This week I want to talk about a subject that every single one of my students has dealt with in the last few weeks, how to find a neutral place with your horse. While this may be counter intuitive to many, I am a firm believer that a horse learns when the rider is in neutral. Don’t get me wrong! Training a horse requires input from a rider, but the horse learns what is right when you take the pressure OFF. When you are neither pulling nor squeezing, when you are relaxing and moving with the horse, essentially when you have shifted into Neutral.
I am constantly telling my students to DO something: stop the horse from turning and running out the gate or refusing a jump, to make the horse go when he decides it’s a good time to just halt in the middle of the ring. Then immediately after that I am telling them, “OK TOO MUCH, TOO MUCH!”. Then I am right back to “Soften your aids, back off and relax.” We go from 0 to 100, and cannot seem to find a middle ground. What I find myself explaining over and over again in the last few weeks, is finding equilibrium. This is a place where you just have to BE. You find the middle ground between pulling and loopy reins, between squeezing and being loosey goosey. From there you can adjust the horse (a little half halt here, a little outside leg there) and return to equilibrium.
It is from here that you are able to train and teach your horse. At its most basic form, training horses is a series of putting pressure on and releasing that pressure. To teach your horse to turn, for example, you place pressure on the rein and opposite leg until the horse turns and then you release that pressure. It is in the release that the horse learns how to turn. The horse realizes that when they turn, the pressure on them goes away and we return to a happy neutral space. The next time you use that aid the horse will happily respond quickly to attempt to remove the pressure on them. In this way learning to release and return to equilibrium is just as, if not more, important than learning the aids you are attempting to teach. If the rider never releases their aid, the horse will never learn what is right or wrong, and so will forever be confused. The better you become at giving an aid, realizing your horse responded, and releasing the pressure, the more your horse will trust you and the more willing your horse will be to work for you.
As such, it is important for riders to learn how to FIND this neutral state. An exercise that I use a lot in teaching students this concept is taking away stirrups. You don’t have to do much, some simple walk trot exercises are enough, you can even do it on the end of a lunge line. Taking your stirrups away forces you to sink down into the saddle and wrap your legs around the horse. As you go around encourage yourself to release tension in your legs and lower back, allow yourself to find your center of gravity and follow the horses movement with your seat to stay on. As you tense you will feel yourself come out of sync with the horse, you MUST relax to get back in sync. This is an exercise that will take a lot of deep breathing, a lot of self-reflection to fight instinct and tense up. But is a great exercise to teach you to move with the horse, and not against him.
As you start to move with the horse, you will start to recognize his movements and his ques to tell what he is going to do next. As you start to recognize those ques, like a pop of the shoulder before he turns away from where you want to go, or when he takes a half step slower before he stops, you will be able to make those mild adjustments and return back to neutral. This teaches the horse that he cannot get away with mild misbehavior's. As the horse starts to trust and respect you, you are able to teach new things: ask for something, hold until you get the response you are looking for, and return to neutral, thus teaching the horse a new aid. It doesn’t always happen right away, you may need to ask and relax for even the smallest right answer, but the more you train by returning to that equilibrium position, the faster the horse will learn something. At the end of the day, your horse is trying find the fastest way to take as much pressure as he can off of him. You do this by riding softly, and making things pleasant for your horse when he is good!
Again, this concept is difficult to achieve. Our instinct is to tense up when horses misbehave or do something unexpected. So do not get discouraged if this does not come naturally, just take a deep breath and start again. I hope this hits home with some of you, and hope you tune in next week for a student spotlight!