That Great Big Hole in the Middle

Riding the RocketI have sort of a rep, you know? People are always linking and pinging articles and stories about horses, and then standing back to see what I’ll do.

So this past week I got several pointers to this truly lovely article in the New York Times. For those who don’t want to venture the paywall, the article is titled, “Two Horses, One Language,” and it explores various aspects of communication between  horse and human. It’s delightful. It tells stories of the author’s own experience, with pictures of the horses. It even has a baroque horse front and center, a Lusitano of stellar pedigree and achievements.

And it has a great big gaping hole in the middle.

Here are a couple of pointers to the hole:

If I look down, I see my wobbling hands holding the reins as lightly as I can, so that the information I transmit down them to the metal bit in his sensitive mouth is a respectful but firm request and not an abrupt bark or a feeble “might I trouble you to halt?”

Our shared language is not really a language per se, but a set of cues —a touch of the left or right heel, a shift of weight on the knee, a squeeze of hand on rein. It’s similar to but different from the cues I learned in thousands of hours of horse riding lessons as a child (squeeze, kick, pull). It’s not Sasa’s mother tongue either — he’s had to learn it from humans through classical conditioning: respond correctly and the pressure is lifted or a reward given. And yet he sometimes anticipates commands.

Sometimes she really gets it:

This is the central mystery of riding a horse: this third-language subterfuge we clever apes have to employ to communicate with a fellow mammal who is capable of reading us at a deeper and simpler level than we can read ourselves.

And then she veers off again:

This time I knew I wanted to be a better, subtler rider — the type who speaks that third language like a poet rather than a waffler, who has the proverbial “good hands.” I wanted to make succinct, eloquent gestures that were well received by my conversational partner.

This is what I call “monkey thinking.” Focusing on what we have that the horse doesn’t. Namely, hands. Thinking that hands (and to a lesser extent legs) are what we’re using to communicate. There’s a glimmer when she mentions knees, but like many other well-meaning but ultimately monkey-brained riders, she’s totally missing the part that’s doing the actual communicating.

The part that’s in closest contact with the horse. The part she’s sitting on. What the Secret Masters call the seat. (But is in fact the whole body from the shoulders to the knees.)

This view with the whole middle blanked out is strikingly common in the US. “Leg means go. Hand means stop.” In Europe it’s pretty strong, but there are places where the Real Secret is taught, such as the Spanish Riding School of Vienna.

It’s not really a secret. It’s mostly a lot more work for the rider and a lot more finesse, and takes a lot longer to learn than jump on, kick to go, pull to stop. It makes the rider pay close attention to her own body and the horse’s body, and to the intersection between the two.

And that’s where the real communication is.

In the way the world has of making the point with extra emphasis, the day after I first saw this article, my Evil Gelding’s new victim, er, rider was struggling a bit at the start of ride number three. She’d mounted but he wouldn’t go forward. She gave up, got off, and did work in hand instead, mostly involving getting him to do things along with her, follow and turn and speed up and slow down. Which showed her good instincts for that horse in particular.

Now Evil Gelding has been trained by Secret Masters, and he’s never really been ridden by Clever Monkeys. He has no “mouth” in the sense that if you pull he stops, because he’s never been communicated with in that way. When New Rider first tried him out, he kept cantering instead of trotting, because her would-be soft instructions with the legs were very loud and strong for him. Made me laugh because I had the same exact experience with his mother the first time I rode her. These horses are a whole new level of sensitive, if you’re used to the usual style of push-pull conditioning.

I quite approved her riding overall, because for all the confusions and the miscommunications, he was soft and happy throughout, and his reactions weren’t angry or frustrated. Just, hey, is this what you’re asking? Is that? Or that?

He was waiting for something. I finally, in the third ride, mentioned that if she relaxed her body while keeping it quietly upright, and lifted her pelvic floor so that his back would have room to round and come up and bring the movement through from the back to the front, he might move forward more willingly.

Bingo! New Rider is a yoga instructor, so understands both quiet uprightness and finer manipulations of the body’s core as well as the seat and pelvis. Horse picked himself up, neck stretched and got long, stride got long and loose, and he was moving on out where he’d been throwing his head up and stopping.

No hands except as a connection to his mouth. No legs yet, though they’ll come in in various ways to finesse the seat as she goes on. All she needs right now is to lift her core and let him move forward. She can turn by turning her body slightly. Stop pretty much by thinking it (which subliminally stops her lower body following the movement of his hindlegs). Go forward on an exhale (which opens up the pelvis and very subtly “scoops” the horse forward from behind).


So what’s really happening?

A lot of things, but here are two important ones:

Clever Monkey walks upright and manipulates the world with her hands. She sometimes uses her legs to do things like kick the lawnmower into gear and run away from the lion in the grass.

Horse on the other hand is built on a rectangle. The engine is in the rear. The front end is designed to reach down and graze, or reach up and browse, but when it’s time to run away from the lion, the back end is where the motion starts. Tuck the rear, thrust off, runlikehell.

When we put a monkey in the middle of this structure, monkey wants to control the part she can see, which is the head and neck. Horse on the other hand is still a rear-wheel-drive vehicle. Pulling on his face doesn’t make a lot of sense except insofar as it interferes with his ability to run away from that lion. Which is why pulling too hard often results in his rearing up and falling over backwards. His back end is where he’s focused.

Realizing that it’s not the legs or the hands that control the horse, but the rider’s weight and, when the horse is not deadened to it by a long history of riders without awareness, the structure of the rider’s pelvis (what we call the seatbones), is the point at which monkey starts to become an actual rider. That’s when she starts communicating with the horse not through cues (artificial signals) but through aids (signals that when properly applied encourage the horse to move in the direction desired). A cue would be lift of one rein equals canter. An aid uses the rider’s weight, legs, and  hands to position the horse’s legs and body in such a way that he has to canter; there’s no other answer to that question.

A trainer would actually have to train the horse with aids, and then connect the cue to those aids. Then the untrained rider just lifts the rein and mostly gets the response, as long as the rider isn’t interfering too strongly with the horse’s ability to do it. What you get in that case, too often, is a horse with physical problems because of all the times he’s had to haul an unbalanced rider into the gait, then carry that rider until the rider applies the cue to stop (usually by pulling on both reins, often with a strong bit with lots of leverage). He’ll get a sore back and may even develop arthritis especially in the sacroiliac, his leg joints and feet will start to break down, and he may have mental issues as well, interpreted as being “ring sour” or “barn sour.”

When you start requiring the rider to meet the horse halfway and preferably more, the horse stays sounder, because he’s not constantly fighting against the rider’s interference. The down side is that he stops being really ridable by anybody who comes along, because he expects the rider to communicate clearly and constantly, and he doesn’t know what to do when the rider won’t get out of his way.

Hence, Evil Gelding not wanting to move. Or horse in article not responding the way the rider expects. She’s focused on her hands and legs, and she doesn’t realize that what he’s really paying attention to is the big area in the middle. Sometimes more or less by accident, she’ll do something with hands or legs that puts her body in a place that tells him what she wants. Or she’ll miss the cue and get something she didn’t know she was asking for.

When the lightbulb goes off, she’ll find a whole new range of communication that currently, as Clever Monkey, she’s only subliminally aware of. That’s what happened to New Rider this past week. She’s enthralled. “All I have to do is think! It’s so amazing! I had no idea!”

For me, as Evil Gelding’s employee and chief feed wrangler, this is wonderful because he’s happy. He’s developing beautiful round strong muscles over the back, and becoming nicely fit already, without stiffness or soreness. He marches to the gate when he sees New Rider, and makes it very clear that this is HIS turn, it’s HIS rider, no others need apply.

Not that he might not become sore if he starts working harder and doing more challenging movements. Studly McMuffin and I did that in this past week’s lesson–his first in six months (I’ve been riding others, notably Lady Greenbean, while he’s been off with an injury and then easing back into light work). We were both, owwwww, butts got kicked, owwwwww, but it was a good ow. Using both of our bodies together in mutual communication to help us both be straight, balanced, supple, and relaxed. To keep each other sound and fit. To move in harmony. Which is what it’s really all about.




That Great Big Hole in the Middle — 18 Comments

    • Thank YOU for linking to it.

      It was a very kind fisking, I thought. Very positive. It’s a great article by someone who clearly loves horses and wants to understand them better.

  1. That is so clear–I comprehend it now. (That is, in my head. I wouldn’t have a clue in person!)

  2. You sound delightful, both as an instructor and a person. I was alerted to your blog by a friend of mine who recently took lessons from me. She saw this and thought of the way I teach. I wish I were closer so I could meet you. You have your priorities in order when it comes to horsemanship.

  3. The only reason I want to move to Arizona is to see you and Mel, and come ride your horses and learn how to do it correctly. I never wanted to ride, when brief chances were given to me–and I realize it’s because I knew that sitting up there like a lump and sawing on the horse’s mouth was wrong, wrong, wrong….

  4. So nice, Judy. Alien communications 101. Exhale to go, inhale to stop, think to turn. New Rider seems to understand that it works on the ground, it won’t be long before she translates that to the saddle. So glad that Keed is happy!

  5. I wondered if you would mention that article, so confident. I was that somebody would alert you to it, thus if I did, it would be a cluttering redundancy 🙂

    Love, C.

  6. You’ve reminded me of the second time I was riding a horse. Obviously, I was very new to the whole thing. We were out on one of those ‘guided trail ride’ events. There was this little short hill that was coming up and I had this thought of ‘If I shift my weight just so, we should just trot right up’ – and of course I did these things and we trotted right up and then stopped at the top, which I believe is when I shifted my weight back to where it had been before. I think the person guiding the ride was irked with me (probably worried her calm horse was getting away with itself or something). I was just thinking that ‘duh, the horse did what I asked’.

  7. Thank you – I plan on showing my eleven year old this article. In hopes of getting him to give clean directions to Confused Pony.