Okay, here we go – the first Equinerds post. One of the difficulties that we’ve had is finding a place to start, because everything to do with training horses is so interconnected. Therefore I’ve decided to start by discussing my first lesson with Andrew, as it was my first exposure to his principles and methodology. Over a few posts I’ll explore what we covered in that life changing half an hour, and how it fits in with training as a whole.
Disclaimer – I am not a perfect rider, nor am I an advanced rider. Please do not use this website to point out my myriad flaws, or to be horrible to people. I am not being promoted as any kind of ideal, and the pictures used are of normal horses at various stages of training. Thanks.
The First Lesson
The first lesson I had with Andrew took place on a freezing day in the February of 2013. My good friend and mentor Caroline Douglas had leant me her excellent carriage driving horse, Norman, who had a Europeans under his belt and was a complete professional. I, on the other hand, was as green as the grass in spring, for all that I thought about riding a horse.
Andrew started off by talking about the horse; observations about how he was going and how he needed to go, etc. Norman, excellently trained though he was, had just galloped around a marathon to contest his Europeans, and was pulling like a train. I, with my arched back, disunited upper body and tendency towards a chair seat, was not up to doing much about it.
I was treated to the full hip popping, muscle stretching, agony-inducing rider sculpt. For those who have not experienced this particular joy and delight, it involves the trainer firmly gripping each leg, rotating it and placing it in the correct position, making your pelvis feel worryingly like a Christmas wishbone. You then have a whip placed again your spine so that you both round out your lower back and straighten your shoulder blades, something that my body has no natural desire to do. Next you rotate each arm over your head, while your shoulders sound like bags of gravel, so that your arms hang straight down and your elbows are connected with your rib cage. After enduring this I was apparently still expected to ride, and proceeded to a tentative walk.
Andrew spoke about availability, and how a key part of riding is making the horse available – i.e. the feeling that you get when everything is going well, when you know you could ask the horse for anything and get it. On this day ‘available’ wasn’t exactly Norman’s middle name – he’d done a marathon, he was in a strange arena, he was being ridden by a buffoon – which brought as on to the next important point:
For the horse to be available, the rider has to be available too. It became apparent pretty quickly that I am a left rein merchant, and didn’t really change my position when I rode on the right rein, which meant that I didn’t get into the horse’s back enough. We began with a technique that will always be a favourite of mine; the Turn and Release. The fundamentals of this are that the rider applies an exaggerated turning aid – inside shoulder back, hands to the inside, weight down through the inside stirrup, outside leg behind the girth – then releases and harmonises, then repeats. This can be done in all three paces, although to begin with walk is enough.
But why would you do that?
The turn and release is one of what Andrew calls the Portal Techniques. This concept has changed the way I ride and train. A Portal Technique is something that you do to improve the horse – it’s the ‘portal’ to everything getting better.
For instance, as riders we often hear things like;
- The poll should be the highest point
- The horse should be straight
- The horse’s head should be on the vertical
- The horse should display self-carriage
All of that is perfectly good advice, nothing wrong with it at all. However, sometimes it
just isn’t so, and this is where riders can feel like they’ve been left high and dry. What if the horse isn’t straight? What if it isn’t in self-carriage? What if it isn’t even through? Portal Techniques are not about riding a finished product horse – they are part of how you get to the finished product. They are how you make a horse straight/through/sittable/round, if it just isn’t.
Where does it lead?
The turn and release does a few useful things; it helps the ride begin to develop an understanding of correct bending, makes you sit correctly for the amount of bending required, helps you take control of the outside of the horses body, and gets you using your legs.
The first thing that I noticed was that Norman slowed down, but became more active. Gradually I got control of the outside of the horse’s body, which meant that I was no longer allowing him to fall out, and therefore he was straighter and felt more upright. I also felt that my position became markedly better.
By this point I had Norman more connected, but on a longer rein, than ever. What had begun as (on my part) effortful aiding, had become more natural. Everything was glorious. And then he went and said something stupid like “collected trot”.
An intense lack of control followed, but Andrew was persistent – elbows down, coccyx down, turn, harmonise. Repeat until abs screaming. Then change the rein, forcing dominant shoulder into submission. Ignore worrying twinge in left hip. Elbows down, coccyx down, turn harmonise….
Bit by bit, what had felt like hell became more coordinated and less effortful. I felt more aligned, Norman was through, engaged, light and bending. I had my legs on. We had arrived at that place where you do feel as though you could ask for anything and get it. And all it took was a Portal Technique, and half an hour.
Andrew summarised by saying that good riding takes the whole rider’s body into account, but hinges on the seat. The seat is the main point of communication with the horse – the leg and hands are aids to the seat, and the turn and release is part of teaching a rider to use the leg and hand to support the function of the seat. Riders are generally not taught to use the seat actively, but the seat bones pressing down is important because the massaging pressure created by their downward action encourages the horse to bring its back up, and without the horse’s back there is no dressage.
The aiding and then harmonising routine of the turn and release is also active half-halting. Modern teaching has reduced the half-halt to a perfunctory tug on the outside rein in order to slow down a bit, which is neither accurate nor effective, and reduces the half halt to one thing, when actually a half halt can be a million things. Part of the turn and release gets riders into the habit of half halting liberally, in order to encourage the rider to lower into the inside seat bone, allow the horse onto the outside rein whilst focusing everything onwards, inviting the rider’s inside leg to the party, and rewarding the horse for existing within the ‘coin slot’ set by the rider.
Next time, on Equinerds…
Next time we’ll cover another of Andrew’s Portal Techniques – the Reverse Turn. We’ll also hear from some other Equinerds and have a chat about an important concept, the Number Six Stretch.