Competitive dressage and traditional biomechanics have led us to a place where there is “correct movement” and “incorrect movement”. Lots of us pay good money each weekend to be judged on our skills at “correctness”. And yet did you know that the repetition of a narrow band of even the most “correct movements” is actually harmful to our bodies and our horses? Newer movement science now shows, without doubt, that movement variability is key to build strong, resilient bodies.
The equitation you will learn in lessons with me has very little focus on the “correct” appearance of a movement. I am all about the feel. How did you feel as you performed the movement? What was your perception of the space occupied by you and the horse? This can be equal parts liberating and terrifying for people starting lessons with me. There is something very reassuring about being visually right or wrong. The rules are very clear and it is easy to be correct. Going on feel requires you to actively engage with your feelings as you ride or work in hand.
This leads us to The Ugly Shoulder In Lesson. It’s one of my favourites to teach. If we strip the idea of a shoulder in down to its essence, what is left? You are moving in a diagonal direction; the weight is going across one diagonal pair and the horse is bent away from the direction of travel. So I’m going to ask you to attempt a shoulder in and just report on your observations of what happened. But there is one essential rule to this game- no holding the horse together so you get a shoulder in. The aim is not the perfect execution of a given movement. The aim is to suggest with your aids the feel of moving diagonally and then to listen to your horse’s response. Input the sensation without attachment to the outcome. See what kind of a shoulder in you get?
When the horse realises you are willing to ride with a level of tactile conversation where the brushing of the hair with the rein suggests the bend, life changes. When the horse knows that the outcome has lost its appeal to you and you are ready to invest in the conversation, life changes. When the horse know it can trust you not to force its’ position but will suggest and listen to the response, life changes.
Open yourself to the idea of conversing through touch, space and movement. Change the goal from the execution of a given movement to the maintenance of touch and connection through the suggestion of movements. Cradle the reins with hands of loving kindness and connect the most feeling parts of your body to that of the horse. Find a level of touch where your hand doesn’t dent the skin of the horse’s lips. Then see what the horse is willing to talk to you about.
If you are competing then of course attachment to the outcome is important to you. That being so, see if you can execute the movements without your ego getting attached to the outcome. Can you execute the movements without sacrificing the conversation with the horse? Equitation then becomes more like a movement puzzle through space and time. Is the tactile conversation fluent enough, and are the horse and rider’s senses of balance developed enough that you can transcribe a perfect circle? If not, then it isn’t a “bad circle”, but a proof of the areas the balance and conversation need improvement.
Often improvement does not come through repeated circling either, but through careful consideration of which aspect of the balance is off and refinement there. As with all of equitation, the improvements are often found through close observation with an open, present mind. We can all flourish in an atmosphere devoid of judgments and filled with a warm curiosity.