How not to override but still be effective – an experiment in ‘active’ and ‘passive’ riding

 

By Wiola Grabowska

We can probably all relate to the situation in which a horse does more of what we don’t want the more we try the opposite and then “out of the blue” offers a behaviour we wanted when we no longer care about it.

It’s relatively “easy” to over-ride a horse with our aids without noticing as well as not to do enough to guide the horse into desired behaviour and we all do a bit of both now and then.

I’d like to chat with you about an exercise in ‘passive’ and ‘active’ riding.

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We often talk about effectiveness when training. I believe true effectiveness starts in ability to “not disturb” the horses in the job we are asking them to do…Whether on the flat, over poles or over the jumps.

When I say passive I don’t mean a slouching rider travelling on a horse but one who shadows horse’s movement while remaining as balanced as possible. This is often a much harder task for a rider than it seems because to follow every movement with every part of your seat without acting upon the horse in any way is much easier said than done. The biggest issue I find is riders’ ability to maintain an absolutely neutral rein connection – most common are two extremes: riders who feel the need to constantly fiddle and those who ride with dropped reins out of belief they interfere too much. Neutral, non-disturbing connection that can become meaningful is hardest to achieve but I believe forms a great starting point from which to start an influence that has biggest chances of acceptance (by the horse).

Conversely, when I say ‘active’ I don’t mean in any way ‘busy’ but simply becoming in charge of direction, speed, shape of the horse’s body, amount of impulsion he or she creates etc.

Here’s what we did at Aspire Equestrian Spring Camp 2018 (full blog post on the Camp coming up later this week)

The WHY

We work on the below skills in order to create a situation in which the horse finds our ideas easy to understand, logical to obey and enjoyable to partake in (assuming horses tend to gravitate towards harmonious movement).

The lesson objectives:

  • to increase awareness of degree of influence the rider’s actually have on a horse,
  • to increase awareness of “doing too much” or “not enough”,
  • to build a feel for moments when the rider needs to allow the horse to listen, understand and act without being “busy” with own posture
  • to increase awareness of “own anticipation”
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MEET THE RIDERS: Derek on Boo and Sasha on Ferris – the horses decided to travel from one corner of the arena to the other and sometimes just stood in one of them observing 😉

The how

I asked the riders to drop the reins and allow the horse to make choices about directions. The riders were to stay completely passive (as if they wanted to simply shadow the horse’s movement) yet stay in as good a balance as they could. They were to stay in walk and trot but act if horses became in any way unsafe.

Game on

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First of all it turned out to be a one funny session although I admit I did not plan it that way 😉 Horse that notoriously avoids corners for various reasons gravitated towards them like a magnet, the one we thought would be worried and stressed (an ex-racehorse) turned out to confidently stroll around, relaxed and happy leading the other horse most of the time. The mare that normally avoids the arena ends, took herself out of the arena and climbed a small mound 😉

I wanted to get the riders to feel how easy it is to anticipate something and how difficult it is to “do nothing at all”. For example approaching a corner most riders will have a set of automatic behaviours they don’t even think about that prepares the horse to turn. This can cause various muscle engagement patterns in the horse that leads to inverting away from corners, running on, avoiding bend/flexion etc etc I wanted the riders to make sure they listen to the feedback from the horse and it was much easier to do once they experienced the passive rider game.

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Second part of the session

I asked the riders to slowly include their influence but in a very tactful way i.e. do as little as possible but as much as necessary to ride certain figures and exercises I asked them to do. The difference in the horse’s attitude, relaxation and ease with which they did the exercises was significant. The riders found it very enjoyable and as we know, we do learn best when having fun 🙂

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Very good attempt at neutral rein connection in canter

Their handling on reins and frequency with which they used them improved too – the rider who tends to override rode with much more awareness of that and the one who tends to to leave the horse a bit too much without guidance, rode with more attention too.

Maintaining a perfectly neutral rein connection that neither drops or holds unnecessary tension in three basic paces of walk, trot and canter is a skill I consider one of the most important for all my Foundation & Development programme riders. Without that relaxed stability, rein aids rarely can be truly independent yet harmonious with the rest of the seat.

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Sasha in a very good attempt at following the contact in trot – she could perhaps show a little more carriage of the hands (as they dropped a bit here) to truly show that rider’s hips, elbows and shoulders are as supple as can be but very good job nevertheless.

Please note: One of the riders has taken up riding a year and half ago as an adult, the other had a 7 months old break from riding due to University commitments, both are very aware of their riding seat issues which we are working on so please try to avoid riding critique from the attached photos 🙂 

All photos in this post are copyright of Becky Bunce Photography and Aspire Equestrian Riding Academy

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