Friday, 11 June 2010

I'm sorry, it seems ages since I have 'blogged' - blame lots of travelling and teaching, with a huge backlog of tasks that needed doing at home. But the last few months have been a very productive time in terms of some new skills and understandings that are enhancing both my riding and teaching.
My last series of blogs have been about the challenges of riding lazy and whizzy horses. Maybe I can bring those two strands together through the following analogy.
Imagine two people standing opposite each other playing a game of catch with a tennis ball. This is a co-operative game - neither person is trying to catch the other one out - and each throws the ball so that it bounces once, giving a reliable rhythm of bounce, catch, bounce, catch, bounce, catch....
Then imagine that one partner secretly substitutes a more bouncy ball, which would speed up the rhythm of the game, and make it much more precarious!
Also imagine that one of them secretly substitutes a bean bag! That is the end of the game.
Our 'bounce, catch' analogy illustrates the energy exchange between horse and rider in rising trot, and we want this to work as if each one were throwing the other a tennis ball. But the lazy horse might want to throw bean bags, which deaden the bounce in the game, making it 'wind down'. Many draft crosses are of this type. The rider might also tend to throw bean bags, and one of my pupils once nicknamed herself 'bean bag butt' (I would not have said this - it's too cruel!) But it was certainly true that every horse she rode tended to 'give up the ghost'. She was a low tone rider, and her body naturally had a 'bean bag' quality that she had to work very hard to change, holding her muscles much more firmly than their natural level of tone.
Many riders throw the horse a bean bag when they want him to go more - they land heavier, dig their seat into his back, and expect this to make him go forward. But they have deadened his bounce, with the inevitable result that he will go less If the horse is a 'bean bag' type, the rider has to keep throwing him tennis balls, and not get seduced into throwing bean bags back at him. If she does this, he will inevitably loose impulsion.
It is not easy to keep 'tennis ball' quality in your body when paired with a 'bean bag' horse! His hind legs have to 'ping' off the ground more than he wants them too, and he has less recoil energy in his tendons and ligaments than, say, a thoroughbred. The tempo has to stay faster than he would choose, and you may need to learn to give leg aids in the way I have described in previous posts. If you nag and shove you are doomed.
You also have to be able to diagnose the moment when his bounce descreases. Most riders 'wake up' then both they are the horse are well into the process of 'winding down' - and by then, it is a huge big deal to re-find 'tennis ball' impulsion. Prevention works far better than cure!
In contrast, thoroughbreds might well want to throw you a bouncier ball than you want them too, increasing both the speed and the force of their 'throws'. Your job is then to slow the tempo, keeping their hind legs on the ground for a little longer than they want them there, especially with the proverbial 'cat on hot bricks' kind of horse. This is the only way that you can regain control of the speed of the 'throws' and the force of the 'throws'.
I wish I had understood this better years ago, as the wonderful thoroughbred horse pictured on the cover of the 'Essentials' book would con me by speeding up the game, and I would match her thrust-for-thrust, only to have her try and speed it up more. It was as if she was saying 'any way you can thrust I can thrust better/faster/harder...' (she was a wonderfully exuberant soul, and loved to run away with people in medium trot!) It was a long time before I realised that my job was not to match her but to slow her. I had to become extremely pro-active to make pauses at the top of the rise and the bottom of the sit that were effective enough to slow down her legs. I had to develop good enough 'chewing gum string rise', and to keep a reliable 'windscreen wiper rise', before I could maintain my ideal amount and speed of thrust. (See previous posts for an explanation of these analogies.)
The tennis ball analogy is a lovely way to talk about the energy exchange between horse and rider. We as riders have the task of creating 'tennis ball energy' in our bodies - and some of us are more bean-bag-like, while others are more bouncy-ball-like. Our horses too have different energetic qualities, and we are (we hope) training them to become more tennis-ball-like.
Next time you ride, think about tennis ball energy exchange, and see if you can diagnose yourself and your horse, bringing you both to the more ideal game of throwing tennis balls!