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The old masters considered the horse’s natural crookedness to be a major obstacle in developing balance, suppleness, collection, impulsion, and “obedience” (i.e. positive responsiveness to the aids). Put positively, functional straightness is the foundation of balance, suppleness, collection, impulsion, and “obedience”. Without straightness, the horse won’t get very far in his training. Unfortunately, overcoming crookedness is not a trivial matter. It requires constant attention, and if the rider doesn’t work on straightening her horse every day, his innate crookedness will gradually increase again.
Looking at the development of equestrian art over longer periods of time, you will detect pendulum-like swings of opinions in many areas. There are fashion trends that are taken to a certain extreme. Then, opinions change, and the pendulum swings in the opposite direction until it reaches the other extreme. Although these developments are often based on correct observations in some areas, extremes are usually counter productive and often damage the horse’s soundness and overall health. It is always dangerous when an observation of one training aspect is made the only criterion for evaluating training progress and then taken to an extreme, following the motto: more is better.
One example of such extremes are two diametrically opposed opinions on riding long and low. On one end of the spectrum are those riders for whom stretching forward-downward is the highest goal of dressage training and the solution to all problems. Many of them believe that you are not allowed to do anything else in the training of your horse until the horse is able to stretch forward-downward. On the opposite end of the spectrum are those who categorically reject any and all forward-downward stretching because they believe that it puts the horse onto the forehand and ruins the horse’s legs.
This week's newsletter article is a guest post by one of our guest teachers in our courses, Catherine McCrum. Catherine is a Feldenkrais practitioner and Gestalt psychotherapist living and working in London. The Feldenkrais Method is a way of improving how you move and function in daily life with a particular focus on how your unconscious movement patterns and posture holds you back from doing what you want to do with ease and grace. She works with a wide variety of clients and students from athletes and performers to people with neurological difficulties. Her original training was as a ski coach and trainer which she finds very applicable to her relatively new love of riding and her horse.
When a flying change fails, the reason is usually that the horse became crooked and/or fell on the forehand. This results in a loss of the connection between the inside hind leg, the ground, the rider’s weight, and the reins which prevents the half halts from going through. That’s why things generally don’t improve if you keep cantering and keep repeating the aids for the flying changes.
It saves much time, sweat, and aggravation for both horse and rider, if you interrupt what you’re doing, bring the horse back to the trot or walk, or even to the halt, straighten and balance the horse, check his body for stiff, braced areas, remove the muscle blockages, and re-explain the biomechanics of the flying change (i.e. shift the weight, change the bend, move the pelvis).
As the horse is developing his conscious competence, he will often need time to think and to plan his next move so that he can perform the task deliberately. As he moves from conscious competence to unconscious competence, he can do flying changes anywhere, any time, with less and less preparation.
When I returned to riding as a middle-aged person, my first horse had a very loud ‘no.’ He was cheerful enough about doing the things he wanted to do, but my goal—to learn dressage—prompted a storm of tantrums and hissy fits of truly epic proportions. This, of course, felt horrible. He was treated well, I thought, and the requests I was making were not very difficult. So why did he spend his time looking for ways to make my life hard? Why did he keep saying ‘no’?
It happens to all driven and focused riders at some point. We get so focused in on what we are trying to work on that we lose perspective or we forget to add in enough variety of other things because we want to “fix” this certain issue (and we want to fix it TODAY!).
On the one hand it is important to have a level of perseverance. Giving up at the sign of the slightest resistance or problem is not a path to success, but there comes a point where our dogged perseverance can backfire and make the matter worse. In those circumstances, we need to shift our gears, pivot in our approach, and shift our perspective.
There is a general tendency in all living beings to conserve energy, to avoid conflict if possible, and to travel the path of the least resistance. When they move, they try to do so in the most comfortable manner and with the least possible expenditure of strength and energy (they are only human, too).
Water seeks the lowest energy level by flowing downhill, through openings, and around obstacles. Electricity always seeks the path of the least resistance. It’s a natural law that you can observe every day in countless manifestations.
A student in our Video Coaching Program has observed that her horse found the exercises more strenuous than she had anticipated. He seemed to be a little tired the next day and perhaps a little muscle sore. So she asked me how she should structure her training from now on in order not to overface the horse while at the same time giving him enough physical exercise during a time of year when the weather conditions limit her turnout and trailriding options. This is a problem that many riders and horses face. That’s why I want to share a few thoughts on this subject here.
Guest post by Marcella Becker.
Pretty much everybody that chooses to spend his time with horses puts their heart and soul in it. Certainly what motivates us all is the love of horses. Nonetheless, once we start getting really serious about our riding the entire project becomes at times laden with frustration. There is no rider who has not been at times (and this will happen again and again) right at the limit of their ability.
I’m sure you are all familiar with the concept of Straightness as one of the elements of the German FN Training Scale. Those of you who are rooted in the French tradition know it as one of Alexis L’Hotte’s three main training principles (Calm, Forward, Straight). You have probably also run into its opposite - crookedness - as a tricky and quite pervasive issue. But has anybody explained to you what straightness is and why it is important? Why should you spend your entire equestrian life correcting the horse’s natural crookedness, as Jacques d’Auvergne wrote? Can’t we just go out and have fun on our horse?