So you think the horse does all the work …

“So you think the horse does all the work …”

It’s easy to understand how someone unfamiliar with the way of the horse might get this impression.


First of all, when we observe a horse “at work” the effort he’s putting in is obvious. His powerful legs stir the air beneath him as he prances and leaps in airs above the ground. His nostrils snort with every breath, a healthy foaming froth coats his lips, his ears are pricked and attentive, and his tail flies loosely and wildly in his wake.

Yes, his animation certainly would give the impression that the rider, perched on a leather lily pad and stylishly attired, is doing seemingly nothing of any great consequence to contribute to the overall picture.


Thoughts such as these crossed my mind today as I sat in an exhausted, collapsed heap upon Bear’s back following a lengthy turn astride his powerful canter.

My legs, my hips, my abs achingly reminded me of my mortality, and the fact that I must be patient with myself as I re-establish my form following a six-week hiatus.

And my head echoed with the voice of my absent coach:

“Lift your left hand up and your right heel will drop.” … “Sit more on the front of your seat bones.” … “Bring your left hip forward a quarter inch.” … “Bring your outside shoulder forward.” … “Push him round the corner with your outside leg.” … “Move your hips through the whole cycle of Bear’s canter stride.” … “Post the whole trot stride; you’re only covering 80%.” … “Use your inside leg for the bend.” … “Sit down!” … “Sit up!” … “Lean back!” … “Not that far back!” … “Relax your thighs.” … “Ride the next step.” … “Ride athletically.” … “Ride with intention.” … “Bring your right leg more underneath you.” … “Put more weight in your lower leg.” … “Look where you’re going.” … “Shorten your reins a couple of inches.” … and my personal favourite … “Stop trying so hard.”

All of these things (and more!), were I able to organize them in such a way that made sense to my middle-aged grey matter, would help me to create and maintain consistently a forward pace with Bear’s energy in front of my leg, a steady rhythm, straightness and independent seat (i.e. balance), all of which would have the desired effect of making Bear look good … effortlessly.

Bear, to his credit, is surprisingly tolerant of my attempts to do him justice.

I, on the other hand, and often in spite of the ongoing encouragement I receive from my ever-patient coach, experience the self-loathing and frustration one feels when, for the 1000th time, the sequence of cues gets jumbled in my head and my body position won’t cooperate, sending Bear mixed messages which he patiently endures, most of the time. Self-awareness on the back of a 1,200 pound four-hooved power ball takes a lot of concentration.

When I do get it right (and this is happening more frequently, thank goodness) and Bear is moving like a dream (which is what keeps me coming back for more), he likes to test me to see if I’m really paying attention. For it must be remembered, he is a sentient being with a mind of his own and when all is said and done I must continuously earn his complete and abiding trust, don’t you know …

Working Horse

Of course, his questions are conveyed by his body language, so I must be paying attention.

Here’s an example.

Bear’s feet planted; eyes bulging, staring into the distance, ears pointed straight up and body braced could mean (there are so many meanings …) “What are the sequence of aids required to prevent me from spooking at that barely discernible shadow on the wall beside letter marker “A” 100 feet away?”

Or, how about this pop test: “Hey! Sit to this!” — as he suddenly and without warning executes a half pirouette to the left in response to ice crashing off the roof to his right. (This is a trick question with no warning. Ice crashes right; Bear spooks left; I grab his mane, close my legs and sit back holding on for dear life. The trick is my ability to stay on board. … Fortunately he doesn’t test me with this one too often.)

To avoid these impromptu examinations of my equitation skills, not only must I ride the step we’re in but I must be aware of the next step as well, making sure my body language is consistent with what my brain is telling me it wants Bear and I to execute next, all while being prepared for just about anything as we go. In fact, I must be several steps ahead in my thinking while riding in the moment, and be as aware of our surroundings as Bear if we are to avoid any of his off-hand, high-headed, high jinx.

The irony is that what I’m really trying to achieve is the ability to stay out of my horse’s way so he can look brilliant and I can look like I’m just sitting there.

Bear for Joy

Bear’s powerful extended trot; his elevated, relaxed, round-backed canter; the stretch through his top line — all of this he can achieve on his own. I’ve seen him do so in the paddock and when he’s free lunging in the arena. So really, all he needs me to do is find my balance athletically and stay centered in his motion while he does what comes naturally … on my cue, of course. It should look effortless for the rider, but effortless takes a lot of work!

Still not convinced?

Never mind. … I’ll nurse my aching back and hips with yet another visit to the chiropractor and leave you to marvel in the glory of the horse and wallow in your little fantasy world.

You’re right … the horse does all the work. 😉

Nurture what you love …

Dorothy 🙂
Horse Mom


Copyright Aimwell CreativeWorks 2012

7 thoughts on “So you think the horse does all the work …

  1. I *love* this. No we aren’t just passengers on board to take a leisurely stroll, although there are times for that, definitely. Horsemanship is sportsmanship and partnership. I can’t think of anything more beautiful than a horse and rider enjoying their time together, in synch. That’s no easy task and that’s why riders are athletes as the horses are.

    My favorite: “Ride with intention”, that bodes well for life too. Thanks for sharing!!!

  2. Absolutely convinced and enlightened! I took a poetry course with a woman who’s works included the hard work involved in ‘working’ her horse … as well as the joy!

  3. Well said, Dorothy. 🙂 I especially loved the line “The irony is that what I’m really trying to achieve is the ability to stay out of my horse’s way so he can look brilliant and I can look like I’m just sitting there.” So very true! ‘Busy’ riders give the illusion that they are working hard to get their horses to do something. But, they are only making it difficult (if not impossible) for their horses to do it.

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