Monday, July 29, 2013

Balancing Act

Balance is so important in riding.  It's not only the key to staying on your mount but it's the key to effective communication with your horse.  Good balance is part natural ability and part cultured skill.

We often talk about independent seat in horsemanship.  This is a term that is meant to describe a rider that can sit and move with the horse without the use of hands or legs to brace the seat.  It's important because then your hands, seat and legs are free to guide the horse without having to rely on holding you onto the horse. If a rider with an independent seat is on a horse that suddenly jumps sideways her seat will just naturally follow the horse with the bare minimum of fingernails gouging leather.

I like to think that I have a fairly independent seat.  I have been riding for over 30 years and am very at home on a horse.  I have ridden various styles and am comfortable at speed and bareback (most of the time!)  Natural horsemanship methods that strive for a very light and responsive horse value balance in riding.  You want the horse to mirror your body and when you turn your head and shoulders to look a direction you want the horse's body to follow.  This is effective and beautiful communication but doesn't work if you are off balance and giving the horse mixed signals.  If you are constantly leaning left but not wanting your horse to go left he has to compensate for your off centered weight as well as learn to ignore what could be a guiding signal.

Recently I decided it was time to learn how to jump.  I dabbled with jumping in my younger years but had a horse at the time that was just as likely to send me over the jump without him as he was to take me over the jump with him.  I wasn't terribly confident anyway and having a horse smarter than I was didn't help.  That was 25 years ago.  But, Chico seems to enjoy jumping logs out on the trail so I thought we should give it a go.

I had no idea that those particular muscles and the different style of balance needed for jumping had gotten a little rusty in the past few years.  I rarely ride english anymore, saving it mostly for the show ring.  I was astounded how difficult it was to get up into 2 point position and then hold it there and guide my horse without hanging on his mouth or having a death grip on the reins.  When I was in vet school (this is going back almost 15 years now) I rode racehorses for a study on impact of different tracks.  I schooled rowdy reject racehorses in 2 point for an hour each and everyday.  You would think some of that muscle memory would come back.  You would be wrong!
Me on Decker back in the day. 

Aside from having difficulty holding myself up in two point position I also had trouble steering.  I was surprised because Chico is usually pretty light and responsive and I can direct him simply by turning my body and looking where I need to go.  When I was so busy concentrating on keeping myself where I needed to be in the saddle my steering went out.  Duh.  How was he supposed to follow my body when my body was flopping all around on his back!  This cascaded into me holding myself up with my reins (though I was trying like the dickens not to) and him leaning on his bit and complete loss of communication.  It ended as you would expect with him running through a jump and me landing on the jump.

So, as I've worked on my balance and two point and a different form of independent seat this past week I've had to come to terms not only with changes related to aging but with the differences between different styles of riding.  If you think you are getting really good at something and feeling really confident that I urge you to try something new with your horse.  Not all styles of riding are the same and something as simple as changing the type of saddle you are riding in is a great way to really see if your balance is as good as you think it is.

The good news is we are making progress.  Through some stretching and practice my 2 point position is coming back.  As I get more balanced on his back and can stabilize my wobbliness I can guide him again with my body the way you are supposed to.  I was able to gallop a mock jump course and hit the middle of the jumps this weekend without too much trouble and stay in 2 point the entire way.

So, the moral of the story?  You cannot succeed in lightness and correctness on your horse if you do not have balance.  Especially on a green horse.  A young horse has enough trouble keeping their own balance with the weight of a rider.  The rider needs to  help them out by not getting in the way of their natural movement.  Once the horse learns that he can trust the weight of the rider not to throw him off balance he starts to listen to that weight and will move with it.  You don't want to loose that natural tendency in your horse by being so inconsistent and off balance that he learns to ignore it.

Lightness in communication isn't just about your hands and your legs.  It's your entire body and self awareness and balance is a great big part of it.  I challenge you to learn to ride with an independent seat.  Ride without your stirrups.  Ride bareback.  Switch horses with your buddy and learn to balance on a different horse.  Switch disciplines!

For those interested in culturing more balance in their riding I urge you to check out the guru of balance, Sally Swift's Centered Riding,10043

Monday, July 15, 2013

Horse show blues

It's hard to believe but I've been showing horses for 32 years.  I started out like many folks do as a kid in 4-H with a pony.  She was a great horse.  Patient when she needed to be but not afraid to put me in my place when needed.   She was also a lousy show horse.  She had rough gaits.  She didn't like to lope much and had no clue as to leads.  She fell asleep in fitting and showing or worse just quit in the middle and dragged me out of the arena.  So, consequently, we never did very well.  I didn't really mind.  She would let me lay on her back and stare at the clouds while she grazed and that meant more to me than any ribbon. 

I advanced in skills and horses as my 4-H years continued and by my teens was also participating in the bigger open shows.  We had some small successes depending on the judge and how much he appreciated a non-quarter horse.  Every blue ribbon I ever won meant a lot to me.  That's basically 32 years of comfortable mediocrity.  

It's not that I don't understand what it takes to win in the show ring or don't have the ability to reach for those blue ribbons on a much more consistent level (rather than once every 2-3 years).  It's my unwillingness to do what it takes to be competitive in the show ring.  

First of all, I would need a different breed of horse for local success.  For the sake of this blog we are going to ignore that little detail and talk about the other stuff.  A perfect Morgan, english or western, is not going to beat even a not so perfect Quarter Horse in this area under 99% of the judges.  Believe me, I understand that.  32 years of this, remember?  Almost all of those were on a Morgan or part Morgan.  We're not going to talk about that year of the 1/2 arab.  That's better forgotten.  

We participated in the local show this past weekend.  It's a pretty big show for our area and well attended.  Like most open shows there is a large cross section of the horse world.  You have the folks that scraped together tack and clothes and entry fees to come to this show and it is the highlight of their competitive year.  You also have the folks that view this as a little Podunk show that serves as a training field for their young show horses.   I spent the Western Pleasure day watching from the sidelines and was more emotionally exhausted by the end of the day than I was after riding in the classes the first day! 

When we talk about lightness in the context of Natural horsemanship/Ray Hunt style horsemanship/ Vaquero tradition horsemanship, we mean light.  Like a feather.  Like you think it, the horse does it.  You  have feel in your hands and communicate with the horse through a vibration in the reins that is almost imperceptible to the observer but that means the world to the horse.  You feel of the horse, he feels of you.  That kind of lightness.  Of course, there are times when the horse doesn't pick up on the lightness on his end and you have to get his attention, but your goal is feather light touch.  In the vaquero tradition you have the added thinking that snaffle bits ruin a horse's mouth and you would never put that iron in a young horse's mouth, much less pull on it.  The horse's mouth is a sacred temple and you have no business ham fisting your way around his mouth.  

I know not everybody thinks that way and they don't have to.  What made my heart hurt all weekend is the banging and spurring and jerking of these quiet show horses.  I've never seen so many poor hands and jerking of the horse's mouth for no good reason.  I swear I felt every single jerk on every single horse right in the pit of my stomach.  At the same time the jerking is going on in their mouth a spur is being rammed into their side.  I took a picture of one poor horse that had a baseball sized discolored area on his hide from the wearing of the spur right into his gut.  

There were a few showmen riding that were not guilty of this kind of behavior and they weren't placing real high.  To make matters worse, a local trainer was present and coaching from the sidelines. At one point she was heard to shout to her young protege in the class, "Jerk his face off!  Spur him! Show him who is boss!"  This was a horse that was loping around slightly faster than paint drying.  She eventually got him slowed down to the point that all he could do with his big muscled frame was a short of shuffle/hop/lope that made him look lame.  It worked, though, he placed in that class.  

So, there must be a lot at stake, right, to abuse these horses this way?  You bet there is.  They were giving away coffee mugs for first place!  

Why, you might be asking yourself, do I bother?  Why am I still showing after all these years?  For a couple of reasons.  First of all I enjoy it.  I like being judged (even if I don't agree with the decision) because it pushes me to be my absolute best.  I also think it's good for the horse to be put in that environment with the other horses and asked to be concentrating on your cues and stay straight and in frame through the entire class.  And, as much as I complain about other horse folks and their methods, I do enjoy hanging with horse people.  I don't have to agree with somebody to like them and enjoy their company.   I embrace the different strokes for different folks philosophy.  I ride Morgans and show only in green.  I'm different enough for everybody! 

I won't ever change my riding or training to fit in with the styles of the show ring.  I won't ever take short cuts to make my horse look a certain way.  I am there to show off my Morgan when he is being good and make silly excuses for him when he completely blows me off.  Of course I want my horse to be moving in a quiet and collected frame.  I want him to respond to my cues and represent himself and his breed well.  I won't rip his head off in the middle of a class of 20 horses if he doesn't.  That's not what it's all about.  I will also continue to not win a whole lot.  That's okay.  As much as it feels good to have your name called as the winner, I have plenty of coffee mugs.  

Somewhere on the list of things I'd like to change about the world, right between establishing world peace and making the Morgan our national animal is changing the judging of horse shows.   It would be so wonderful if the horse that won, no matter what kind of show or what discipline, was the one that was lightest and happiest in the bridle/ had the most free and natural movement really showcasing their natural athleticism and beauty.   It would also be great if there was a class that the horse got to judge the rider and reward the most balanced seat and softest hands.  We could make that one a really big deal and give away a candy dish or something.