The winter months with cold temperatures and windy conditions make riding one of the things we may want to put on the back burner. But, getting on and riding isn’t the only way to keep your horse and yourself in riding shape, at least mentally. We can all think back to some things that weren’t working as well as we’d like between our horse and ourselves in the saddle this past riding season. This time of year is a great time to check some things out on the end of the halter rope. We can still see what we have for connection and communication with our horse without having to saddle up and brave the cold.
If our groundwork has focused on the mechanical, we can use the winter months to establish or re-establish more of a “feel” with our horse. Seeing how little we can do to cause our horse to do what we’re thinking of him doing is a fun way to spend 20 or 30 minutes on a less than stellar weather day. Amy and I like to see how much we can influence our horse with our bodies and feet by doing as little as we can with our hands. If our horse will follow the feel of our bodies, like a dance partner, we have a better chance of them following the feel of our seat when we are in the saddle. Imagine yourself riding your horse in a circle around a cone or barrel. You become the cone or barrel, the center of the circle. If you are upright and balanced and your horse is upright and balanced, you should feel a float in the lead rope, an arc in the horses’ body, and the horse flowing from hind feet to nose. It will feel good to you and the horse!
We like to feel of the whole horse. It’s good to know what the parts of the horse are doing but, it’s better if we can take-in the whole horse. Focusing on the hind end or the front end or the head causes us to lose sight of what the sum of the parts are. That’s often the result of being mechanical and trying to “make” the horse do what we want rather than focusing on setting things up the best way we know how and letting the horse find the feel we are offering. If a feel following a feel is our goal, we will connect with our horse better by offering a feel and allowing the horse as much time as it takes to find and follow that feel. Each offer our horse finds causes him to search for other offers in a way that he won’t if a more mechanical means is employed.
A good example of our horse following our feel is in the simple exercise we’ve all done many times. Our horse is leading past us in a circle. We ask his hindquarter to reach bigger until he disengages to a stop. Then, we ask the front end to move past us and get back on our circle going the other way. How much we use the lead rope to get the hindquarters to reach can be in direct correlation to how much we’d have to use the rein to get the hindquarters to reach from the saddle. Paying attention to how the hindquarters disengage and noticing if the disengagement starts with the mind or if it’s just an escape from pressure will help us to recognize how our horse is reacting to cues from our seat, legs, and reins when riding. Watching for our horses’ mind to move through from one direction to the other and how his balance and feet follow that thought as the front end comes through to get back on the circle can make the difference between his rushing mechanically and stepping through thoughtfully.
Connecting with our horse and communicating our intentions without unnecessary pressure will encourage our horses to get with us and follow our feel. If we get it on the ground, we increase our chances of getting it from the saddle. We get better so our horse can get better. And, we never had to get on!