The word 'natural' is popular in the equestrian world. Perhaps this is because most of us realize the significance of taking animals from their natural environment and making artificial demands on them. Maybe we understand, subconsciously at least, the importance of anything we can give back to the horse which is in alignment with their true needs. When it comes to training and riding, however, it is unrealistic to pretend it has anything natural about it. The closest it comes to nature for the horse is predation. That does not mean that working with a horse has to be negative however.
In fact, we have the opportunity to create an entirely new being.
The human part of this new being is to be willing to open up to the horse completely - trusting ourselves to develop balance and acquire sophisticated communication. Not hanging on with the reins or dominating with the spurs.
The horse's part is to choose to trust in his mind and share his body, to go beyond the natural scope of his movement, and in doing so discover the freedom of life beyond the herd. Acceptance of a human in this way can release his own power and liberate him temporarily from his hierarchical place in the herd.
Horses who are still stuck in their natural crookedness, which has often been fixed in deeper by incorrect riding, are also stuck in a form of institutionalization. They are moving all the time in the same rut which manifests physically as stiffness, lack of balance and crookedness. Mentally this rut manifests as an obsession with where the other horses are, which when riding, often boils down to where the gate of the arena is.
There is a more serious institutionalization born out of intensive management practices (keeping horses in stables and separated from others etc.). These horses often don't care where the others are - not because they are reaching a higher consciousness - but because they are so miserable they have switched off to life. It is important not to confuse the two!
We can take our horses beyond this narrow mindedness, and inspire their imagination. For a little while in the day, we can literally change their perception of reality. At first there are tough times for you and the horse. Not because you are forcing or fighting, but because you are stretching yourself and your horse by carefully resisting the resistances. There will be moments of magic, and gradually these moments will extend themselves and your horse will start to enjoy what they are doing more and more, and even miss it when they don't come in to work. Some horses may be more straightforward than others, but it is a therapy for all of them.
The language between you and your horse will not change throughout the progress of your training. It is like any language, the words may get more complicated, but the letters stay the same. This means that the success of every part of the process will depend on the success of the previous part. If you can't read a word, you will never read a sentence. Therefore don't ask a horses to do a half-pass when they struggle to bend properly on a circle.
Training a horse is not a mysterious process, but it is a developmental progression, which cannot be hurried. There will always be faster ways to teach horses dressage movements than taking the time to allow the right changes to be realized in their bodies and minds. The more talented the horse, the easier it is to cover up the absence of true training. That can never be the same achievement for the rider or for the horse however, because the focus will not be on the reality of the relationship as it presents itself each day, and how to work with that, but rather on fabricating an image which is acceptable to external criteria. This is not a subtle difference in training techniques; it is a fundamentally different philosophy, which applies to health and everyday living as well as dressage training.
Many trainers will describe complicated or just plain crude ways of sensitizing horses to the aids, but if those techniques involve forcing through boundaries, then they will only raise defenses in the horse. Whether those defenses are physical compensations or mental protections, it comes to the same thing, they are pushing the rider further away from that magical connection which is what real dressage is all about.
Recognition is everything. This can also be described as 'being in the present' or 'living in the moment'. When we can develop the concentration and understanding to feel ourselves first and then eventually our horse - closer to how they really are each moment - then we will become aware of their boundaries, and learn how to stay at those boundaries until they are ready to change. This is how we can gradually transform a stuffy or awkward horse into an elegant and forward moving athlete.
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