Now is the moment!
It may seem obvious to you, but you can only ride NOW. That is: in the present moment. “You can not ride yesterday and you can not ride tomorrow” Bent Branderup, Grandmaster of the Academic Art of Riding, always says. He sees a lot of riders who try to ride the way they would like to ride in the future; over-asking their horses with exercises that are still to complicated for the rider, the horse or both. Instead, they should be aware of what they can ask of their horses in this moment, and of what they are capable of themselves, and slowly build up communication, coordination and muscles. You can only ride with what you’ve got. Meaning that you can only ask exercises on the level that the weakest link (rider or horse) can execute them with ease. From that level, things can be developed step by step, bringing horse-rider combinations to a higher and higher level over time.
My teacher Tom Nagel asks this question when he is teaching his Rider’s Seat clinics: “Can there be thoughts in the present moment?” This question often leads to a lot of confusion among the participants. First of all, what does a question about thoughts in the present moment have to do with horse riding? Then, people start to ponder the question until Tom helps them find the answer to this Zen-riddle: All thoughts are in the present moment, you can only think NOW. Every thought is born in the present moment. However, no thought is ABOUT the present moment, as while you formulate your thought, the present moment has already passed… Follow me one step further: if thoughts are never about the present moment, then they must aways be about something in the past, or about something yet to come. And that is exactly what thoughts are! In Zen, past and future are seen as concepts that exist only in our brain.
Now back to riding: Riding with thoughts about what happened before or what you want to happen in the future is taking you away from what is going on right NOW. Of course, after your ride or after an exercise, you can take time to reflect on what happened, what went well and how you want to change things for the next time. This is sensible and is called learning. Also, you are allowed to think ahead, as you must have some kind of a plan of when and where you will make your next transition. This is also sensible and is called “Clear Intent” in Centered Riding. However, you should limit your thoughts to these very practical, short thoughts that are appropriate for your riding in this present moment. Thinking about your upcoming competition, feeling disappointed or extremely proud about your last trot-halt transition half a long side ago, or fantasizing about what wonderful things you and your horse may do in the future is taking you out of the present moment. And the present moment is exactly where your horse is, always. The less you are in the now, the less you can be there for your horse and connect with him. The more you think over what just happened or what you would like in the future, the less your body and mind are receptive to what is going on right now. Your horse will feel it, respond to it and may seem less focussed or disconnected. And, you may not register some of the great things your horse is offering you!
The best way for me to get into the now is to apply Zen-meditation methods to my riding. An awareness on my breathing and posture quiets down all unnecessary thoughts and brings me in the NOW. My breathing and posture are always in the present moment. I can not use the breath I took a minute ago, and I can not ride with a posture that I may or may not have in the future. So being aware of my current breath and posture always brings me into the now. You can start with this awareness before you go and make contact with your horse, take a few breaths to clear your head. After you have mounted and start your warm up walk, take this time to check your body alignment, your movement and your breathing. Then take this with you into your ride.
Observe rather than judge. Things will be more in flow, your senses will heighten and your riding will improve. Leave each step that has been made behind you, don’t look back. Ride every stride as it comes, with your awareness on your body and the body of the horse and your minds connected. Don’t anticipate what may or may not happen, take everything as it comes, without judgment. It doesn’t matter if that exercise was good or bad, it is already in the past. Take what you need to learn from it and carry on. Don’t let judgment or anticipation get in the way. Your responsibility is to keep up with your horse, and he is in the now every step of his way. So don’t linger in the past and don’t get ahead of yourself thinking about the future.
Be in the now, so you can meet your horse where he is and you can move together from there.
It all starts with awareness
If we want to improve our riding, it will all start with awareness. Awareness of what you are thinking, feeling and doing while being up there on your horse and awareness of what your horse is doing, thinking, feeling underneath you. Are you aware of your one hip moving different then the other? Can you feel your breathing change when you transition up or down? How do you feel when your approach that jump, do you believe you will make it over or are you afraid your horse will take a bar down? Can you feel the tension or relaxation in your horses back?
It is important to observe your body and your thoughts while you ride. Quite often, rider’s are so busy doing things to their horses and giving aids, that they pay little to no attention to themselves. And if the attention gets turned towards themselves a little, it often focusses on what their body is doing wrong. Instead, I recommend to start feeling what your body is doing right and where you can feel movement in your body. Start by allowing each body part to be moved by your horse. Then observe your thoughts: what do you think about while riding? Are you distracted, thinking about your grocery shopping list or the incident you just had at work, or can you fully be in the ‘now’, together with your horse? Do you think more negative or more positive thoughts? Are these thoughts about your horse or about you?
Stop thinking anything negative about yourself or about your horse. Instead, focus on what goes right and what you and your horse are able to do together. Maybe you have to adjust your goals and be happy with smaller things.
A good way to start to feel what is happening and to connect with your horse is to do this very simple exercise: Ask someone to take your horse by the rein and walk it around the riding arena. Get out of your stirrups, let your legs just hang down and if you are comfortable; close your eyes. Don’t judge what you feel, and don’t do anything. Just be soft and passive and allow the horse to move you and allow your body to be moved. Feel what is there: can you feel your hips moving? Can you feel your legs swinging? Can you feel the movement travel up your spine and get out the top of your head? Can you feel your head moving? Can you feel your own and your horses breathing?
Can you feel your own body and the horses body move together?
Then open your eyes. Does that change anything? How does the visual part of your brain influence your feeling?
Our ultimate goal is to have this feeling of togetherness all the time. To have body and mind become one, and to have horse and rider become one. In the end, two minds and two bodies becoming as one. The ultimate Centaur.
The key to this togetherness is not technique. It is not about doing. It is about being in the here and now and allowing your body and mind and the body and mind of your horse to flow. Technique helps to direct that flow, body awareness and training will help refine it. The education and physical development of your horse and yourself will allow this togetherness to remain there on higher and higher levels. But without this awareness, without allowing, training of horse and rider can get on a high level in terms of exercises, but remain mechanical. The true harmony comes out of togetherness. This togetherness comes from a state of non-doing. Of simply allowing your body and your horse to move as one, directed from your intent, with your previously learned techniques as a background program to steer things in the right direction.
preconditions to training
It is so normal for us to prepare properly when we decide to start a new sport. Take running; we decide that from now on, we plan to run twice a week. We go to the sport store and buy ourselves shoes that fit properly and maybe even a fancy watch that can monitor our distance, speed and heart rate. We ask the assistant in the store for advice and try out different shoes to find what fits us best. We all know that our training will be uncomfortable and more likely to fail if we go for the wrong shoes. We also know that we should follow a training schedule to gradually increase the distance we can run. If we have a physical problem, we will adjust our training schedule accordingly.
However, with horses, loads of owners seem so believe that meeting all the proper preconditions to successful training are not that relevant. Is it because when we run without the proper preconditions such as fitting shoes, we ourselves are the ones that suffer? And with our horses, as most of them suffer in silence, we can choose to ignore these preconditions with excuses such as 'limited funds' or 'he doesn't seem to mind'?
Imagine having to go to school each day with an empty stomach, or having to sit at your desk doing your work on a chair with nails sticking out of the seat into your delicate behind.. You would not be able to focus 100% on your work, would you? Same goes for our horses.
For me, before training starts, it is important that in my horses and with my students and their horses, all preconditions to successful training are met. These include: teeth care, hoof care, feeding, housing, social contact, regular vet checks and fitting tack. It basically means the horses should be free of any kind of stress. The Art of Riding is all about a 2-way communication, about building a relationship with your horse, about 2 bodies and 2 minds working together in harmony. How is harmony ever going to be reached with a horse that has stomach aches from chronic ulcers because he is never allowed outside his box and gets fed 5 kg of concentrated food each day? Or with a horse that has pain because of an ill fitting saddle or a jaw that can't move properly because his teeth are neglected? Therefore, I always engage in a conversation with my students about these preconditions when they come and train with me. I want to check the tack that they are using and sometimes, I have to advise them to change something. Instead of disappointment that something isn't right, most of my students are grateful to get this information so they can take action to improve their horses well-being and to optimise their training. You can't help not-knowing about things you haven't learned about before, so there is no personal blame to anyone who rides with an ill-fitting saddle or with neglected teeth on a horse if they believe (and often are told by their expert saddle-fitters and equine dentists) that everything is allright. But there is blame to put on those who know things aren't right and who continue in the same way anyways.
Often, I encounter people that have a horse, acknowledge the problem of bad teeth or a poorly fitting saddle, but then tell me the horse will have to deal with it, because it will be sold anyways, or because they have no more money in their bank account. Would you deal with bad fitting shoes and still run with them, even if they hurt your feet and give you blisters or ruin your knees? If you have the means, you will buy better shoes. If you can't afford that, you may have friends that can lend you another pair of shoes or in the worst case scenario, you would rather stop running than ruining your feet. Why not do the same with your tack, for instance? If you know that your saddle doesn't fit and hurts your horse while you ride, no matter what excuse, you simply don't use it anymore. Borrow another one, ride bareback or simply train your horse from the ground until your circumstances change. There are always solutions for those that look for them, and there will never seem to be a solution for those who are not really willing to change.
Here is the deal if you want to have a horse and train with it: you have to start addressing all of the preconditions first. When people ask me for advice about buying a horse, I always stress the point that buying the horse is not the biggest issue. The biggest thing is then to get it vet checked, to purchase proper fitting tack, arrange for a dentist and a good hoof trimmer and to find suitable housing for the horse with turn-out and social contact. The responsibility never stops. Training only starts after you have looked into all these preconditions and concluded that your horse is free of pain, stress and frustration.
Most of the times, the training horses that come to us because of behavioural problems improve simply by being housed in our Paddock Paradise, with the balanced, stable group of horses that we have here. They get educated in manners better then I could ever do in the same time, they get to move as much as they like and play and groom with other horses. People are amazed about how well-behaved their horses come home again. Well.. they will have to make sure to keep the preconditions like turn-out, social contact, movement and healthy food and the chances that their horses stay that nice increase tenfold. Good training is only the icing on the cake.
Make yourself known with not only the training aspect of horses, but with all related topics that can influence the welfare of your horse. A horse that is stressed, in pain, hungry or annoyed cannot learn! Proper feeding, feet, teeth and equipment are nescesary for proper training. Do not just trust the experts when they tell you something. Make sure you understand WHY and WHAT when you speak with experts and always ask for a 2nd opinion if your gut feeling tells you something isn't right. But most important, never make ANY excuses to justify the continuation of something that you know is bad for your horse. Change it! He is under your care, it is your responsibility. If you want him to work with and for you, make sure he can, optimally.
1. Stelling: check if there is space between the lower jaw and the atlas vertebra.
2. Stelling: Check is the lower jaw has moved a little over to the outside, aligning the molars on the outside
3. Stelling: Check is both ears are on the same horizontal plane, with the outside ear a bit forward compared to the inside ear.
4. Bending: Check for a fluent curve in the spine, from tail to ears.
5. Bending: Check if the distance between the outside hip and shoulder is bigger compared to the distance of the inside hip and shoulder.
6. Bending: Check if the manes drop gently to the inside.
7. Bending: Check if the ribs on the inside swing down when the inside hind leg steps forward.
8. Bending: Check if you can see the inside of the pelvis swing forward-down when the inside hind leg comes forward.
9. Bending: Check if the tail also curves inwards in bending.
10. Bending: Check if the inside hind leg steps under the point of weight (under the girth, between the front legs).
Stelling and Bending
This is part III of the Art of Riding by Ylvie Fros video series: Stelling and Bending
Travers (Hind quarter-in):
When the horse has an inside hind leg that can bend (from working with shoulder-in), this leg can also be trained as an outside hind leg. Travers (or quarter-in) reduces the push of the outside hind leg and stimulates the development of the carrying capacity in that leg. Travers is the result of bringing the hindquarter in while keeping the shoulders in their original position. The point of weight of the horse is placed in front of the outside hind leg. This leg is placed under the weight, causing the leg to bend. In canter, the outside hind leg is a very important leg. By training travers in walk, the canter can improve significantly.
Renvers, half-pass and pirouettes are derived from quarter-in and also make the body and hind legs more bendable. Gradually, the exercises become more difficult as the horse needs more self carriage and collection.
In quarter-in, the horse moves with its shoulders against the wall. In renvers, the horse keeps his hindquarter against the wall. Renvers is a good test to check whether the horse really can bend and can carry more weight with its hind legs. If this is not the case, the horse usually tends to fall on the outside shoulder towards the middle of the arena, or on its inside shoulder towards the wall. Usually, the renvers is started from shoulder-in. When you change the bending and maintain the front legs on the inside track, this results in the renvers. The renvers by itself is not more difficult than the travers, but it is the transition shoulder-in to renvers and back which is most difficult.
Half-pass is a travers across the diagonal. During half-pass, the horse has no support from the wall. Therefore it must be able to do the exercise on its own 4 feet, without any support.
In a pirouette, the horse walks in a travers on a small circle. The front legs make a bigger circle than the hind legs. The shorter steps of the hind legs on the small circle require the horse to put a bigger weight on the hind legs. The hind legs have to carry this weight, making the shoulders move more freely.
With patient, consistent exercising and by slowly increasing the level of the exercises, the horse will become more flexible, stronger and more supple. In these exercises, it is very important to involve the inside hind leg by preventing it to step too much to the inside. The next step is bending the hind legs simultaneously, this is where straightness training as a basic training ends, and the Art of Riding begins.
To Bit or not to Bit?
Bits, one of many discussion points between horse lovers. Do we need them?
In this article I'd like to share my thoughts on this subject.
There are those who claim it is not possible, ever, to control your horse without using a bit. To those people I'd like to say: control is not force, control is not reached through pulling an animal in the mouth. Control, if you want to use that word, is reached through understanding and through communication.
Then there are those that say that it is not 'natural' is it to put a piece of metal in a sensitive mouth, and therefore bits should never be used. To those I'd say that in that case, we should not ride horses at all, as it is also not natural for a horse to have a rider on his back.
Yes, a lot of harm can be done by using a bit wrong. I have seen terrible things done in a horse's mouth; from mouth corners bloody and cut, to splintered bars, damaged teeth and scarring inside the mouth.
However, it is also possible to damage a horse's head severely using a rope halter, cavesson or any other tool on the nose bone. I have seen broken nose bones, excessive scarring on the nose from 'serreta's' (cavessons with pointy bottom) and terrible wrong doing with hackamores.
So in my opinion, the discussion should not be about the type of tool ("mine is better then yours"), but let's have a sound discussion about how tools should and should not be used. A rein, connected to the horse's head in whatever way, whether to the mouth or nose, should NEVER be used in a pulling way, there should NEVER be placed force on the horse's head. One main reason of course is the damage that can be done with each tool that takes influence on the skull. Not only the damage I mentioned above, but also damage to the horses esophagus, windpipe, tong bone, salivary glands and neck vertebrae.
Another reason why one should never pull on the reins is a biomechanical one: When a hand works backwards, pulling on the horse's head or mouth, the spine is compressed. This works its way backwards through the spine into the pelvis and results in a flattened pelvis and hind legs that are being pushed backwards out. This creates a bigger push from the horse forwards, which in most cases is then caught again in the rider's hand, which has to pull harder, and so on. In short; it does not work to pull on reins to stop a horse. Actually, pulling has the opposite effect. That is why in racing, you see the riders pull on the reins. It creates a 'pushing' speed. Unfortunately, it also creates a ‘spectacular’ extention in the front legs and it gets awarded with high scores in too many competitions, both in dressage and in gaited competitions. This way of extending damages the front legs and stiffens the back and is in no way a harmonious or natural way of moving.
In the Art of Riding, our aim is to work the hind legs forwards under the point of weight and allow the horse to carry us in a balanced, healthy and harmonious way, with movement that adds beauty to the natural gaits. For that, the pelvis needs to tilt, bringing the tail down. This does not work with a rein that is pulled or simply held (what some call the 'resisting hand'). Even with a hand that does not literally pull but is just held to resist the effect is that of pulling; it pushes the hind legs backwards out.
What we strive for is a horse searching towards a giving hand. This does not mean there is no contact. Our definition of contact is simply lighter than many other trainers. For many, contact equals weight. For us, weight equals wrong biomechanics. Contact should be subtle, should be vibrations, should be energy, should never be strong, should never be fixed. That is why in the Art of Riding, you can see reins slightly hanging through. This does not mean that there is no contact, horses can still feel our half halts and vibrations through the reins, and we can still feel the horse.
You can imagine that using a bit in that manner, or a cavesson or a hackamore or whatever bitless bridle, has a different effect than using a strong contact with tight reins.
So, here is how I like to use my tools:
With a young horse, I prefer to start bitless. I use a cavesson on the nose. I use this tool, because it has an influence on the upper jaw and through the skull into the spine. Snaffle bits and many bitless bridles take influence on the lower jaw, which is moveable. I like the lower jaw to be placed correctly by the horse itself. When I ask with a direct cavesson rein for a horse to look to the left, when his nose turns left, his lower jaw is free to move to the right, aligning the molars on the right side of his jaw. This is what we call stellning, or correct bending at the poll. It creates a freedom between the jaw and the atlas vertebra. When I ask the same with a snaffle or a bitless bridle that crosses underneath, I actually pull the lower jaw to the left, which can result in a tilting of the head, a stiffening in the jaw or a wrong rotation into the horses spine.
With the cavesson, I teach the horse the direct and indirect rein, my half halts, the stops. I bend the horse and send him forward down towards a giving hand.
When I am ready to ask more collection, I add the curb bit. The curb is an unbroken bit with shanks. The use of the curb is through the leverage system of the shanks and the chin chain. The effect of a correct use of the curb, is that it stretches the muscles in the upper line in the neck, causing the ears to move forward and the skull to be placed more vertical with an ‘open neck’. Meaning, the space between the jaw and the atlas should be kept ‘open’ so that the horse’s biofunctions remain intact. A snaffle cannot do this, as it does not have this leverage system and would simply pull the lower jaw closer towards the neck, compressing the windpipe, salivary glands and esophagus.
Many consider the curb to be a cruel tool and a snaffle bit more friendly. Snaffles are widely accepted in the horse community. However, with the snaffle there is much more risk of compression of the neck and of damaging the bars and the teeth. Many riders ride with lots of weight on the snaffle reins. With a curb, you already have a good communication with a loose rein. Yes, it looks more scary with the shanks, but as with any tool it is not that scary once you understand how to use it. Many of the Old Masters would only use cavesson and curb and you can find many images of them riding with a loose rein. That is the beauty of the curb; you have communication with a very loose rein, and you can stay very quiet and soft in your hands. Of course, the image of the curb nowadays is a bit different, as we see many riders misusing the curb, riding with tight contact and shanks pulled backwards vertically.
An alternative for the curb for those who do not want to use or cannot use a bit is the hackamore. It uses the same principle of the leverage through the shanks. Nowadays, we even have a combination of cavesson and hackamore available: the cavemore.
So, for a long time I train my horses with the combination of the cavesson, for bending and half halts, and the curb for collection.
When my communication with my horse is good enough, when my horse understands me through my seat and when my control over my seat is precise enough, I can stop and turn my horse in correct bending and with the right forward-down just from my seat. Then, I do not need to use the cavesson anymore and can ride with curb only. As the curb is unbroken, you cannot use your reins separately. Therefore, the curb should be used one-handed. When I become even more advanced with my seat and my horse is able to collect from the seat, you can take everything off and ride without anything on the head.
This should always be the goal of the Art of Riding; to master the seat and the communication with your horse to a degree that you do not needs as many tools anymore. However, there will be very few riders that have this control over their seat to be precise enough right from the beginning. And there will be very few horses who will instinctively understand what we mean exactly and who are able to execute all exercises without some extra support. For most horses, we will need these tools, whether a cavesson, curb or other bridle, to explain to the horse in a clearer way what we want.
So for those riding naturally, with no contact to the head, the discussion is what kind of communications you can have going with your horse and how many nuances you can have in this communication. Can you ask your horse to place its jaw in the exact position to allow a good biomechanics, can you truly free the shoulders?
For those riding with tight contact, is your horse truly stepping forward under and bringing up the back? Is the jaw moveable and the mouth soft? Can you ask your horse to place its jaw in the exact position to allow a good biomechanics, can you truly free the shoulders?
You see, both ‘extremes’ probably want the same end result; a horse that can move freely, feels good about itself and sits comfortably. But by fighting over the tools and not questioning the use and how we could learn from each other in finding a way to reach our goals, we will not resolve our issues. In both worlds, I see good trainers and bad trainers. The good ones all have in common that they are able to communicate with their horses and give them a biomechanical correct shape.
In my opinion, we should treat bits and all other types of bridles as a tool to communicate with our horses, to be replaced by our seat when our communication gets better.
So in this whole discussion, let’s not blame the screwdriver for doing a bad job, let’s blame the handyman who is using it.
Any device on a horse’s head will be as severe as the hand that holds the reins!
European Classical Riding part II
When the nescessity of war horses diseappeared in the time of the French Revolution, the classical way of riding remained only as an art form for rich officers and nobility, who rode ‘pour plaisir’. In the last 100 years, Europe has seen a massive change in how we percieve horses and riding. Most people do not grow up with horses any longer, and take weekly riding lessons in a school. We have no longer these well-trained school horses to give us the perfect feeling, nor the possibility nor patience to spend so many hours on the longe. Everyone can buy a horse and we do not have the knowledge and experience of the old masters, nor the same quality in horses. Inexperienced people buy inexperienced horses, and this is where we see a lot of problems occur.
Nowadays, the goals is no longer to have a narrow combat horse trained for collection. Our horses are therefore mostly mixed breeds with more pushing capacity, to transport a rider from A to B. But with these horses we ride without them being able to properly carry us. This is what breaks down a lot of horses. Simply put: a horse needs to collect in order to cary the rider without hurting itself, and to make the horse pleasant to ride and easy to turn. That is where classical training can help. First, training your horse in a classical way, it means to look after the physical and mental welfare of your horse. It is a lot about ethics actually. Use dressage to improve your horse, not to break it down. Create a cooperation and a mutual understanding. Do not try to reproduce a certain exercise or shape just because it looks fancy, but see how you can do exercises to make your horse stronger. This means thinking about your training and how to build up your training in time. Only then, you can train a horse biomechanically correct and make it a healthy, happy horse that will last a long time. Look for example at the Spanish riding school in Vienna, where horses of more than 25 years old are healthy doing full work.
Classical means, always work from a decent basic work, think about the HOW, WHAT, WHEN and WHY for every exercise.
To ride pleasantly, we need a horse that is capable of collection, lightness in the front and manouverability. The horse needs to be in balance under its rider, and carry the weight in a way the horse will not get damaged.
This we want for any riding horse in any discipline!
All horses are slightly asymmetrical from nature. This natural crookedness can be compensated by training muscles. This training is called ''straightness training'', resulting in the end in a horse that:
Straightness training is therefore a basic training for any riding horse, and is also the basic of the Academic Art of Riding. It means to balance the horse in all dimensions:
In nature, the horse puts more weight on the front legs. When we ride it however, our weight also is placed on the front legs, which can damage them. The ultimate goal of straightness training is to get more weight on the hind legs, in order to protect the fragile front legs during riding. The horse must develop from a natural balance to a riding balance.
Straightness training is done in three parts:
In every part we want to see a correct lateral bending, a forward-down tendency and the stepping under of the hind leg(s). This way, we train towards suppleness and bending in the body and the hind legs. First separately, later combined.
Friday, March 29 2013
Today I felt the results of the 'work on the borders' we did yesterday, both my horses and myself were tired. With Aranka, I combined all the things we learned over the last week, but with less result then yesterday. Lesson learned: If the horse does not recover in the 23 hours after the last training, then that training was simply a bit too much. We'll take the weekend at home off to recover, and start fresh again on monday. I am very proud of Aranka and her performance during this week. She is getting better and better still!
With Fitzer, we used some canter to energize his walk and trot. We worked on transitions from piaffe to canter and back into piaffe, which improved his rythm and gave him a lighter shoulder in walk and trot. We had a nice uphill transition from school walk into canter which felt amazing!
The challenge with Fitzer is to keep him listening to my aids, especially in directing his shoulders. When he gets tired and/or distracted, he does not follow the indirect rein as good and when that happens, I can no longer place his shoulders exactly in front of his hips and we lose the lightness. So part of our homework is to improve his obedience and focus on the aids, moving his physical and mental limits so that he remains collected and focussed longer and longer and keeps listening to my aids. Bent told me before we left, that Fitzer is a horse that can take me quite far in the Academic Art of Riding, so that was a great end to our week and a huge motivation to keep practicing!
Is an accomplished rider, clinician and published author who combines her extensive knowledge in classical dressage, biomechanics, ethology, human anatomy and zen principles to guide riders on their journey to self-improvement. The goal: harmony & lightness in the cooperation between human and horse.