Thank you. - photo by Anna Blake

Thank you. – photo by Anna Blake

“Asking your horse to hold your weight at the halt, like gossiping cowboys with their legs hooked over their saddle-horns, is much harder for a horse than moving with weight on his back. When you’re not riding, kindly get off his back.”

This quote is from last week’s blog and Cathy asked me to elaborate. I promised I’d hold it to a moderate rant.

Let’s start by having a good ride. That means a warm-up that is patient and pleasant. The horse has longer reins and is striding up with a nice rhythm. His poll is soft and the rider is breathing deeply. You turn your waist and ask him to reverse and in that movement, you feel his ribs stretch to the outside while his inside ribs soften around your leg. Dressage rhymes with massage for a reason. Repeat a few times, asking for longer steps with your seat, and then shorter. Sweet. Good boy.

Relaxed and forward, just like the training pyramid says. Now some walk-trot transitions, still a long rein and you can feel him lift and carry you. The strides are slow enough to be big and from the tip of his nose to his tail, there’s a swinging rhythm that flows under you like a river. He’s using himself well, and his back is starting to lift.

What happens next depends on riding discipline and the level of horse/rider proficiency, but whatever happens next is aided by the 15-20 minutes you just spent helping your horse slowly warm his muscles. He feels good in his body and he is ready to work. Reining, dressage, jumping; he’s warm and willing. So let’s say you do a light bit of training and when he tries, he gets a scratch.

“Ask often, be content with little, and reward greatly.” It’s always smart to channel Nuno Oliveira.

The horse is happy, the rider is happy, and after 15 or 20 minutes of training, there is a long cool down that feels just as good at the end of the ride as the beginning. Moving forward, swinging big lets him step under with his hind leg and he gets stronger with every stride. So the rider asks for a halt and gives her horse a pat. Then maybe there is another lesson to watch, or a friend to chat with. Now might be a good time to check messages on your smartphone. Is there anything better than sitting on a horse?

Except that you just had a generous, fluid ride, asking him go light and forward, and now you’re parked in the saddle being dead weight pushing down on his spine, which he has just politely lifted for you. Kind of squishing all that happy, round work. It’s not great for a young horse, but for a mid-life or older horse who has the beginnings of arthritis, the benefits of the ride get minimized, just when they’re needed even more.

A brief physics lesson: Carrying a stack of books while walking forward is an example of dynamic force. Similarly, a forward horse spends less effort carrying weight because of that dynamic movement. Standing still and holding a stack of books is a static load, the force is downward. Can you feel it, maybe in your back? So we shift weight from one foot to the other because it’s harder to hold static weight and maintain balance. Make any sense?

That’s when you hear her, “Drives me nuts!” It’s Kim Walnes–she’s in your arena! “Your horse is not a sofa!” Okay, she isn’t in your arena, but it would be nice. She did write this on the blog last week, just after Cathy asked for clarification. (Took you at your word, Kim. Err…actually, I took your words. Thanks.)

Physics is reason enough, but there is an even more important reason to get off, and like usual, it’s about your horse’s state of mind. Riders underestimate the importance of the last thing they do before dismounting.

Horses learn in hindsight. They always remember the thing-before-the-thing. They are smart that way, survival often depends on it. So if bad things happen every time he gets caught, or if riding in the trailer bothers his stomach, or if what happens after the mounting block feels like punishment, they are bright enough to do the math and the thing before, whatever that is, becomes a cue to resist.

But with beauty and grace, the reverse is also true. If we give a horse a happy release just as he has done good work, he remembers that just as well. Release is the best reward, it’s honest, loud and true. Giving him a long rein and a scratch makes him remember the previous thing. Parking on his back like a cinder block after good work deflates the value of the training moment, but vaulting off, loosening the girth, and letting him be done will tattoo that moment in his mind like a big red heart with your name across it on a blue ribbon. Think of dismounting as an effective training aid.

Sometimes in competitions, you’ll see a wonderful rider finish, jump down, and walk their horse out. I always think that’s what makes them a great rider; the ability to say thank you in another language.

Quitting on a high note leaves your partner positive and wanting more. Let that be enough. Don’t linger–get off and say thank you. Then maybe he’ll volunteer to noodle with you at the mounting block.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.