Combining Softness and Power
It’s my observation that lots of Western riders can get their horses soft, while lots of English riders can get their horses moving with power. The real art is combining softness and power. My best dressage lessons were made possible by Ray Hunt.
With a simplicity that belies its complexity, Ray’s horsemanship class was always a challenge for me. Over and over, walking, trotting, circles, half circles, back to walking, stopping, moving the hind around the front, the front around the hind, backing, more walking, it wasn’t unusual to hear clinic riders complain, “When do we get to do the advanced stuff?” Ray ignored this complaint and kept offering his best advice on how to ride a horse “with quality.” Thank God, Ray stuck with his best advice. It took me years of riding and listening to Ray teach the same thing, over and over, before some of it began to make sense. Ray taught principles of riding with quality, not “how to.” He’d look a rider in the eye and say, “Think!” This combination of exercises and the encouragement to explore and think for myself, made working with Ray invaluable to me. Because I couldn’t ride with Ray every day. But I could take his advice home (all those exercises done over and over) and think about what they meant to the horse.
One exercise which could make a grown rider cry was walking in a circle around Ray counting cadence, with the horse’s feet (both front and hind). Its easy to count cadence with the horse’s front feet. (The feet the rider can see.) Feeling the hind feet is a different story. Because I admire how much Ray could do with his horses, I kept thinking, some day I’ll get this… some day counting cadence will mean more to me. Today, it means more than I can say.
What does this have to do with dressage?
Dressage riders are constantly intoning, “Ride the horse from the back to the front.” This is the way dressage riders should ride. But, rarely do they explain this to the horse. Many (if not most) dressage riders are instructed to restrain the horse with pressure on the bit and then drive the horse forward with their legs. This is a recipe for failure. Horses become frustrated and heavy. Riders become frustrated with the lack of results (and often blame the lack of talent on their horse). A vicious circle ensues. The rider asks more and gets less. Horses often dutifully comply, while they look miserable. Since riding the back to the front is the right idea, what’s missing?
Counting Cadence (getting in time with the horse’s feet).
Anxious to do right by my horses, for years, I kept working on and thinking about Ray counting cadence with his horse’s feet. The first thing I noticed was that counting cadence with the hind feet made an obvious difference in my ability to extend the horse’s walk. If I timed my request for a longer stride, when the horse’s hind foot was on the ground, my horses would drive forward with enthusiasm. Without even knowing all the implications, a large chunk of dressage (and more) fell into place for me. By counting cadence, the horse can be both powerful and soft.
Here’s another video. This is a green (five year old!) horse working on lengthening her trot. I’m counting cadence with the hind feet (gaining power), while asking the horse to remain soft. I’m not asking Desi to give me everything, today. I just want her to try to lengthen her trot stride a few steps and try she does. She’s soft, relaxed and responsive. I’m happy, because she is happy, too.