Many aspiring equestrians presume ‘balance’ to be the burden of the horse, and his ability to exhibit it a simple matter of training.
If we spend a large sum on a finished animal, the sensation and picture of balance and rhythm should be there, right? For the skilled rider, yes – for others, not necessarily, and not for long.
Skateboarding vs. Driving
The thing is this: the horse is like a skateboard and not so much like a car.
With a car, we can decide we’re tired of our old American-made junker and, if we have the means, replace it with nice German import – a nice S-Class, say. Immediately – on our very first drive home – our new car will accelerate, corner, and stop like a Mercedes. No matter who’s driving, we’re going to see a real and immediate difference – in fact, we could experience much of the difference from the passenger seat without driving at all!
With a skateboard, it’s quite different. (Unfortunately, this is going to go kind of ‘Marklar’ for a moment, which, yes, is a South Park reference – but stay with me). If we can barely skateboard on our old skateboard, then even the very best skateboard – even one built by unionized Aryans enjoying eight hour workdays and a viable social health care system – will not much improve our skateboarding experience, because, in and of itself, a high performance skateboard does little to improve our skateboarding skills.
To take advantage of its high-tech shocks, perfect balance, carbon fiber componetry, etc., we must become expert at skateboarding, else the advanced engineering and meticulous assembly is entirely wasted upon us.
In the case of an academic mount, we can certainly trade in a poorly trained animal for a more expensive and (hopefully) more highly trained one. But the new animal will demonstrate only a fraction of his capability in the absence of skilled, balanced piloting on the part of the rider.
As a mounted unit, we are adding 10% (or more, depending) of the horse’s weight. This may not seem like much, and for mundane activity performed on the forehand, it really isn’t. But add a baby to the back of a ballet dancer unused to carrying one, and they would not be so graceful; or to a martial artist, who would become slower and less mobile by a margin.
Ever-Improve Your Seat, Awareness, and Subtlety
The additional and localized load is carried well above his center of gravity – the physics carrying an extra 100 – 200 pounds are more challenging for the horse than wearing such an amount as the result of weight gain. So we must endeavor to become the most intelligent ‘weight’ we possibly can, helping and not hindering the horse in his movement.
As a point of departure, consider the following:
1. Develop an Independent Seat. If you do not yet have an ‘independent seat’, you need to force yourself to give up your stirrups for a while – even if you are “a very experienced rider” (and yes, many – if not most – experienced riders lack a bona fide independent seat). An ‘independent seat’ really means an independent everything else: you are able to move your torso, arms, legs, and head, in isolation or in combination, without impacting your concert with the horse. A truly independent seat solders your seat to your horses back, such that you have four legs now instead of two. Consider your old legs an extra pair of arms when you need them. When you don’t need them, they hang gently against the horse’s sides. You never feel the urge to cling with them, nor balance using your stirrups. The stirrups are not there for balancing – they are only there to support the weight of your legs (which, in case you’ve never tried it, would be in agony after a few hours without them).
2. Reflect from the Saddle. Spend more time on your horse doing less for a while. By “less”, I don’t mean nothing, but I do mean something different than trotting around in circles. You have been trotting around in circles too long already, haven’t you? Instead, poke around the farm on your horse. Time outside the arena will make him much better in the arena and familiarize both of you with far more diverse footing and circumstances. [Remember, the arena is a “best case scenario” environment. I can make a dressage horse in the fields, but I can’t make a campaign horse in the arena.] Make him move obliquely toward specific objects. Frequently halt, back up, halt, move forward at a walk. Halt and move forward at the trot. Practice turning a step at a time around his haunches. This time gets him more used to what your weight feels like in different scenarios – aside from how you feel bouncing on his back, which he knows too well already. As you practice moving with him as an extension of your mortal coil, you’ll find him reciprocating by increasing his attention to your shifts of weight in anticipation of changes of direction, speed, footing, etc.
3. Strive for Telepathic Aids. Focus on upgrading the fidelity of communications between you and your horse. All masters of the art have advocated “Moderation of the Aids,” certainly including Francois Baucher. Long before him, the Duke of Newcastle advocated “secret helps.” People are naturally more or less gifted in this area – I can usually make an accurate assessment of a person’s ability to ride a light horse based on how they pet their dog. Some people don’t ‘get it’, and need to consciously develop their sensitivity. Others intuitively understand “communication” happens on various “frequencies”, and one of them is “touch.” This is not the only means we use to communicate with horses, but from his back, it is our primary means. Our objective is to have a communication so refined that it is literally invisible to observers, and indeed appears telepathic. Keep your signals clear by all means, but try seeing how little signal you can get away with, and continuously work to get away with less. Here is what you will find: the more quietly you ‘speak’, the more carefully and thoughtfully (and, therefore, effectively), you and your horse will begin to listen.