What is it like to be your horse? What do they feel or think when they see us coming? Is the way in which we carry ourselves in our day to day routine around the barn, while grooming or tacking up that important? Self awareness is one of the greatest challenges in learning to ride. When we begin as green riders we often are unaware of the position of our bodies or the tension we carry. The same is true of so many of us on the ground. We are not taught to pay attention to the subtleties of body language that are of such great significance to prey animals. We rarely notice the change in the way our horse is breathing or the cadence with which he walks. When you consider that the horses very survival was dependent upon their innate ability to perceive change, to sense danger and to be constantly aware it is not so strange that they notice the details we ignore. Its easy to have the mindset that the clock begins when you sit in the saddle. Now you are ready, now your paying attention to your horse and you expect the same in return. What about the rest of the time?
At Meredith Manor all of the training is based on a 10-level system called "The Training Tree" There are ten levels (as seen in the illustration to the left) in the training tree that are mastered in sequence. This allows us to break down the process of teaching horses into smaller pieces using a step by step approach with each step building sequentially on the one before. This also gives us a way to identify holes in previous training or break through common plateaus by going back and addressing the missing piece before moving forward.
I remember questioning the first two levels of the training tree: Rhythm and Relaxation. It seemed like they should be reversed. It made more sense to me that a horse would need to be relaxed before they could focus on their rhythm. Then the question was posed... "How do you achieve relaxation?" How does one make a 1000 pound animal relax? The answer of course: Rhythm
Developing a good sense of rhythm requires concentration. To make rhythmic movement an ingrained habit, you need to pay attention to the beat of your walk, the pattern of your breathing, and the bend and swing of your knees, your hips, and your shoulders. A steady rhythm is consistent, relaxing and predictable. That predictability can help an anxious horse stay calm and relaxed. The horse begins to trust that nothing abrupt or frightening is going to happen. Watch the soothed expression on the face of a horse being groomed by a caretaker currying to a steady inner beat and you will see the power of rhythm at work.
Once you master the ability to work rhythmically with your horses on the ground will develop a critical habit that you can carry over into riding. By Developing this mental discipline you will learn to to use rhythmic and relaxed body language on the ground to create calm focus and willing movement in your horse. Then, from the saddle, you learn to apply the aids in a rhythmic and relaxed way to recreate feelings of shapes you want the horse to take. Those even, regular footfalls create a ride that flows smoothly from movement to movement with seamless departs and transitions.
When working with a nervous horse I pay extra attention to my breathing. Counting 1-2- inhale, 1-2 exhale... slow steady and even... in and out. Before long the horse begins to exhale more frequently. He begins to find and match your rhythm. You want the horse breathing calmly and quietly, giving the impression he’s almost bored. Thats okay! Good training should be boring to watch. When your horse comes up next to you and stands completely relaxed while giving you his undivided attention, he is paying you the highest compliment a horse can give. Rhythm is equally important once you begin to ride. It is important to realize that a horse cannot move with any better sense of rhythm than the rider he carries. Some riders possess a natural sense of rhythm while others must practice the skill. There are several ways to help find yourself find rhythm from humming and counting to simply paying closer attention to the beat of the hooves hitting ground. Whether your goals are recreational trail riding or upper level dressage competition rhythm and relaxation are at the foundation. Becoming the rider or trainer you aspire to be takes time and practice. Start small... Practice rhythmic breathing in for 1-2 and Breath out for 1-2... It might make a bigger difference than you think.