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"Showing himself to be gallant in the mouth, and quiver at the breath of the boot…"

”Had a friend over today… We played with a couple of my ponies in the arena at the same time. One is 21 years old and does everything - tempi changes, piaffe, passage, vacuums the carpets, valets my car, does the shopping and makes the tea; the other is four years old and basically does nothing… both were fun despite being at entirely different ends of the training spectrum but what I see is that there are so many threads going through the work that are the same…

Looking at the older horse I ask myself what is it that makes a great riding horse? I wonder how many of us think about that in specific detailed ways… On a physical basis I want the riding horse to be perfectly responsive to my aids. The riding horses I’ve had have always been very light to the touch of the leg and light in the reins. That means they ‘move away’ from or yield to physical signals or touch. The flip side of that is that I also have them enjoying physical touch i.e. being stroked, and this is one of the main forms of reward and connection I use with the horses.

So it’s not just as simple as ‘they move away from touch.’ If that were the case I could end up with an automaton or with a horse that is nervy and reactive every time I touch it with a leg or pick up the reins, and we’ve all come across horses like that, I think. So what is the answer? I think it is about the intention behind the aid or touch…If the intention behind the touch is ‘move away’ (e.g. from my leg aid) then they do it beautifully; equally if the intention says ‘relax, stay with me, well done’ they instantly chill… So the end result with a great riding horse is instant responsiveness to the aids along with a background of reward and relaxation, trust in my touch, so to speak… and it all starts with the youngster by teaching them on the ground initially a) that my touch is a safe space and stroking is a reward, b) to move away from a light touch anywhere on their body when the intention behind the touch is for them to move away, thus preparing them for the ‘yield from this aid’ we need when they are ridden.Some breeds and individuals have more of a tendency to move away from a light touch and some just stand there or even lean against the touch and push into you.

That’s how it starts out. What I’m aiming to do is get them all to the place I want them to be where a light touch gets a mindful reliable response, not jumpy reaction or a ‘yeah, whatever, maybe I’ll move, in my own time.’When I say a touch what do I mean? Ultimately I mean a gentle touch of the horse’s hair, not in any sense pressure. I don't ever want to have to pull on the reins or use a ‘strong’ leg that could be called a squeeze.

So that four-year-old will ideally be moving mindfully and responsively from a light touch of my finger-ends on her hindquarters, at the girth area, on the shoulders and neck, on the poll and the nose in order for me to eventually have a beautiful riding horse. She will also accept my touch and stay calmly beneath my hand when my intention is for her to do so. And with the 21 year old the same stuff is still being practised, the consistency of my light touch being mindfully responded to with a consistent understanding and movement in the horse so that the higher movements such as piaffe where total acceptance and responsiveness are essential can happen without force of any kind but by the horse

“…showing himself to be gallant in the mouth, and quiver at the breath of the boot…”Nice :-)

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