HORSES AND THE NATURAL STUFF
Two observations have caught my attention this week with my horses. The first concerns putting my old very dominant mare out in the pasture with two youngsters (four year old and two year old) for the first time. I stood and watched the youngsters messing around. The old mare appeared to ignore them, wandered a circle and then came back to talk with me at the gate for a couple of minutes. The youngsters were still 100metres away playing. The old mare suddenly turned from me and galloped full tilt in a wide arc up the valley, passing within about 20 metes of the youngsters as she went but not looking at them or apparently interacting with them at all. What did they do? Galloped after her like obedient followers. At the top of the hill the old mare stopped and looked about at the whole horizon ostentatiously. The youngsters put their heads down and grazed near her. That was the end of it. Her leadership was established - a done deal.
Interesting the way the young horses followed her, scooped up by her aloof invite to gallop and follow. Interesting too that she looked at the horizon as if to say “I am looking out for the herd, you can relax,” and thats exactly what they did.
Following on from that observation of the horses acting naturally I was in the arena today doing groundwork with the same four year old. I asked her to stand and lower her head. She did it for five seconds and then, as often happens with horses, her head came popping back up and she stared around the valley. Normally I’d keep repeating the request until she ‘learned’ to stay where I put her. Hhhmmm, I thought… what if I did the same as the old mare I’d observed looking at the horizon the day before. I lowered the horses head without looking at her and ostentatiously surveyed the entire horizon, pretending to be the aloof old mare… guess what the youngster did? You guessed it: her head stayed lowered. Fascinating… what’s going on there? Simple: horses are prey animals. If she knows someone is looking out for her and guarding against predators she can relax, drop her head to the ground and ‘eat grass.’ With the old mare and with me, provided we were taking care of the safety of the herd she was happy to have her head near the ground and didn't have the need to look about for potential danger…
These tiny signals are so easy to miss sometimes, but when we look and I mean really look, the horses give us all the clues.
That episode gave me further insights - the same thing happens under saddle, if we as the rider have a scoping expansive vision of the surroundings the horse relaxes in the work with a lowered head position, even in an indoor arena!
My other observation is also linked to the natural aspects of the horse but at a different level of work: flying changes. Working in the arena today with a horse quite advanced in the changes I went back to doing something I've not done for quite sometime and that is to ask for a flying change in the centre of a circle (10m, 15m or 20m) as I change the direction. The changes this way are not so ‘through’ because the horse is not travelling forwards so much as on the straight line but the horse certainly makes a nice shape and collects very nicely through the change by sitting well back on the hindquarters.
Mostly we aim to do changes on a straight line of course, and if you’re planning on competing in dressage thats a very good plan, but I was interested in the question of why the horse was finding the flying changes on the change of direction through the circle easy and the answer is that it is more ‘natural.’ Why would a horse change canter leads on a straight line in the wild state? Generally horses don’t ever travel in a dead straight line naturally anyway! Maybe they’d do it if one hind leg was sore or weak or tired, but the horse would more likely change legs if changing direction. It makes sense. It is natural. Of course that doesn't mean it’s an excuse to toss your horse wildly from side to side to get flying changes before the horse is ready in its stage of training… it is worth keeping in mind though that, although we have ideals in our equestrian tradition/ dogma, such as making changes on the straight line, they are not always founded on the natural movement of the horse when out and about in the wild. Tempi changes on a straight line in the wild would be about as rare as hen’s teeth!
Whilst on the subject of flying changes and ‘natural’ it is not uncommon to hear people say it is ‘natural’ for horses to make flying changes… if you observe enough horses carefully in their natural state out in the pasture you will notice, as I have, that some horses flying change easily both ways, some change only one way, some horses go disunited one way and canter well the other, some horses stay in counter-canter and risk falling over rather than change, some just go back to trot and lump around… so, the flying change may be a part of the horse’s ‘natural’ repertoire in theory but in practise not all horses flying change naturally…