How did your Ride ‘Feel’?

How did your ride “feel”?

Over the past few decades in the horse world, I have watched practices become more sophisticated, and mostly these are positive advances: trainers gaining business skills, veterinary science making huge gains, our training methods evolving and expanding. But in one improvement of modern horsemanship, I miss the past. If I could un-do one small advancement of tools and resources, I might erase the invention of G.P.S. devices and gadgets.

Before G.P.S. was available on every phone and most watches, we had to guess the mileage of our conditioning rides by how they felt underneath us. Then, we verified them by the odometer in the truck. I remember experiencing the miles as we rode, knowing how to estimate based on the effort in my knees, or my horse’s energy level. I knew how long it took on average to cover four miles on trail, eight on gravel roads.

Our regular outings I knew by heart. When we added a side loop or altered our route, we guessed the length by comparing it to what we knew. Did that stretch of trotting feel like the two miles of Rainbow Ridge that started at a pond ringed by cattails and ended at the view down White Valley? Or was it more like the flat half- mile path through wildflowers in Mr. Bradshaw’s meadow?

After our rides, we cooled down the horses and gave them a scoop of grain before piling in the truck to drive our route with the odometer twirling up from zero. Since most of these outings followed the gravel back roads around our farm, we could access the majority by vehicle. Only a few sections of marshy woods did we have to leave to guesswork. I never tired of those post-ride excursions. Sitting on the bench seat of the old Dodge, often with my helmet still on, I relaxed in to this second perspective of the miles we just trotted and cantered. There was the neighbor’s barking dog that spooked my pony; there were the dwarf apple trees where I liked to pick her a treat; there was the tractor working harrows in a new cornfield. My dad drove the truck like a meditation, as if any wavering or quickness might miscalculate the measurement.

We did not particularly need to measure distances, but mostly it satisfied our curiosity. Also, when it came to our horses’ weekly training, we were devout record keepers. We logged length and intensity of every session from dressage lessons to 15-mile trail rides. Later, I could see how much this habit instilled in me a stewardship of my horse’s physical condition. Back then, it left me with an equally worthy sense. It tied me to the landscape. Our methodical drives in the truck taught me to pay attention and study the terrain. They revealed how the same section of trail, through different perspectives, unfolds uniquely. I learned to take note of landmarks, how each segment of road had distinct features.

All these years later, when we finish a ride we can look immediately at our wrists or the phone in our pocket for detailed specifications on our efforts. The feedback is not only instant but likely tons more accurate than any car odometer. To think such data would be gathered by a tiny wearable device was inconceivable in the days of my parents’ training logs. While the technology still seems futuristic to my old-fashioned sensibilities, I’m grateful for the accuracy and the other data besides mileage that gets collected: pace, elevation, heart rate stats. No matter how meditatively dad drove the truck, we never could have calibrated those.

Inarguably, my weekly training logs benefit from these advances. But I cannot help missing those old days which marked me with a spirit of observation, not to mention allowed me to savor a second indulgence of trails I just enjoyed moments earlier. I’ll admit that many times I would not mind the excuse to go right back out after a ride and re-experience the section of serenity and beauty we just traversed whether by car or bike or even another horse.

Alas, though, our modern gadgets prevent the need. Regardless, I do try to keep my spirit of observations strong. As we ride through the forests and coastal bluffs, I keep an informal tally of the miles I think we have covered, from daffodil clusters to vernal pools, from eucalyptus groves to sand dunes. It’s not that I intend to second- guess my G.P.S. data or that I hope to achieve a specific mileage. It is just that I try to stay rooted in the past by doing so. Feeling a ride this way is the surest way I know to absorb every mile fully.

How Much to Give Away

How Much to Give Away

Many of us make our horses stiffer with our attempts at kindness. Aiming for light and forgiving rein contact, we sometimes make the mistake of too much looseness, which feels erratic and unclear to the horse. Rather than improving our horse’s balance and physiology, we cause him to fall apart immediately following moments of correct movement. Whether or not to interject releases of pressure with the contact is not the question; the question is when and how to do this.

Like many of my students, I want my horse to know when he has done something good. This includes when he has organized his body and stretched through his neck to make a soft contact with the reins. To praise him, I want to make a little release feeling in the reins. I see riders all the time with the same idea, except they often push their arms all the way forward, putting loops in the reins right when the horse has established a connection between himself and the rider. Possibly, this technique is even taught in some disciplines.

While the intention is good, the action is not.

Big variations in rein pressure disrupt the horse’s extensor muscle chain that channels propulsion from his hindquarters. Rather than easing in to the positive tonicity of maintaining a flexed poll and arched topline, he feels the rider abandon the postural framework. His nose pokes out, his back sags, and he loses balance. His rider then regains a light tension on the reins in order to re-establish his correct posture, and the whole cycle starts again.

Neither the horse nor the rider becomes steadier in this scenario. With the contact always coming and going, the horse’s back stiffens, his tongue muscles tighten. He relies on his forehand for equilibrium. The rider, meanwhile, develops a habit of pushing her elbows forward, collapsing her chest.

Am I advocating that riders should not offer a release of some sort? No. Riders absolutely should offer a lightening when the contact becomes nice. The trick—and the big challenge for us kind riders—is to give this release with a small movement of our fingers. With our hands and fingers we can offer the horse a lot; we do not need to push loops in the reins. An instructor once described this to me as “letting the steam” out of the contact. By opening your fingers in to a loose fist when the horse is moving correctly, you can create a lightening while maintaining the same rein length and bit position in the horse’s mouth. This consistency leads to steady recruitment of muscle chains that hold the body in good alignment. Avoiding big variations in rein length and tension prevents these muscular impulses from becoming erratic, or from being recruited without the continuity needed to increase strength and elasticity.

Studies of equine anatomy have shown how constructive it is for a horse to travel while ‘on the bit.’ They also show what a positive training tool the bit can be for the horse’s muscular development when used with good intention. The bit, and rein contact as a whole, allows us to trigger positive neuromuscular reflexes throughout the entire horse by generating engagement and looseness that both begin and culminate in the horse’s head and neck. In sum: yes, we do want feather light contact with the bit. Remember, though, that lightness is trusting and steady, not intermittent and sloppy.