The sharper the knife, the less you cry
February 13, 2011 2 Comments
Cooks have a saying: the sharper the knife, the less you cry. Sharp knives are easier to handle and less dangerous than dull blades – they slice effortlessly through veggies and meat. A dull knife, on the other hand, is more dangerous, because it requires more effort of the user to achieve the desired effect. And like a sharp knife is easier to use, a responsive horse is easier to ride effectively.
This saying came to mind tonight as I was leading Maddie back to the barn after a lesson, and grinning like a fool because it had been a good ride. I told Christy that I wanted to work on my lower leg aids, namely, my ability to use my spurs accurately. I had strapped them on last night for the first time in months, and some irritated behaviors from the mare told me that I had inadvertently banged her with them a couple times. While my leg position is much improved, I still revert to my old “toes out” posture when I get tired. Developing awareness and acuity with the spurs requires me to continue to improve my leg position and stability.
So as I warmed up, I practiced deliberately putting my lower leg on, releasing, putting my spur on and releasing. However, as I did this I wasn’t getting much of a response from the mare. I was also having trouble dropping my heals and holding a good position – my hips were tight, and probably a bit tired from two strenuous rides yesterday, and my earlier ride today on Oliver. After promising Christy that I’d continue to work on my flexibility and strength, I took the spurs off.
So the lesson changed course. As we worked on my leg position and aids, which were partly successful some of the time, Christy told me that I was reverting to my bad habit of curling my heel upward, sticking it in the horse’s side and leaving it there. I focused on being more deliberate with my aids.
However, I wasn’t getting the response I was seeking. Unsure of whether or not I was eliciting a response because I guess I forgot what a correct leg yield felt like, I asked Christy watch for response while I attempted to leg yield out on a circle. I got a big fat nothing. We talked about it a bit and I told Christy that I wanted the horse that I started riding last May. Mads was so light and sensitive then, and would respond instantly to any aid. And I’ve dulled her responses.
So we started working on redeveloping a response, We started at the walk. Christy asked me to back up any requests I made of the horse with the whip, but advised me to treat any response – a head toss, a break to trot or canter, as good and to praise it, and to ride it. My first opportunity came quickly as Mads ignored me when I tightened my leg against her. I gave her a little whack with the whip and she hopped into a trot. “That’s fine,” Christy said, as I half-halted and brought Maddie back to a walk. We repeated this a few times, and within a few minutes, we produced a nice little leg yield down the quarter line!
Christy had us move into a trot. I got the mare moving in a nice forward gait with good contact. I asked for a leg yield on a 20 meter circle, and didn’t get a satisfactory response. I gave the mare a little swat, and she propped and swished her tail – and went strongly forward. “That’s fine,” Christy called to me. “You need to get her in front of your leg!”
We continued on the circle at an energetic and connected trot. “You have her undivided attention now,” Christy said as we breezed around her. And she was right. The mare had one ear back on me, and was steady in the bridle. I asked for the leg yield again, and … Maddie floated outward. There it was! I was thrilled.
I went to change directions, and as we moved off in a trot, Christy asked me what I thought of the upward transition. There was no denying it, it was pretty crappy. We half-halted and walked, and I asked for the trot, reinforcing it with a tap of the whip. The mare stepped off immediately. This was better. We tried it again, and I asked for more enthusiasm, by being a bit more emphatic with my leg aids, but not touching the whip. She went straight forward, into contact, with no head shaking or nonsense. “That’s good!” said Christy, as I let the mare trot on. “Now, how light can you make your aids, but still keep that immediate response?”
We walked, and after a minute, I closed my legs softly on the mare’s sides. She struck off in a nice trot right on the spot.
This was a seminal lesson,and an empowering one. I can fix my forwardness and responsiveness issues if I align my mental intent and my aids, and take care to reinforce my aids with whip or spurs if (and only if) necessary. I was amazed at the progress we made in one short ride. I can’t wait to get back in the saddle, and continue to hone and sharpen my aids, and Maddie’s responses. One thing I need to remember though is to stay consistent. To do otherwise is unfair to the horse. I need to ride every transition crisply, encouraging and rewarding prompt response, and reinforcing my aids clearly when needed.