It’s good to be back at the blog after a rather lengthy hiatus. Writing helps me clarify what I think and feel about horses and so, too, about life. But it’s one thing to think about ideas and to expound on them. No time or space is required. It’s another thing to put those same ideas into practice. Working in the dimension of time and space allows us to do just that.
In last post’s recounting of my work with a friend’s gelding, for example, I had to back down from asserting my agenda
because that horse was not in a place of my preference. He was in the place where he was. I was not going to be able to move forward until I “came to” him and acknowledged that place, no matter how disappointing that felt. The place I thought he should be seemed much better, and I could justify why I was right! But the face of time and space often mirror a different set of circumstances. I had to (finally) take note of them, otherwise I would be trying to get from him what he was not prepared to give.
As ever, there are many ways to answer that question, but I thought it interesting that the next definition in the list of permaculture principles gives us a clue:
6. Optimize Ecotones (Edges)
In the field of biology, ecotone or edge means “a region of transition between two biological communities.” In natural settings, the space between field and forest or pond and hillside attract a great variety and density of plants and animals along with high productivity.
It’s the way most of us learned to make transitions on a horse. We want the trot to spring suddenly out of a walk and the canter to come suddenly out of a trot without noting if our horses were stiff, tight, or backed-off to begin with. Do we ever consider what it took our horse to prepare itself to go from one gait to the next or whether the transition was smooth, well coordinated, or strained in order to comply with our demand? Do we know if our horse’s movement came anywhere near their potential for athleticism, or whether it came out of habit, driven by a rote training regimen?
We tend to think of the walk as one gait, the trot as another, and the canter another, rather than realizing that each gait has numerous shades of impulsion and scope and, if developed, give the horse far greater proficiency and deftness of movement. Just as diversity provides nature with resiliency and productivity by offering habitat for beneficial insects (natural pest control), and allowing species to create symbiotic or mutually-beneficial relationships for longevity and disease prevention, so does expanding our horse’s range of movement decrease tension (less strain on joints and muscles), increase suppleness (greater elasticity and blood flow), develop a fluid stride (provide us cushier gaits to ride), and build
strength (the horse no longer needs to rely on strain to compensate for a weak muscle), thereby toning the body to maintain itself to a higher standard. In both cases, the overall health of the ecosystem and the health of our horse is substantially improved.
So… how can we change for the better?
Try a simple walk from the ground in a round pen or arena, or on a longe line, or in the saddle. If asked for more energy, how much can your horse expand their
stride at the walk before breaking over? Do they automatically transition to jog or trot? Horses who are not accustomed to “letting go” and lengthening their steps will find it more expedient to move up to the next gait instead. For them it has become easier to hold their walk at a monotone (unchanging) rather than expand (diversify) their reach to create a sweeping, fluid stride, engaging their neck, back and underbelly into a full-bodied, harmonious “swing.”
The effort in dressage to name specific differences in each gait: the collected walk, medium walk, extended, and free walk; the collected trot, working trot, lengthening at the trot, medium trot, extended trot, etc. has helped, but not produced many horses with true freedom of stride. While official terms serve as guidelines, I found out the hard way that they prepare us to compartmentalize a horse’s movement, when in reality a truly athletic transition has no boundaries. In other words, achieving a fluid stride means that each transition is seamless and unique, depending on time of day, footing, venue, surroundings, terrain, etc.
I still laugh remembering the day I rode my troubled horse, “Blackie,” with Tom. It took me about a year to figure out that he wasn’t looking for the “8” (a good score at a dressage show) transition to canter that I’d spent years honing. “Don’t try and do anything fancy,” he kept repeating until one day it occurred to me to just drop the reins and see what my horse would do if I encouraged him forward out of the trot. To my surprise, he dropped his head and lengthened his stride, the suspension between footfalls throwing my seat high out of the saddle with each attempt to post. He continued that way all the way down the long side of the pipe fencing surrounding the sand arena. As we came to the turn, he had to gather himself and voila! He delivered the smoothest transition to canter I’d ever felt.
That simple action provided a contrast to the way I’d been riding up to that point, and that contrast was what made the light bulbs go off in my head. The transition was smooth, effortless, and all I’d had to do was let it happen. I never wanted to feel another contortion of that movement again.
Tune in next time for more…