Have you ever noticed how some folks are always on a horse that walks out? I mean really covers some ground. You may have also noticed that it doesn't matter what horse that person is riding it will end up in the front of the pack. I'll admit it; I'm one of those. Yes, I confess, I have a zappy butt.
Having a horse with a good ground covering walk is an important thing, especially if you are one of those riders who likes to get out and cover a lot of ground. Some of us that do a lot of trail riding and put long days and lots of miles on their horses look at those slow walking horses with complete exasperation. But, you can bet that we are also the ones fighting the whoa as well. We have tons of go and not much whoa. Our horses are also going to likely be the ones that once you get to scenic overlook they want to take it in for about 10 nanoseconds before returning to moving off down the trail.
During my amazing week with horseman, Eitan Beth-Helachmy this spring, it became painfully obvious that my zappy butt that serves me so well on the trail providing those great ground covering gaits was a complete burden when working on softness and collection, and lord help me if I ask for a free gait. I have trouble turning my zappy butt off and my horse has learned that the only thing he can rely on my seat to tell him is to move forward, forward, forward like there is a current of electricity running from my cheeks to his back.
Zappy butt shows up in the most inconvenient places. Do you maybe have a zappy butt? Here are some tell tale signs:
1. Any time you release rein the speed of the gait increases often breaking into the next gait
2. Whoa is a process and not an instant transition.
3. Your horse walks forward in the turn on the HQ, Turn on the FQ, Side pass, halt, etc.
4. Your horse has trouble standing still for extended periods of time (such as longer than 2 seconds!)
5. Your horse MUST be in the lead because he can't stand to follow one of those slow moving horses.
I'm sure that's not a complete list, but it gives you the idea of the issues a good old zappy butt can cause.
Part of my journey to softness and creating a bridle horse that responds so well to your body has been to learn to communicate less with your hands and more through all of your other aids.
Learning how to dial down your energy in your zappy butt is so essential to improving the communication between horse and rider. Eitan spent an entire session with me just having me raise and lower (lots and lots of lowering!) my energy level and letting my horse feel that change in my body and respond. When I think about all of the great horseman that I have had the priveledge to watch ride I think this is one of the things that helps distinquish a good horseman from a great horseman. When a great horseman gets on a horse he will spend a minute or two adjusting his energy to the energy of the horse until they are on the same page. It's really neat to watch, actually, like watching Einstein calculate algorithms or Mozart compose symphonies, or Monet prepare a canvas. There is an art to it when it is really working and you can see when horse and rider are moving as one and ready to begin.
I've begun to incorporate this technique with every horse that I get on. It helps to teach my horse's patience and it helps us to mentally and physically get our bodies on the same wave length. After mounting I just sit there, heavy in my seat, relaxed in my legs try to drop my energy down into the horse. If the horse needs reassurance I'll lean forward and pet them on the neck a little. If they need a little help standing still and waiting on our energy conversation I might do some lateral flexion until the feet are still and then try to get us on the same page again.
Learning how to control and utilize your zappy butt is only the first step. Each of us has an energy center that the horse can feel and learn to respond to. Turning down the forward energy in your zappy butt and then forcusing that energy and directing it allows you to direct changes in how your horse responds to your body. The horse can follow that directional energy if you learn how to cast it out. I like to think of my directional energy center in the vicinity of my pancreas.
As I was watching Eitan effortlesly go from a short walk to a stop to a back I couldn't see any change in his hands or seat. I asked him if he was asking the horse to back with his hands and he said he was backing the horse by shooting his energy backwards. Sure, sounds easy enough. I about gave myself a belly ache trying to shoot my energy backwards.
But practice makes perfect and visualization is the key with some of this Zen and the art of Pancreas riding. When I think of my furnace sitting in my pancreas and mentally shoot my energy backwards (which still is accompanied by an intense grimace of concentration on this horseman's part!) my horse will learn to respond to that feel like he responds to any other feel that I offer.
It comes in so handy to be able to ride with your pancreas. Is your horse falling in on your circle or leaning on your leg in the free walk or free jog? Try casting your pancreas out over his outside shoulder. Is your horse's free jog of poor quality, maybe too fast? First check your zappy butt and then shoot your pancreas just a touch down and backwards.
Where my pancreas really comes in handy is on those long diagonals. When teaching your horse to ride a straight line and stay centered without a lot of micromanaging, it's important to direct your energy to where you are going. In my mind, I cast my pancreas out in front of me where we are going like a blast of Spidey's web pulling us along to our destination.
The free gaits are a great time to get the zappy butt and pancreas working together for you. The free gaits are tough for a lot of people, especially if you are used to holding onto your horse and directing his every step with your hands. The transition from working gait to free gait needs to happen right at the letter the gait is called for. If you are crossing a long diagonal and you don't get into a free walk until you pass 8, you've already donated half your points to the judges. Instead, your energy should immediately go from working, softened gait to free lengthened gait within one step. When you step off the track at K to cross to M from the working jog to the free jog, your zappy butt should talk to that right front leg to extend to the free gait. You drop your hands and lengthen the rein allowing the horse to drop and lenthen the head and neck and the direction should come from the line of energy being shot from your pancreas right at M.
Of course these aren't just techniques that I use on the Cowboy Dressage court. Cowboy Dressage is how I help train my horses, but the end goal is to create a better partner in the other things I do with my horses as well. Zappy butt and pancreas are working to help improve my comminication on the trail as well as in the arena. Most of my time on the trail is spent in the free gaits unless I'm manuevering through obstacles or going down hill. That means that commuincation and direction must be occuring more through my zappy butt and pancreas directional center than through my hands. My young colt has had limited trail time with me so far and can get a little nervous and has trouble with his cadence on the trail. He also gets a little bothered if I am micromanaging with the bit while he is busy exploring the trail. The best compromise to establish communication for the both of us is if I do more guidance with my body and less with my hands. It's a great way to explore the dialing up and down of the energy and lengthening and shortening of the stride.
It all sounds kind of silly and maybe not everybody's mind works like mine does (thank goodness!) but it's important to really realize, deep down in your core where real truths lie, that the horse can feel your thoughts through your body. He may not respond because he's learned not to rely on those body positioning or changes in energy, but you can dang sure bet he can feel them. We teach our horse to ignore our body by over using our other aids. When you ask first with your body then reinforce with your hands, or legs, the horse soon learns to trust what your body is doing. You can never get true softness just through the reins. It's a full body communication. Hands, feet, legs, seat, zappy butt and pancreas all working as one.