Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Riding for Consistency

Yesterday, I discussed what consistency means in our relationship with our horses (and dogs and kids) and how we can get better results by sticking to the rules and consequences that develop them into good citizens.  Today I would like to explore how I approach consistency in the saddle and how I teach that to my students.

First, being consistent when you ride requires awareness.  In this age of hurry and worry, multitasking and immediacy, riding our horses should be an oasis amid the chaos.  Turn the phone off.  Banish the distractions.  Before you mount, stretch a bit to become aware of your body and how it feels.  Take some deep, cleansing breaths - in through the nose, out through the mouth - to center your consciousness.  Relax, and get into the now.  I challenge you to only think about what is going on RIGHT NOW while you are riding. 

After you mount up, walk your horse to warm up and become aware of your limbs.  Keep in mind that both humans and horses are not naturally symmetrical; one leg may be longer, your back may be canted one direction due to injury or habit, one hip may turn out further than the other.  The same goes for your horse - most horses do not move perfectly straight unless their riders are very focused on straightness and obtain that through stretching.  So as you are warming up, become aware of how you are sitting, how your limbs feel, and how your horse is moving.  It can be very helpful to close your eyes while you are riding for a moment or two to really feel your body, and become aware of what it naturally does.  Through awareness, we can gain control.  If we aren't aware of what our limbs and seat are doing, how can we consistently use them?

As you work your horse, pay close attention to your cues. When you ask your horse to trot off, do you use the same leg cue every time?  Do you lean forward in exactly the same way, and use the same volume, and duration, in your verbal cue?  Imagine that your horse is a large musical keyboard, with keys everywhere on its body; the force with which you strike the keys, as well as the frequency and accuracy in hitting them, can create a beautiful orchestral arrangement, or sound like a second grader practicing their violin!  It takes much practice and awareness to play the same tune and have it end up the same every time.  Part of what sets professional trainers apart from amateur riders is that through hours and hours in the saddle, they are able to put their leg in the same place every time, use their voice in the same way every time, ask their horses consistently every time.  Because we are dealing with a mostly non-verbal animal, being consistent in cuing the horse cuts through its confusion, and gives a more predictable result.  Being aware of how you are asking right now lends itself to reproducing the same cue next time.

Here are some golden rules that I teach my students to help them become more consistent.
1.  Always sit up straight.  You cannot use your limbs effectively if you are leaning in any direction, nor can your horse react appropriately if it is compensating for your lack of balance.

2.  When using your legs, use the three strikes rule: the first time you cue, ask nicely and softly.  The second time, more firmly. If the horse still hasn't responded, the third time should be hard enough to get the horse's attention.  In always sticking to this amplification of cues, the horse will seek out the soft cue to avoid the more uncomfortable heavy cue.

3.  When using your hands, always take up slowly on the reins, but release quickly.  The horse will be more willing to respond if it trusts that you will let go the moment it gives to the rein pressure.  Trust helps build consistency too.

4.  Last but not least, use your voice commands in a very strict manner.  "Whoa" means all four feet stop now.  Not 'slow down,' or 'easy,' or 'I'm nervous.'  Do not use whoa for anything other than requesting a full stop, whether mounted or on the ground.  Also, differentiate your clicks and kisses; my horses know that when I click, I want them to trot.  When I ask for the canter/lope, I kiss to them, and I use a very distinctive, long smooch to add to the attention-getting aspect of the sound.  Horses are able to distinguish many different sounds and their meanings, so take advantage of it!

I hope this inspires you to slow down, become aware, and build consistency in your riding!  Happy trails!!