Just about the only formal hobby I’ve had longer than riding horses is playing piano. While on the surface they seem to have not very much in common, I had a recent epiphany during the middle of a lesson: Riding is a much an art form as playing a musical instrument – it is, in its own way, a symphony.
In an orchestra, there are four main groups of instruments: strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion (+/- a keyboard/harp section).
In riding, there four main natural aids: seat, legs, hands, voice (+/- unnatural aids like spurs, crops, etc.).
Your seat is the base for the rest of your riding. Think about every article on the importance of an independent seat – it’s kind of a big deal. Your seat is the string section of an orchestra. Like a bass or cello, it provides the base of support for the rest of the orchestra, much like your seat provides the base for your other aids.
Your legs are there for support, steering, creating energy and engagement. Think of your legs like the woodwinds section. The oboes, bassoons, saxophones, and clarinets may not be able to be picked out individually in a full orchestral sound, but they augment the base sound created by the strings, make the sound fuller and richer.
Your voice is like the brass section. You don’t use your voice all of the time, but it punctuates your riding in times when you really need it (like a good ‘whoa’), or a moment of praise. It is a more recognizable and ‘seen’ aid than your leg or seat, much like the sound of a trumpet is quickly recognized, even in a massive orchestra.
Your hands are like the percussion section. Your hands hold the energy created by your legs and seat, provide direction, and maintain contact. The percussion provides a rhythm and can help dictate the tempo of a piece.
But the most important part is your brain – the conductor. Each piece of your riding symphony: legs, seat, hands, voice are functional independently, although with varying success. Trying to do a transition with just your hands or jump around a full course using nothing but your seat probably wouldn’t go too well, just as an orchestral arrangement played by just the brass section or just the percussion section would be unrecognizable.
Or think about if any of those pieces of the orchestra are out of balance – if you can’t hear the strings over the xylophone, something is wrong; much like if you are only using your hands and not your seat, the results may not create the masterpiece you are hoping for.
It is the conductor’s job to make sure that each section of the orchestra is in harmony with the others, to keep the rhythm and direct the artistic phrasing of the piece. When riding, your conductor’s job is to harmonize all of your aids, keep the rhythm and direct the phrasing of your course (or test, or pattern, or whatever discipline you are riding). Whether that is maintaining a steady tempo, increasing the pace (accelerando), increasing the power (crescendo), decreasing the intensity (diminuendo), or any number of movements or slight adjustments – the phrasing used in a piece of music carries over surprisingly easily to riding.
In my last lesson, Trainer commented that I needed to be focusing less on each individual jump, and more about after the jump. That once I was a few strides out from the jump, I needed to be thinking about the landing, my path, the next fence.
This concept is much like reading music. When first learning to read music, you focus on each individual note, one at a time. But as you become more adept, you read music slightly ahead of what you are playing – you are constantly looking ahead to what you will be playing next.
I suppose it makes sense to view riding in this musical way, as rhythm and tempo are a central concept in every riding discipline.
Next time I swing into the saddle, I will be envisioning an orchestra tuning up, the hum of strings, the slide of a trombone, a flute running through a scale. And as I start my next course, the conductor raising their baton as each instrument in each section begins to play in concert.