was correcting the moment we started to stray rather than after the event. It wasn't instantly magically perfect, but it was a heck of a lot better.

Reading this discussion reminded me of that- the change in focus from small details to the big picture and from doing something complicated to something simple was exactly what was needed in that case.

June said...

This thread continues to keep me pondering - and probably overcomplicating stuff again!

So, do we create the balance or does the horse create the balance? Do we lead and the horse follow or is it the other way around? I suspect the talented riders create the balance and take the horse with them. Is that the difference between being an effective rider and a benign passenger?

Glenatron said...

I'm thinking about things way beyond what I know now, but I suspect that once you really start to get there then it almost goes beyond balance and into something more like unity, where the thing you want to happen is the thing that happens more or less on the idea.

I don't know if that is somewhere I could ever get to, but watching some really good horsemen with their own horses it looks to me like there is a pretty direct sharing of ideas there.

June said...

Yes, it certainly does look like that.

I was thinking about one of our horses today. He's probably my once in a lifetime horse. Other people have described him as their wall of death horse but he and I just seem to get along pretty well and on occasions it does feel like I'm riding him from thought alone. It doesn't happen all the time but I do get that feeling for at least some of the time every ride. It's a great feeling.

I wonder what it is that makes the difference though. I don't get that feeling on every horse I ride.

Tom said...

Recently I have been working a lot on what I have been calling, 'trapping the horse in the balance'. I didn't really know what to call it.
There is a point of front to back balance that if I show the horse I am looking for it, then he starts to look for it too. In a way it was the inspiration for this thread because I was wondering if it's what people call, 'off the forehand'. The thing is it's pretty impossible to achieve this if there are any braces in me or the horse, and it is impossible if I am sitting out of balance. It's good fun because it has made me put right a lot of stuff about the way I sit and so on, which then got me to thinking, maybe I can get the difficult stuff done through the easy stuff.
I recently got the job of teaching a complete novice to ride - what a joke, me, teaching someone to ride! But it has been fun, because I have pretty much focussed on balance and relaxation, and it's going pretty well so far.
The other really interesting thing is, what happens to the horses if you ride in this balance. It does affect them differently, depending on where they are at and so on. If they are hiding away, it can be quite dramatic because they can't hide in this moment of balance. But for others it has the effect of really helping to unlock braces, and free them up. I'm finding it to be pretty central to what I am doing right now.
The first time I really saw and understood this was in the States a couple of years ago. I saw this horse that had no idea, start to rush off with this trainer, and he just pulled it up really high. For a few times the horse set off diving down onto the bit, but the rider just emphatically said, 'no way'. After a minute or two, the horse got what the deal was and they set off riding around the place completely calmly and in balance. It was a revelation to me.
Then I started seeing that some other riders are actually doing this too. If you look at some of the pictures of famous riders from the past, or some riders from now, you can actually see that a lot of them look like they are in one piece with their horse, not separate in some way.
I think that might be what you are talking about, June.

rifruffian said...

Two particular words in this thread mean a lot to me (relative to the thread title).
The first word from Kate...'functional'. The second word from Glenatron.....'unity'. No one could say these concepts are complicated and to me they are vital.
June asks...'I wonder what really makes the difference.' one thing that I believe makes a huge difference is...'purpose'. If both rider and horse understand clearly the task that is to be achieved.....then assuming the basics are already in place, motion and movement can happen, almost as if by 'thought'.

June said...

Yes, when you watch a really good rider it is hard to see where the rider ends and the horse begins. I remember watching a top class dressage rider a while back, not one of the kick and pull variety. It looked like the horse was hung off her. The horse never shifted her out of place. I see the same in some of the top polo players.

As rifruffian says, purpose is certainly something that makes a difference but there's more to it than that. I wonder if we just get on better with some horses than others in the same way as we get on better with some people than others. Maybe for those horses where it feels like we can ride with thought both the horse's personality and its way of going are a good fit for us.