It’s a rare thing to find someone who can allow the horse total freedom while mounted – especially for the first time – without trying to cause the horse to go his way. True horsemen are admired for their ability to ride by the seat of their pants. I want you to learn to be able to do this, to become part of your horse as you ride. The best way to learn to do this is by riding freestyle.
In the last two articles, I talked about the need to become good with horses on the ground to gain their respect, and to teach them to understand what we will want on their backs. Freestyle riding is done with long reins and no contacts, saddled or bareback. You can use a snaffle bit, a bosal, a rope halter or a Natural Hackamore. As you advance, freestyle can mean no reins, a string around your horse’s neck, or nothing on head or neck at all. But you don’t start that way. What I am going to give you is the concept behind why freestyle is going to help you and your horse achieve more harmony together.
I use freestyle riding to develop an independent seat and self-carriage in the horse. Getting away from short reins and constant contact will teach communication with the whole body instead of just steering with two reins. Short reins then become an option that can be used for teaching, reinforcement, communication and refinement rather than a necessity for control. In my opinion, most people have not earned the right to ride with contact. They need an independent seat first.
When prey animals get scared, their first reaction is to run away, but when predators – including people – get scared, they freeze and dig in. These are completely different reactions – and the reason why so many people get into trouble with their horses.
When a horse gets scared, he has to run. He’s programmed by nature to do it. He runs instinctively. It’s a survival tactic.
We, on the other hand, try to make him stand still. We hold him back with the halter or bridle, thus leaving him no option but to pull back, rear up, or even flip over in panic. We have to learn to allow the horse to drift. Before we try to stop him in this frame of mind, we need to let the rope feed out or flow with the horse.
This is easier said than done for most because most people have to learn how not to freeze up and dig in. We need to get out of the defensive rut. We need to reprogram our unconscious reactions and learn to allow our horses some freedom while mounted.
Have you ever had a cute little house predator sitting on your lap, purring away, when in walks a dog? Choink…Into your legs go the claws. If you pay close attention, you’ll notice an anatomical connection between a cat’s claws and the hole under his tail – the body and mind get tight and the claws go in.
Now let’s take a look at the world’s largest house predator, the human. Most people ride along like a lump on a log until their horse gets a fright and snorts, jumps sideways or takes off. It causes the human to get tight – and all the claws go in: hands clamp onto reins, legs clamps onto the horse’s sides. For the horse, this feels as though a mountain lion has jumped on his back.
If we can learn to control these reactions, stay relaxed, and go with the flow, we can help the horse to calm down quickly, too. Ultimately, we could get the horse not to react at all because he’d gain confidence by the relaxed emotional state of his rider under any circumstance.
How to Get More Control
There are lots of things you can do to improve emotional fitness. You can test your reactions that don’t involve your horse by going on scary carnival rides or bungee jumping. You can increase your awareness of your reactions in all circumstances and practice doing the physical opposite, ie. breathing out and relaxing instead of tightening up and holding your breath. You can learn how to get more respect and control of your horse mentally, emotionally and physically with skills on the ground rather than being on his back.
If your horse is not so unpredictable, you won’t need to be so defensive. Remember, you are the one who bought a 1,200 pound prey animal who is really a big chicken without feathers, so don’t expect him to be the brave one.
I teach my students from the start to ride with their reins over their wrists. This physically stops them from grabbing the reins and digging in with their claws, and helps them to re-program their habits.
Focus with Mind, Body, Belly Button
If you put two reins in people’s hands, the strangest things happen: their body language turns off, and they stare at the back of their horses’ heads. They don’t even bother to look where they are going.
Freestyle riding will help break this limiting pattern quicker then anything I know. You have to start looking where you are going. When you start guiding your horse with no rein contact, you have to use your body, your belly button power. Point your belly button where you want to go!
One of the important four-letter words I know is Fo-C-U-S. Focus gives you feel. Feel gives you timing. Timing gives you balance. So focus is critical.
When you drive a car, you don’t look at the steering wheel. You look at the road ahead. This tells you where to aim, how much to influence the steering wheel, and when to steer. People can drive a car like this but when it comes to horses they tend to look at the horse.
Imagine you have eyes on your belly button, shoulder, your hips, your knees, your toes and your hands. Focus all of your eyes where you are going. Make corrections on your reins only if your horse does not follow your focus. Horses and children are masters at changing your focus, so the secret is to out-focus your horse. Out-persist him. Don’t let him change it.
If you can learn to have a consistently strong focus for your horse to follow, and your horse learns to follow it without argument, it won’t be long before your horse really gets in harmony with you and the bit and reins will be used for finesse.
Don’t be in a hurry. Work on your focus, feel, timing, balance and harmony with your horse. Then you’ll have something solid to refine.
As you learn more about horses, you won’t need to use artificial and mechanical aids. You’ll become appalled at the thought of subjecting horses to the kind of force these devices inflict.
Develop Yourself as a Horseman
• Learn how to relate, communicate with and teach your horse naturally.
• Learn to prepare him on the ground.
• When you ride, learn to give your horse some freedom.
• When you want to direct him, focus.
• Let go of the reins which are handicapping your progress so you can learn to become sensitive and good enough – in your horse’s opinion – to ride with short, concentrated reins.
• By developing your freestyle riding, you’ll gain an independent seat, steady hands and you’ll learn to clearly communicate with focus.