Perfect obedience is not an ideal that I aspire to. And while ordinarily I would be pulling out the sidereins and getting ready for some serious flexion sessions, I love this horse’s high head carriage and really want to maintain as much of it as possible. Given the choice, I would prefer a free-moving, confident horse with his profile slightly ahead of the vertical. Call it the opposite of rollkur. And I’m afraid that too much gadgetry weighing down his lovely nose would really kill independent George, so to speak.
Today it was in the low fifties and raining, which is not necessarily weather I would usually ride in – I am not fifteen anymore! – but he’d had two days off and nothing but a lunge the day before. Besides, I was feeling down and that horse is like a shot of espresso, like a breath of pure oxygen, just to be around.
The rain picked up as we went out to lunge, and instead of his usual staid jog, interspersed with lots of sad longing stares at me – “May I please come in now? – he burst into a gallop and carouselled for a full five minutes in either direction. Clearly wet windy weather pushed his little buttons. He jumped out from under me when I mounted, but the long hard gallops had done their trick and our hero was a bit worn down at this point.
It was my intention to just walk and work on the whole pressure paradigm – in other words, to shift his little world on its axis. It is a constant refrain that to pull back on a racehorse is to encourage speed, but that is such an oversimplified explanation. Anyone who has been taught to bridge their reins and let their horse put their head down and run on cross-country knows that the horse can achieve a longer faster thrust with less effort when they are on the forehand. When you take hold of a galloping racehorse, that’s not the same cue, per se, as a good kick or a stick. It is making it easier for the horse to stretch out – therefore, he does. Basically you’re not telling the horse to do something, you’re just opening a door that he very much wants to go through.
Now, though, instead of anticipating and taking hold of pressure, you want to teach the horse to back away from the pressure – a more natural response for the mouth, anyway. Looking upon it as I lay it out above, you ought to be able to sit deep, at the walk, let your hips roll from side to side in a rather exaggerated fashion (to help maintain the forward walk and discourage an upward transition) and take hold of his mouth. Because you’re not anticipating the leap forward that the old wives’ tales foretold, you won’t get one. You’ll just get a stiff-necked horse with his mouth open, saying, “HEY lay off the FACE!”
And – you know what to do now, right? Those gentle fingers, releasing every time he gives, until you’ve achieved the first tiny steps of “Long and Low,” and maybe you’ve even attained a nice wet mouth, if you’re lucky. I love the way it is described in the Days’ book “The Fearless Horse”: Allow the horse to do what is right, block him from doing what is wrong. ” ‘Blocking’ is ‘no’ and can be communicated through increased pressure.” In other words, you are teaching your horse to seek a release of pressure, by working at the walk (or the trot, if the horse is still fresh) by first not putting them in a position where they anticipate the fast gait that makes pressure a reward, and by then showing them just how pleasant a release of pressure can feel on the mouth.
The softness of fingers and elbow are key here. And I often end up riding with my hands far out to either side – something I’ve seen Western Pleasure trainers do as well – in order to cease the constant interruption of shortening up everytime the horse lifts his head again.
So we walked for about fifteen minutes, and within a few minutes he was taking a step or two, here or there, without pulling back on my hands. Path of least resistance and all that. Horses crave that path – they’re followers. And so slowly my reins grew longer and longer, until my hands were practically out at my knees, and he was round and arched from nose to tail, and I could turn him with my seat and leg. Yes, just like that. Patience, kids, and soft soft fingers. It will all come.