Horse-Riding: School for Gymnastic Improvement

Riding must first be understood, then it can be practiced correctly. That is, there is no successful riding without academic knowledge of its goals and the various means of attaining them. It is not the quantity, but the quality, of daily work that produces success. Good riding strategies are based on scholarly knowledge of the physique and nature of the horse, the correct, tried, and proven ways of getting the best results from him, and reasonable, well-planned goals.

Riding goals fall into three basic categories:

1. Long-term goals are the most general. In essence, they include the aspirations of developing the horse’s natural abilities to their ultimate extent and of specializing him in the areas that give us pleasure, that is, in cross-country, jumping, or dressage, after a proper foundation in the rudiments of all three.

2. Intermediate goals are often guided by competition goals and are designed to meet deadlines. Various exercises will be evaluated on show dates. These goals give us time limits and serve as motivation for achievement within certain time periods.

3. Daily goals address the major gymnastic needs by regular repetition of tasks, which develop the desired results. While these should be knowledgeably planned, the rider must remain flexible enough to be able to adjust these goals according to the very needs of each moment of each schooling session. This implies quickness in responding to the needs of the horse and inventiveness in responding to his needs appropriately.

Artists and human athletes work in a similar manner, and in their activities, we can find parallels with riding goals. A painter will have an overall goal of depicting certain things on canvas. He may paint for commissioning patrons or for exhibitions that press him with deadlines. But as daily work continues, he finds himself constantly adjusting to the needs of each particular canvas and subject matter. When he begins, he has a general idea of what to paint and how to do it. Yet, as he goes along, he alters his composition, color scheme, and texture in order to eventually achieve the desired results. Discovery of the correct means may happen along the way.

Riders are often victims of our cultural dictates. These include our notion that any change is progress. Some of us believe that true progress can best be depicted on a graphic line that proceeds onward and upward.

Preoccupation with change is contrary to sound riding goals. Not all that is new is progress. That notion may serve the purposes of technological innovation and commerce. However, adding new movements and figures just to keep busy in daily work may result in a stiff horse with a false superstructure. Hurrying training, making shortcuts, introducing artificial aids, may all be technologically ambitious. But riding is not a technology and the horse is not a machine. Efficiency, speed in traveling and in solving problems, may be highly valued in our age. But none of these values is applicable to horsemanship. Should a rider be misled by popular values, the long-term, general goal of producing a supple horse that performs according to his natural abilities will have been lost.

True progress will take place only when something better replaces the status quo, that is, when there is athletic improvement rather than just change taking place in the horse. Therefore, I suggest we consider an Eastern (instead of our technologically minded Western) view of progress. The Eastern view of progression (particularly Hindu) can be depicted as a stretched-out soft coil of spring, viewed in profile as consecutive circles that loop through one another.

With this image in mind, we can visualize riding strategies that involve constantly revisiting the places where the rider and his horse have been before. When schooling goes wrong, the rider should take the horse back to simpler tasks he can perform gymnastically correctly and continue development of new efforts only after his natural gaits and proper posture have been regained. Most important in classical training is that we maintain the natural beauty of the horse and improve only on his natural tendencies. We must accomplish that only by kind methods and in the horse’s own time. He is, after all, a living creature who has earned our love and respect over centuries of loyal service.

As the rider pursues the classical teachings of riding, he must have the patience and humility to change plans when the horse indicates that he cannot cope with an excessive rate of schooling. When we change schooling plans, we keep in mind that the horse begs for simplification, not complexity.

In daily work, the rider must keep in mind that we should be first and foremost a listening device, and when the horse signals stress, we simplify tasks by revisiting the simpler known ways, by pursuing the familiar, and by reviewing the foundations. Repetition reinforces learning and habituates development. This training method will yield true progress!

While observing the workings of nature, which we are a part of, biologists discovered a long time ago that the development of the individual microscopically repeats the development of the species. The human embryo and fetus pass through developmental stages that recapitulate in brief the evolutionary development of the human species from the one-celled organism through aquatic, amphibian, and terrestrial creatures to the shape and complexity of a human adult.

In riding, daily work on any level must consist of a recapitulation of the total progress we hope to have achieved with the horse to date. Therefore, regardless of his current gymnastic accomplishments, the horse will have to be started each day at the most basic level of achievement, starting with relaxation, and briefly progressed through a review of the more sophisticated achievements, such as balance, rhythm, elasticity, suppleness, impulsion, collection, engagement, and cadence. Repetition of the developmental phases in daily work will produce a cumulative effect on the horse’s athletic development by accelerating it. Progress is made from embryonic beginnings to fully sophisticated accomplishments. Each developmental concept, such as relaxation or cadence, has a minimal, feeble beginning that, with knowledgeable care, develops progressively in time to its full sophistication.

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