Let's begin with a quick review: As I mentioned in my last column, the language of horses is body language. I can never emphasize enough that it's not just what we do with a horse that is important but how we use our bodies when we are with our horses that needs to be kept first and foremost in mind. I say this because how relaxing and enjoyable the training is for any breed of horse of any age, or, conversely, how stressful the experience is for the horse, depends entirely on how the trainer behaves.
This is not a matter of perception or beliefs in specific techniques. This is not about english or western preferences in riding. This is not about recreational or show horses. All horses are physiologically hard wired in the bio-chemistry of their central nervous system so that their body, mind and spirit work together as one. The frame of the body of the horse is also the frame of the mind. So, the truest definition of training the horse should literally mean that we use our body language to shape/sculpt our horses into a frame of body that corresponds to their feeling good in the mind.
Now, having reviewed all of the above, these are just words that I have said so many times before in one context or another. So, now let's look at four different photos that illustrate very clearly how frame of body = frame of mind. In these images we can see how, with knowledge and awareness, we can use our body language to help our horses be the best that they can be. Or, just the opposite, how, with lack of awareness, we can inadvertently be stressing and alienating our horses when we do not know what we do not know about our own body language.
In this first photo we see my good friend Walter riding his young Arabian mare Flip. Flip is clearly distressed. Her back is hollowed out, her eyes have a worried expression while her focus is out in the distance instead of into the turn that Walter is asking for. Her tail is also swishing in annoyance as I have asked Walter to ride like so many people do; with braced legs pushed away from the horse, a stiff seat while leaning back in the saddle and with slack reins. Obviously the mare does NOT like how she is being ridden - and once again, this awkward frame of body is stressing her mind.
In photo 2 we now see that Walter has taken up contact with the reins and that Flip is no longer inverted. And since her back is lifted and rounded she is no longer feeling the distress of a hollowed or inverted spine so her tail is visibly curled and relaxed. However, Flip is "behind the bit" and if we look closely we see that Walter is not using his contact to block what he does not want but he is using his left hand to gently PULL what he does want - a turn left. However, his center, his seat and navel, are still pointed straight ahead instead of into the turn. Therefore, Walter is saying "go straight" with his seat while his left hand is pulling Flip into a left turn. His lovely mare is therefore "going behind his hand" like a turtle pulling its head back into its shell - in an attempt to avoid being pulled by the hand into one direction while being pushed from the seat in another.
Now we see a lovely frame of body = a wonderful frame of mind. Now Walter has let his legs relax completely and, in fact, is using his right "inside" leg to bend Flip's barrel in order to balance her entire body on the arc of the turn to the right he is asking for. He is also using his left "outside" leg to turn the outside of her bending body into the right turn. Walter is now aligned with his center (look at his belt buckle) perfectly straight with Flip's spine so that they are both on the same track of the right turn. When we see how soft the reins are we know that the shape of Flip's body is coming from Walter's seat and legs instead of his hands. Now his right hand is no longer pulling right but instead merely blocking any unwanted left turns while the body is bending and sent to the right. As Walter truly rides Flip "from front to back" and from "inside to out" with his body language - instead of pulling on Flip's face - we now see that his mare is relaxed and focused on the task at hand. Great riding Walter!
Our final photo is Chris riding his 3 year old Friesian x Hanoverian mare Ekwa. This is only Ekwa's seventh ride of her young life and she is being ridden alone, without the company of other horses, on her first trail ride into nature. Although this is only Ekwa's seventh ride of her life - look how relaxed and focused she is while being ridden away from the other horses and into the wilderness. Although she is so young and inexperienced we see a profound level of calm and relaxation in Ekwa because during her few rides Chris has only ridden her with his body aligned properly with Ekwa's and Chris has never used the reins to pull on her mouth. Ekwa has only experienced being ridden in a comfortable frame of body and therefore she maintains a comfortable frame of mind. Proof positive that with horses - it's not how much you do something - it's how well you do it - and it's not "where you go" with horses but "how well you go."
Author Chris Irwin is an internationally renowned horseman, best-selling author and a leading pioneer in the equine assisted movement. It was discovering how to transform BLM wIld Mustangs into18 calm and collected U.S. National Champions in english, western and driving competitions, that first showed Chris his greatest insights into learning how to learn. To connect with Chris Irwin visit his website at www.chrisirwin.com.