I think the biggest thing she drummed into us was straightness. If your horse isn’t straight, it can’t go forward properly. Seems so simple, yet it can be a real challenge. Particularly when, like we were, you’re working with riding school horses to whom any form of straightness/forwardness/flexion/you-name-it is pretty much a foreign concept at the start. Then of course you get into one of the weirdnesses of riding - where “straight” actually means “correctly bent”.
Of course, straightness also applies to the rider. Since the horse will generally move under our weight, to support us, if we are sitting with our weight off center then our horse will be less inclined to be straight. My own particular failing is a habit of “collapsing” my right side, so over the years I have learned to pay attention to the ‘space’ that I can feel between the bottom of my ribcage and the top of my hip bone. If those feel even on both sides, I’m not collapsing my side.
Always remember, doing something wrong isn’t a bad thing. The first step to fixing a problem is knowing that it exists. It doesn’t matter how often your trainer tells you that you’re doing something, until you are able to feel it for yourself, you can’t correct it without being told. And, often, by the time the trainer sees it, tells you, you hear and correct….. The crucial moment - for example a gentling or release of the rein - has passed, leading you back into another cycle of work to reach that point once again.
Another thing I learned was that the rider shouldn’t create power they can’t yet control. There’s no point in driving your horse forward with a strong leg if you don’t have the softness and acceptance in their mouth to allow you to contain it. When that happens, all you get is a running and unbalanced horse, which I’m pretty sure isn’t what we’re aiming for!
A really simple tip that she gave me was to watch my horse’s ears. Not to see whether they’re pricked, pinned back, flicking or whatever, but that they’re level. If, for example, on a circle your horse’s inside ear is a little lower than the outside ear, the chances are that their nose is bent to the outside of the circle, even if their body positioning is correct. And always remember, often the best, most sympathetic way to remedy this is not to use more inside rein, but more inside leg.
I think that we have a very simple responsibility to our horse.
Let’s be high-falutin’ for a second and quote it in the original Latin.
“Primum non nocere”
Okay, no need to run off to Google. It simply means “First, do no harm”. And we’re not talking about harming your horse physically (though of course that is not acceptable either), but I just mean that our first responsibility is to work with the horse that we have. Yes, every horse can be trained, but if a horse’s heart lies in dressage, neither of you will be happy if you try to make that horse into a barrel racer. So make sure you’re not doing your horse - and yourself - an injustice by trying to make a square peg fit into a round hole.
To be clear, I’m not saying you can’t use this hypothetical horse for barrel racing. I’m just saying that it’s not their forte, so don’t expect them to love it. On the flip side, if your horse’s aptitude is for barrel racing or other speedy pursuits, then the chances are they’ll get pretty grouchy if you persist in trying for that perfect fifteen metre circle at a collected canter. Just saying.
So our first duty to our horse - and ourself - is to make sure we don't mess things up. Try watching your horse move in the field, free, unencumbered by tack or rider. Do they move the same way under saddle? For the moment, let's assume your saddle fits correctly and your horse is wearing the most appropriate bit/noseband. Just by saddling and riding them, we often change how the horse moves, and our aim - particularly for dressage, but really all the time - should be to bring out the horse's natural gaits at their best. So: First, do no harm. You'll never make a horse with an upright shoulder give the same medium or extended trot, for example, that a more sloping shoulder will allow, but your job is to allow the horse to express themselves as naturally and beautifully as their conformation allows.
First, do no harm.
Of course, we do have to work with the horse that we have, and if our affinity is for a particular discipline, then of course we want our horse to do “our thing”, which is where choosing the correct horse comes into play. But that’s a subject for another post, I think. Maybe. After all, there’s no such thing as the perfect horse or the perfect rider. But maybe, if you’re very lucky, you’ll find the horse that’s perfect for you.