Author's note: This blog post could be titled, "How I Spent My Summer Vacation". This post more than any other I've posted recently is the ramblings of my brain attempting to understand some nuance of horsemanship. I hope it encourages you to explore with your own horse. I think I'm on the right track here in my thinking and reasoning, but it's entirely possible I'm completely off base too! Read at your own risk! -jlg
There is nothing like spending 10 hours on your horse to really get your mind and body in tune with the natural rhythms and balance of your horse's movement. Every summer we take a week long trip to the Montana high country and spend a glorious week at 9,000+ feet elevation taking in the splendor that is God's country. We typically put in 12-24 miles/day depending on the terrain and the day. It's not terribly difficult riding, some rocky ledges, some switch backs, some water crossings. Mostly it's just a horseback tour through some amazing mountains looking at wildlife and taking in the grandeur.
This year we had a horse along on the ride that was being ponied each day without a saddle. I ended up directly behind this horse on the trail on numerous occasions and it offered me a unique opportunity to really study the way the horse's back moves as it carries itself without interference of tack or rider on some of the rugged terrain. Watching the arc through the neck, rib cage, back and hips as that horse navigated a switch back made me better able to visualize what was happening under the leather of my saddle and how my weight in the saddle might affect my horse's natural movement. Horses are such amazingly athletic and graceful animals. They flow naturally like a ballerina, carrying themselves in perfect balance for a rounded back, stepping up and underneath themselves in the turn, carrying the head at the most natural and comfortable and efficient place for balanced movement. Naturally, movement down a mountain trail does not require feats of advanced horsemanship and extreme collection, but with changes in the terrain, the horse must adjust how he carries his body.
As I was watching this riderless horse ahead of me and trying to better feel what my horse was doing below me, I, for the very first time, felt my horse's leads at the walk. It's been quite a few years since I first heard Buck Brannaman talk about the leads in the horse at the walk at one of his clinics. I thought the man was spouting mystical out of reach horsemanship principles that yahoos like me could never appreciate. Heck, 4 years ago I still couldn't even consistently get my canter leads on my gelding, now I had to worry about leads in the walk and trot? No thank you!
But, watching that horse and appreciating the feel of my own horse I was able to finally feel and influence the leads on my horse at the walk on those high mountain trails. Buster McLaury introduced us to encouraging a walk with purpose in our horses. Having a forward moving horse, like our Morgans, makes that a simple task. We don't have to work very hard to get that good forward movement. I think until you have a very forward walk there is no lead at that gait. Movement with purpose on a free walk appears to create a walking gait that causes the horse's hips to travel just a fraction inside or outside of the movement of the horse, much like the hips will shift slightly in a the lead in the canter. While I wasn't able to scientifically measure my horse's gait as we were traveling along, I could feel my hips shifting either left or right with his lead. To begin with, I noticed this the most while ascending a series of switchbacks.
My gelding is very right lead dominate. It took me almost until he was 7 before I could consistently get a left lead at the canter and it required extreme acrobatics. If he has his choice, even today, irrespective of direction of travel, he will choose his right lead. So, I wasn't too surprised to appreciate that same preference at the walk. What was interesting was to feel him shift his weight and change leads as we entered into the switch back for a left hand turn. He would travel along on the left lead on the next straight stretch for a little while before preferentially switching back to his right lead.
Dan was traveling behind me during this phase of our trip and I mentioned to him what I was feeling and he could watch from behind as I could feel him switch his leads and surprisingly it was fairly easy for him to see in just watching my gelding's hips. And, as I watched the horse in front of me who I would have expected to be a fairly straight traveler I could appreciate by watching his back and hips that he would switch leads from time to time at the walk as well.
Then I started to experiment with influencing that lead in the walk by my body position and seat. Much like cuing for a lead change in the canter I shifted my feet and hips to change leads at the walk. If I stayed in rhythm with my horse and didn't interfere with his rhythm he switched leads fairly easily, though I couldn't get him to "counter walk" in the wrong lead around a switch back. He's too seasoned a mountain horse for that! Interestingly enough when I got out of rhythm and just tried to "force" the lead change by actually cuing, rather than just pushing my body weight over he ignored me. A narrow mountain trail isn't exactly the best place for experiments in lateral movements but it is a great place for developing feel.
So, as cool as leads at the walk may or may not be to the casual observer, what does this have to do with developing advanced horsemanship? Everything!
The leads at the walk are the horse's natural ability to orientate his body for the execution of lateral movements such as shoulder in/out, haunches in/out, and leg yields. When a horse is walking in a lead the hind end is tracking on just a slightly different track than the front end. Have you watched a dog trot down the road? As the dog is trotting down the road he will move his hind end over just a bit so that he doesn't step on himself. They reach so far underneath themselves in their trot that they have to have a leading side. The horse in "natural" extension will do this as well and we can use it to help teach ourselves and our horse's the beginning of lateral movement. If you can learn to move with your horse so that the horse feels your body and reads it just as you are feeling his body and reading him he will pick up the nuances of changing body position. If you over cue, exaggerate your body position or force your body position your horse will learn to ignore that making it that much more difficult to teach leads on the horse at any gait. I mastered the forcing and exaggeration for poor lead departure about 4 years ago while attempting to teach my gelding his left lead. Forcing a maneuver on your horse through exaggerated cue or body position doesn't work. When you find yourself doing this (we all do from time to time) you should hear Buck's voice in your head saying, "Do less, not more".
Extrapolating even further, I think this is why teaching straightness should be one of the first places that you start with a horse. I think the horse's tendency toward's having leads and his natural ability to create arc and bend through his body is well established in his natural movement. Straightness, however is not natural. Teaching the horse to hold himself equal and level with straight and even movement through both sides of his body is harder, I believe, for the horse than creating a bend on a curve. It's like us learning how to walk with good posture. It's not natural and takes some work to get good at it and most of us will go right back to slouching first chance we get.
I have always started my young colts with lots and lots of bending, circles, flexing and yielding of the hindquarters and have ignored teaching straightness until I felt I had them very "bendy". Then I have fought the bendyness trying to create straightness. This leads to trying to "lift" a diving shoulder or make the rib cage bend appropriately around your leg. If the horse can already carry himself straight, those body parts shouldn't fall out of alignment. I think both are incredibly important, but I'm wondering now if I have over emphasized the bendyness and ignored the straightness to my horse's detriment.
The old vaqueros didn't worry about all of this bend in their horses. They rode a straighter more classical horse. They didn't do flexing, arcing or breaking down of the body parts individually like we tend to see in today's training programs. Perhaps we have gotten away from helping the horse be straight in our western performance training. Anybody who watches the contortion act a reining horse will go through before a lead departure knows that "bend is in!"
I think in the next colt I will concentrate more on straightness earlier in his training. It should create a whole host of new problems for me to tackle! This is why there are no young master horseman. It takes a full life time to get this stuff figured out!