While riding my own horse lately, one of my focuses has been on making her dance. I want her feet moving with energy and her body to move with grace. She often prefers to move a bit more slowly and labored; less spritely. One evening, the image of a practice session for high school team sports came to mind. I was envisioning the team of kids being prepared for soccer or football. The coach makes the kids do footwork drills to improve agility, strength and balance. I realized, that’s what I wanted my horse to do to!
As we train our horses throughout their career, we are asking them to learn to shift their balance from off their forehand to carry more on their hindquarters. Since the horse naturally carries sixty percent of their weight on their front legs, this is not an easy or quick process. Physiologically, we are trying to teach our horses to pick their hind feet up off the ground before the hind leg is at maximum extension so the horse develops a degree of upward thrust and eventually “squatting ability”, not just forward thrust. Additionally, the horse has to learn to control where the thrust of energy goes and channel it with poise.
The most vivid image for me was visualizing boys in football practice running through tires, sprinting forward, abruptly stopping, running backwards, all while having their balance such that they can withstand both an abrupt ,(but seamless), chance of direction and possibly withstand the impact of an opposing teammate. We too, are asking our horses to have a consistent rhythm and tempo and use comparable exercises to develop agility and balance.
How do we show the horse or explain to the horse this is what we want? We ask it questions. We ask it to go forward, then we say, but wait, now I mean go forward, but wait, I mean circle small here, now step sideways, but wait… We would like to create a partner who is ready, waiting and poised with coiled energy to move in any direction at any speed at any time. We are trying to create a partner trained and strong enough to take 1200lbs and have the utmost control of their body, while performing an athletic endeavor.
If we practice asking our horses to change what they are doing every 12 strides or so, (or less, depending on what the trainer is looking for), with transitions within and to and from gaits and changing directions both laterally and longitudinally, etc., we can develop an athlete who has learned that being prepared for a change is advantageous to their “success.” From there, the horse learns through repetition and practice what we would like them to do. They develop the strength and agility to continue to develop into more skillful athletes. They can become willing partners because they understand what’s expected of them, and develop the strength and techniques required.