The Importance of Exaggeration, by Courtney King Dye
I began to work for Lendon Gray when I was seventeen years old, and she’s a renowned yeller. Back then, her time and temper were shorter, so she yelled at everyone. I mean everyone. So it was shocking to all the people in the barn that she never even raised her voice at me. I’m sure the reason for this is exaggeration. If she told me to put my leg back, it went back to the saddle pad. If she told me to put my hands down, they were in the horse’s mane. If she told me I was trotting too slowly, you can guarantee that five minutes later, she’d be telling me to slow down.
I tell my students to never let me tell them the same thing twice, and this should be every student’s goal if they want to improve. A student should know that her body’s going to revert back to the position we’re trying to correct as soon as she’s thinking about something else, so if she exaggerates the corrected position, she’ll be more likely to catch herself before she loses the position completely and save herself from my repetition. I certainly don’t mind reminding a student to do something–it’s my job–but avoiding repetition allows me to focus on other things the student needs to work on.
Think of it this way: if the body is straining for too much of something, the right amount will seem easy. With the example of bringing the legs back, if the rider brings them back too far, the body must strain to keep them there, so it will be relieved when it’s allowed to relax forward just a bit. I also think it’s a valuable exercise for the brain. In order to keep the legs back by the saddle pad all the time, the brain must always be on that task, whereas if it’s told only to keep the leg back three to four inches from the girth, it can easily become distracted by other things and revert quickly.
Another rule I have is that mistakes are fine, as long as they’re different mistakes. There’s nothing I love and appreciate more than having to tell a student she’s leaning too far back after I’ve told her she’s tilting too forward, or having to tell her she has too much bend after telling her she doesn’t have enough. It’s always more efficient and less time-consuming to find what I call the mama bear amount: not too big, not too small, but just right, instead of more, more, still not enough, a little more.
Also, the body is often so used to the incorrect position that it thinks the right amount is extreme. Using the example of leaning too far back, the rider will often think that when she’s in the correct posture, she’s leaning too far forward, so if I tell her to lean forward too much, her body will be in the right position. I often use this technique to get the student’s body in the correct position, and it’s a technique every student can and should use on her own, both in lessons and by herself.
The same use of exaggeration will expedite the training of the horse. If he doesn’t have enough angle in the shoulder-in, make him do it with too much; if his haunches trail in the half-pass, make the haunches lead; if he’s above the bit, make him too deep; and if he’s behind the bit, ride him above the bit. Many of the reasons for this are the same as for riders: doing too much makes the right amount easy, and keeping his concentration on the task at hand lets him relax when the rider allows the exaggeration to subside, but it also will help to make him sensitive to the rider’s aids if done correctly.
The crucial aspect of getting him to be more sensitive is this: the rider doesn’t get the exaggerated amount by asking with a bigger aid when she first begins the movement or increasing the aid once she’s started, but she corrects him for not responding enough to the small aid. In this way, she informs him that he better listen to the small aid thus making him more sensitive.
For instance, if he doesn’t have enough angle in the shoulder-in, she shouldn’t ask for more shoulders initially with a stronger outside rein, or ask his shoulders to move in more once she’s started by increasing the strength of her aid, but release the light aid and then throw the shoulders all the way in with a very strong outside rein. Similarly, if his haunches trail in the half-pass, she shouldn’t ask him to have more haunches by initiating the movement with more outside leg pressure, or adding taps with the whip to the already pushing leg, but releasing the leg and then fwacking him with the whip at the same time that the outside leg begins to press again, saying, Hey, that small aid meant something and you need to listen to it.
Releasing the small aid before correcting him is very important so that the horse can distinguish the aid from the correction. If the rider begins the movement with a stronger aid, or her correction follows the light aid without the release, the horse will think it’s a single aid and won’t recognize that if he doesn’t listen to the small aid, he’ll be corrected and made to do the exaggerated version. Then he’ll actually become more dead to the aid.
Another crucial element to make it clear to the horse that the exaggerated amount is a correction is that it must not last too long; it must come and go, not be a way of life. Using the example of shoulder-in again, the rider should throw the shoulders in, then relax, then throw them in again. Continually, not continuously. Using a clearer example, if the horse doesn’t move sideways enough in the leg-yield, I tell the rider to begin the leg-yield with a quiet aid and when he doesn’t move over, release for one second and then reapply the leg at the same as fwacking him with whip to make him really leaps sideways. She must make sure her hand aid keeps him from going faster, but the extreme cross-over must not last for more than three strides. Then she returns to asking with a light aid, and if he stops going sideways again, she simply repeats the former steps. We’re training the reaction here, not the movement.
To read more about Courtney and her journey, purchase Courtney’s Quest here.