Riding is fun. I think you’ll agree with me. All the same, we don’t often act like we are having fun when we ride. I see a lot of scowls and tense bodies, and I am guilty of scowling and being tense too.
Try this for me. Find a trampoline or other bouncy surface (a small, four foot one works best, but I imagine any kind will). Step on and straddle your imaginary horse. Begin trotting, shifting your weight rhythmically from one leg to the other. Hold your hands like you are holding reins. At this point it may be necessary to ignore the neighbours looking over the fence.
Now think about the hardest equine manoeuvre you know. Perhaps your horse bucks every time you ask him to canter—then think about cantering. If you just learned how to leg yield, think about asking for that.
Wait a minute! I didn’t ask you to stop trotting! What happened when you thought about those things? If the subject you thought of was scary enough, I can say with confidence that the end result was your legs stopped moving rhythmically and you may have received quite a jolt from the trampoline.
If that didn’t happen for you, congratulations. You are a more relaxed rider than most of us. Try this instead; I still want you to feel it: go back into your trot and tense up an arm, your wrist, an ankle, your neck… whatever you can think of and see what happens. It will be the same as above: your whole movement will become stiff and your rhythm will be lost.
What the trampoline did when you got tense shows you just what your horse feels. You get stiff and concerned, your body stops giving him the support and cues he needs to keep on going or move into a different gait, and so he starts making up the rules or totally falls apart or gets tense and concerned too. And what do you do when your horse starts ‘acting up’ (even though you see now that it was your fault from the first)? Probably you get more tense or pull on his mouth or punish him…. Does that make the situation better? Hardly.
If we think that riding is scary, our horse does too. If we get tense, our horse does too. If we freeze, our horse takes over or falls apart. It follows that if we have fun, relax, and feel what we want the horse to do before making him do it that he would have fun, relax, and feel us too.
Go for it! Do that scary thing like it’s a walk in the park. If you are unsure of your aid, apply it and see what the horse does. Feel him, then respond to him and he will respond back. That is guaranteed.