In the old French riding, per Francois Robichon de la Guérinière, the hand is considered the first or primary aid, and lightness is the hallmark of real training. The lightness is there from the beginning, it’s not something to attain. A horse that is balanced will not lean on your hand or draw back from it. A rider who is balanced will not rely on the reins or stirrups for equilibrium, she’ll be like one animal with her horse, not two. And the interface between rider and horse is the hand.
In the middle part of the 19th century, the old way of working with the hand was deliberately abandoned as military trainers didn’t feel commoners could learn such nuance. They switched to a riding that focused on the leg and seat, as the horse is less bothered by a bad seat and leg than by a bad hand. And commoners, of course, being coarse and crude, can’t learn a good hand.
I’m a commoner. So are all my students– but we seem remarkably capable of nuanced thought, and have a form of real wealth the aristocratic military trainers lacked: we have time to learn and the luxury of enjoying truly loving our horses.
Learning the hand puts us into a different paradigm from the “natural” way to interact with the horse. It’s a far different paradigm from the way the hand is taught in modern training.
Riding today, I was reminded of the spiritual injunction against stealing. What is stealing? In the spiritual tradition that I follow, stealing is defined as taking more than you need. So we take enough, and no more. It’s a very precise idea, it includes within it the idea that not taking enough is stealing from our own selves. Boundaries matter. So in riding and in life, this opens up the very specific question…what is truly “enough and no more”. If we’re talking about a tactile connection, and we’re following some mythic ideals… how about Goldilocks? Goldilocks was all about “just right“, what is the Goldilocks touch?
If the rider starts, from the moment you’re working with the horse, any horse, knowing that there is never a reason for you to slide the lip a millimeter out of it’s starting position, or if working without a bit, never a reason to dimple or move the surface of the skin…how would that change the way you touch the rein or line?
What would it be like if your horse was neither pulling on you, nor drawing away from your touch? Where would “zero” be? Could you touch the surface of a pond and feel its moisture without breaking through the surface? Can you slide right on the surface of touch?
Craig Stevens talks often about “zero”, the notion of uninfluenced, uncompressed being. The horse at “zero” is balanced, the rider at “zero” is balanced. The rein is part of your shared body, there’s no pressure, there’s just fluid interchange from your body down the rein to his, from his up the rein to you– no tension, no slack.
The horse is permitted to take whatever contact he takes, and your task is to flirt him into “zero”. He neither bears on your hand, nor draws back from it. He seeks a simple, autonomous and curious connection.
The rider’s balance is the single most critical element to permit this lovely exchange. This is why we start with seatwork. It’s why we return there each ride.
Working with the bit this way demands such care of the rider. If you’re working without a bit, then consider this injunction: to prevent yourself from stealing more than you need, you must not even press the skin. You’re only feeling, not interceding…you don’t slide the skin over the fascia beneath.
Although the horse may take a notion to grab and bite or fiddle or draw back, you must never do these things. When you consider touch, don’t take more than “enough”, and remember that “enough” won’t even dimple his lip: enough slides on the surface of touch.
Honest touch.That’s the beginning of real dressage.
Mary Anne Campbell