In the Academic Art of Riding, we take the training of horse and rider very serious. In order to develop to a higher and higher level, reach more collection and ride the advanced exercises, we need to train regularly with a well thought through program and a decent training schedule. In this elegant dance between man and horse that we strive for, we require the utmost concentration, openness and connection of horse and rider. We work with small nuances. We play with balance, rhythm, tempo, the position of the shoulders and the hind legs, the shape and suppleness of the horse. And ultimately we want this all to flow effortlessly from one exercise into the next. For this to be the most harmonious and elegant dance, we need a certain lightness, a certain playfulness. But in our daily training, while working diligently on mastering the techniques and developing our horses bodies in strength and suppleness and overcoming our own physical limitations, we can get stuck in a rather hard focus. Our daily training is not effortless. It is blood, sweat and tears. And that is how everyone starts when learning something new. But getting stuck in practicing the same things over and over until they are perfect, or getting stuck in a focus on what is still not OK in your training, will make you and your horse loose the fun and will sometimes block you from further improvement. It can give you hard focus. Hard focus means that the mind may be focussed, but is not relaxed. You may have energy, but no grounding. You may have technique, but no balance. The opposite from hard focus is complete relaxation without any focus. Then, you will be stuck in the same snug comfort zone forever. It feels great, but there is no progress there.
Progression comes when you can combine your focus with relaxation and energy. In a relaxed, open mindset, you can focus without getting hard. For this relaxed, open mindset you need to get out of your comfort zone but in a way that you and your horse build up positive experiences. That is why I alternate my training days. I have days in which I train within our comfort zone, in which I do not make any attempt to make a next step. I have days in which I push the boundaries. There days in which we just relax, and days in which we play. And.. you can combine these things too! Play and moving boundaries go very well together. And it is the best combination to work on the balance between focus and relaxation in a higher level of energy!
Finding a balance between serious training and play is important. It helps to put things in perspective and brings a smile in your day and that of your horse. It helps to overcome things that are difficult, by approaching them from a completely different perspective.
I like to add playful elements in my trainings and in my lessons. Quite often, when I see one of my students getting too serious, I soften them up by using materials. I give them a certain task, something to focus on outside their own bodies and the body of their horse. I use it for myself too. I find myself quite often in my comfort zone repeating the things that are going quite nice. To get myself out of my comfort zone and to give myself a clear focus, I use materials to set out a certain task for myself and my horse. A task that is just one step up, outside my comfort zone. When successfully completed, it has helped me to make my comfort zone bigger. It has expanded our boundaries. Then, I can continue to ride the same exercises in this expanded comfort zone until my horse or myself gets a bit bored and unfocussed again. And then I think about the next step up and how to reach that next level. And then I usually get creative with materials again..
Lately, my goal has been to ride my appaloosa Fitzer in a relaxed canter to the left and right. Canter has never been his ‘thing’ and the right canter was actually non-existent. When we started to introduce the right canter again, he was physically able to do it, but mentally he got very stressed. So the first goal was to reach mental relaxation in the right canter. Simply by doing it a lot, and after each canter do some basic exercises that are inside his comfort zone to find his relaxation back. The next step, when this worked, was transitions. Riding all transitions, while keeping the relaxed mindset. Picking up the energy and bringing it down. It helped tremendously to improve his relaxed focus on me. He got attentive, quick on the aids, while keeping his cool. When we could also include canter in this work, I got a bit stuck in this part of our comfort zone again. We could do nice forward canter, nice transitions, keep our cool and ride bigger and smaller circles in canter, with some collection and extension. But what’s next? Any idea of continuing more collection or riding more exercises in the canter led to some lack of motivation on my part and some inner stress on his part. So I came back to using materials.
The exercise was very simple. Inside my 20mx40m arena, I created a rectangle, of about 25mx12m. On one of the long sides of this rectangle, I put some soft poles in 2 parallel lines, thus creating a straight line, like a tunnel, between the poles. The other long side was the wall of my arena. Then, I made the 4 corners with cones. Corners with inside and outside cones, to make clear ninety degree corners.
First in walk and trot and then in canter, the goal was to ride in this smaller ‘arena’. To make clear turns in each corner and ride a straight line on a longer rein between the soft poles on one long side and ride the shoulders a bit away from the wall and back again towards the wall on the other long side next to the wall.
The result? Left canter? Piece of cake!
Right canter? We missed some turns to begin with but managed to do the same as on the left rein in the end.
It resulted in super relaxed and confident horse that started to think for himself, looking for the openings between the cones and the soft poles, that straightened up between the poles and that collected beautifully in each turn. And a focussed yet playful rider who was not cramped in her body to do everything right, but simply focussed on the next turn or straight line and let her horse and her body do the job.
Materials give us focus. Both the rider and the horse can see where they need to go. The material helps to frame the horse, so that the rider can do less with her aids and relax in her body. For exercises that are new for the horse and/or the rider and that ask something from the horse that is still physically difficult, the rider can sometimes get a bit stuck and cramped from trying to frame the horse with her legs and reins. Materials can take over part of the job and make life easier for horse and rider. Then, when the exercise is understood and the horse knows what to do with his body, we can take the material away and let the rider guide the horse.
Materials also give us a very easy way to measure success. You either stayed between your cones, soft poles or whatever you used, or you did not. Also our horses understand this success and often become quite motivated to find the right way through the materials. Any failure should not be taken too serious. Oopsie, is usually what comes out of my mouth. Simply try again, give the horse time to discover what is expected and go slower if it turns out to be too difficult. Any success is usually followed by a huge shout of joy from the rider anyways. Believe me, that happens naturally :-)
The playfulness the material can bring to any serious rider is fantastic to watch. We all love to play sometimes, and in play we do things we would not have imagined doing without the material. The material gives our mind another goal. “Simply make that 90 degree turn in canter” instead of “Lets try a quarter canter pirouette now”. In the second phrase, I start to think “Oh my god, I am not sure if I can collect my horse so much without him stiffening up.” I want to do it perfectly. It makes my mind block my body. It cramps me up. But simply taking the turn, not micromanaging the horse, gives me a feeling of that perfect quarter canter pirouette that I can take with me on the day that I train it without material.
The ultimate effect? The material takes our focus off the details in our body and the horse. It brings fun in the work. And it gives us the relaxed focus we want in ourselves and our horses in a higher degree of energy and collection than we could have ridden without the material. Thus it helps us pave the road to that next level in our riding. It gives us a taste of the next step. Of more straight, more collection or more energy, whatever you are working on at that point. This taste of the next step, this experience of the horse straightening more, lifting his back more, collection more, this feeling is what we can then remember the next time we ride without material. It also gives us the confidence that yes, our horses and we ourselves can actually ride that exercise! The confidence it brings in horses and riders is fantastic to experience.
I like to share my thoughts on the Art of Riding with you here. Topics related to training and keeping horses and reports of my own experiences you can find here. Enjoy!