Ride the horse underneath you. Have you ever heard this phrase before? It seems kind of obvious and silly upon first glance.
When you think about it though, haven’t you ever had an expectation of how you think your ride is going to go? But then had a strong emotional reaction when actual events start to unfold differently?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for holding positive expectations and visualizations. We riders know that horses respond to both our physical aids as well as our mental intentions. Confident mental pictures of what we want our horses to do (as opposed to disaster scenarios encompassing all our fears) can contribute to a successful ride.
But sometimes, no matter how positive the original mental picture, the ride starts going differently than what we imagined. It is in those moments that we may need to start riding the horse that is presenting to us. Not the version of the horse we thought we’d be riding that day.
As an example, I’ll use the first few Spring rides with my horse, Shiloh. After ending last year on a really nice note, I felt excited to start riding him this year.
We made good progress in his strength and way of going in 2020. He had mostly quite pacing at both the walk and his gait. He seemed to be getting the hang of stretching forward and down to carry himself in a healthier manner. He was accepting of rein contact. His foxtrot gait was more consistent. We played around with canter transitions. I felt super pleased.
I was SO excited this year to leave our Winter bareback rides behind, put the saddle on and get back to working on more formal riding. But then reality hit.
Seems reasonable that after three months off, Shiloh would be out of shape and rusty, right? But for some reason, I was initially surprised and disappointed at what I discovered. Our first couple of rides, Shiloh walked through my aids, fussed with rein contact and went around with his head up in the air. It felt terrible to me (and I imagine to him too). He was clearly struggling. I was feeling frustrated.
After some thought, I decided the problem was my trying to ride Shiloh like he was the same horse I was riding at the end of last year. This was causing some kind of disconnect between us.
It occurred to me I needed to start over again to some degree. I went back through my written notes to see what were the things we initially worked on last year BEFORE he stopped pacing, head tossing, etc . . .
My notes told me we mostly just concentrated on establishing as even of a 1-2-3-4 walk rhythm as we could in our little round pen while asking him to gently bend correctly in our direction of travel, mixing in some crossing ground poles. We did this all on a very loose rein without really worrying about anything else.
Not being a professional, I can’t say if this is the “right way” to work with horses in general, but it seemed to work for Shiloh and me last year.
I’ve done a handful of short rides now, just working on these absolute basics with Shiloh. And you know what? I am slowly feeling him move with more looseness and consistency. More willingness to stretch forward into some contact. And that is pretty exciting.
I still hold in my mind’s eye what I want Shiloh to feel like and what I’d like him to look like. But I am also trying to ride the horse that presents to me that day.
I try to stay right there in the moment. I ask myself what I need to do from stride to stride in order to help whatever version of himself my horse presents.
I am seeing this type of effort produces more good fruit than spending my rides mourning the fact that we have clearly lost ground during the Winter months.
Seems to me that the phrase “ride the horse underneath you” is not so silly after all.