by Gabrielle Pullen, MFA, GCFP
A partnership based on control and intimidation is no partnership at all. It is an abuse of authority. The horse-and-rider relationship at its best looks light, free and effortless. This stems from the communication that flows between them. The perfect flow is one with no agenda, one without unwanted emotions such as anger or frustration.
Now the irony of this is that anyone can see joy and freedom and fun in the best performances of top-level riders in any kind of riding. This is only possible if you know how to create just such an environment of open, non-judgmental communication within yourself, so that your horse knows exactly what you mean.
Awareness Through Movement® (ATM) is a practice that facilitates the ability to communicate with your body with precision and clarity. Yet, the ability to use your body as a means of communication has a prerequisite: it is an expression of a state of mental calm. The challenge for any rider is to learn to make this attitude so deeply available within themselves that it’s accessible even in a performance situation, such as the showring. The key understanding that is missing for most people is that you can cultivate all of these qualities faster and wire them more deeply into your neurology by attending Awareness Through Movement classes every week. In the classes, you learn to expand your awareness to include not just what you are doing in any movement, but how you are doing it. The qualities of ease and grace are a basic property of improved coordination. A regular practice of ATM results in a new habit: attention to the quality of movement, in or out of the saddle, with an emphasis on looking for what feels lighter, more relaxed, more elegant. Ease in cultivating any new habit is made more accessible with less stimulus, which is why it makes sense to practice without the dynamic and sometimes unpredictable movement of the horse underneath you.
For the body inevitably speaks your mind: it expresses what you are thinking. It’s entirely possible that horses are innately sensitive enough to read your mind, however it does not take psychic ability to sense frustration, or pressure, or disapproval. It’s felt in the very way your hands engage with the bit, the way your jaw tightens when it’s not going as planned, and in the way you might close your legs suddenly if you feel even slightly off-balance.
Each time you ride your horse, you are either training him or un-training him. There is no in-between.~ George Morris, Chef d’Équipe for the United States show jumping team, 2005-2013.
Excellent horse-and-rider teams understand and differentiate two separate modes of riding. Training and showing have different names because the requirements of each situation are fundamentally different. Most riders realize that every interaction you have with your horse is a training situation. Either you are training your horse, or your horse is training you. That said, it becomes clear that riding is about leadership, not domination or control. Good leaders lead by demonstration, by inspiration. If you want to lead your horse to victory in the show arena, you need to practice daily in the training arena, meaning without pressure, without force, without tension. The most effective training is not an endless pursuit of perfection, but rather focuses on the exploration of what works. The very idea of pursuit contains a certain underlying resistance. It implies it’s not attainable.
The best way to practice in a training mode, instead of a performance mode, is to shift your mindset to one that appreciates non-verbal learning. For example, humans learn to walk over a period of one to two years. This includes experimentation with movement, weight, trajectory, balance and coordination. Without that, there would be no rolling over, no coming to sitting, nor any capacity for standing and walking. The learning is neither intellectual nor verbal. In the same way, training sessions with your horse are a form of non-verbal communication using your weight, trajectory, balance and coordination as a vocabulary that communicates not just self-carriage, but a quality of lightness and grace that even the untrained eye can see at a distance.
Awareness Through Movement lessons can help riders to achieve the level of subtlety required for top-level performance, including optimal range of motion in all your joints and a calm, open, alert presence of mind. If you want to learn more quickly, it makes sense to practice these qualities when you are not in the saddle. When there is less to track, it’s easier to practice tracking more. When there is no need for attention to balance, because you are lying on the floor, it’s just easier to expand your awareness to include both your internal biomechanics and the external biomechanics of the horse simultaneously.
It’s not enough to know how to ride, you must also have the freedom of motion in your spine and pelvis to effortlessly sit the trot. The access to a calm mindset and to greater physical mobility that ATM facilitates allows you to easily follow the exquisite extended trot of a talented, athletic horse inside the show arena or at home in the schooling arena.