Esperanza, a mare who appreciates my efforts to work less.
I’ve worked hard all my life. In my early twenties, I spent several years years as an assistant trainer for a couple of show barns, where I paid my dues cleaning twenty-plus stalls and saddling the trainer’s horses, then riding all the horses the trainer did not want to ride. When I felt ready to hang out my own shingle, I kept a full barn of horses in training while putting myself through college and grad school, taking evening classes after riding until sundown. Even today, I ride more horses in a day than most people do in a week. I’ve always been proud of working hard. Until recently, “lazy” sounded, to me, like the ultimate insult.
It does not anymore. For the first time in my life, I am reconsidering this notion. Laziness has become my new ambition. I am realizing more and more that good riders are as lazy as possible. Of course, this does not mean we should quit riding on a regular basis. Of course I don’t mean we should binge-watch netflix instead of riding our horses. Of course I don’t mean we should use training shortcuts, like draw reins and crank nosebands. But we should try to let the horse do most of the work.
An effective seat allows horse-rider communication, but does not require a lot of constant muscle tension.
I see so many riders work harder than their horses do. Some squeeze their horses with their legs all the time, using a lot of muscle power just to sit in a position they consider “correct.” Others move their seat a lot, rocking back and forth like this will make the horse move forward or sideways. A third group hangs on to the reins for dear life, trying to achieve good contact by pulling on their horses’ mouths. Well-meaning instructors (myself included) often tell students to ask for more - more bend, more engagement, more energy, more connection. Riders interpret this as having to work more. They push more, they pull more. They tighten more of their muscles. Their faces become red with the effort. The don’t look like they’re enjoying any of this. Neither do their horses.
This tendency is rooted in our culture. We live in a competitive world. We grow up with the ideal of pulling ourselves up by our boot straps. From the time we can walk and talk, we hear that only those of us who work hard will get ahead. Achievement is a direct function of the effort we put into anything - school, college, career, sports, even relationships. So, naturally, when we ride horses, we think doing more in the saddle will make us better riders. To be the best riders we can be, to make our horses the best they can be, we have to be active - with our seat, with our hands, with our legs, even with our minds.
Cinco, one of the horses who taught me that more is not always better.
And yet, the curious thing is, with horses this does not work. They become irritated or anxious. They tend to either shut down or run off when we do too much. They do not seem to appreciate our efforts. They either overreact or stop reacting altogether. Our goal of horse-rider harmony remains elusive. We catch glimpses of it on the horizon, but the harder we chase it, the farther it moves away. The partnership we dream of teases us from a distance, yet remains out of reach.
When I watch really good riders, I don’t admire how hard they work. I admire how easy they make it look. I don’t see Ingrid Klimke’s knuckles turn white. Her horses move with ease and elegance. She just sits there, or at least it looks that way. I don’t see working cowboys spur and squeeze their horses every stride. They’d be exhausted after an hour of doing this. They would have no energy for a long day of ranch work.
Giving back the half-halt is a part of every half-halt. Its not an afterthought we can forget about.
Good riders stand out because they do less, not more.
It’s human nature to want to help your horse, but you can’t do his work for him. Nowadays, my goal for every horse I ride is to let him cruise - for a few strides, or for a full circle. My goal is not to tell my horse “come on! come on, come on” with every step. My goal is to be quiet whenever possible, so my words, i.e. my aids, mean something when I do use them. I want to spend as much riding time as I can in a neutral position - a place from which I can correct or help the horse if needed, but I’m not urging him along or holding him back all the time.
Leg aids are a good example. The horse does not learn from the leg aid itself. He does not move away from the leg because it’s there. He moves away from the leg because it goes away again. The teaching moment is the cessation of the aid, not the aid itself. If the horse does not respond, squeezing or nagging with the leg will only teach the horse to ignore the aid. It’s better to use a a nudge, or a quick touch with the spur, or anything that elicits a response. Even if the response was not perfect, it’s crucial to take the leg or spur back to the neutral zone at that exact moment - not five seconds later. Focusing on being done with the leg aid is the only way to make the horse more responsive.
Teaching a young horse about responsiveness
The same is true for rein aids: the horse gets lighter in the contact because of a well-timed and barely visible release of the rein, not the rein aid itself. The release is a part of the half-halt, not a separate thing, not an unnecessary and often forgotten afterthought. Yes, we need to use leg aids and half-halts. Yes, we need to sometimes correct our horses with a stronger aid. But the goal is to move back into the neutral kind of riding as soon as possible: hands that follow the horse’s mouth, a softly following seat, a legs that hover around the horse’s sides.
Horses become softer, lighter and more responsive when our goal is to work less hard. Try to let go as soon as your horse responds. Try to take your legs and reins back to the neutral zone a fraction sooner than you think you can. I know my horses appreciate it. I think yours will, too.
Überstreichen, i.e. letting go of one or both reins for a few strides, is an excellent way to check whether the contact was correct.
I would love to hear your thoughts on this subject!