The Following Hand
The first lesson Lendon taught me when I was seventeen years old was until you can do nothing, you can’t ask your horse to do something. For many riders, doing nothing is incredibly hard, partly because their body has established the habit of always doing something. The most common aid that’s constantly being used with no meaning is the leg. I tell my students to think of it this way: if you’re constantly saying something to horse, how is the he supposed to recognize that one time, the aid means something? It’s like walking into a room and wanting to say something; if the room is noisy with people jabbering, you’ll have to shout to be heard, but if the room is silent, a whisper will be heard. If the rider is constantly talking to the horse with little nudges of the leg, the horse will become immune to leg pressure and a lot of leg will be needed to get a response, but if the leg is always dead quiet, a very small aid will be heard.
Often I tell a rider with a busy leg to keep their leg quiet, and they weren’t even aware it was moving. My method of making them aware is to insist that they keep their leg completely away from the horse’s side unless they’re asking for something. In the beginning, the horse will likely slow down or stop because he’s used to the leg constantly telling him to keep going, but this is a great example of the importance of the all aids need to be positive, not negative philosophy I talked about last time–the leg tells him to go faster, it doesn’t tell him to not go slower. If the horse does slow down, he gets one quiet request to move on with the aid the rider would like him to ideally listen to, a gentle squeeze. After that, he gets one second of loose leg to give him a chance to respond to that aid, and if he ignores it, he gets a big kick to say, that small aid means something. It’s extremely important that the horse is given that moment of silence to allow him to respond to the small aid in order for him to differentiate the aid from the correction. If he’s not given that moment between the two, if the small aid is immediately followed by the big aid, it will seem like all one aid to the horse; it’s just all one big jumble of aids that in no way teaches the horse that he better listen to the small aid. The rider only has the right to reprimand the horse if she starts with a quiet room, a dead still leg. When he responds correctly, she’ll reward him.
This sequence–small aid, wait, correct, reward–will remain in transitions within the gait and between them for the horse’s entire life, but once he respects that the leg means go forward, it’s time that he learns that he’s not allowed to change tempo unless the rider tells him to; he’s not allowed to slow down unless the rider requests it. Therefore, even at the free walk, if he slows down no small aid is given. It’s simply a kick that says, “Hey, I didn’t say slow down.“ His response is still rewarded.
Another reason for people to not be able to stay still is simple misunderstanding. They think still is still relative to the ground when in fact it’s relative to the horse. The horse’s neck moves forward and back as he moves, so in order for the hand to stay still relative to his mouth, the elbow must open and close. If the elbow remains locked, the contact on the horse’s mouth will become greater and less which, like the busy leg, means the horse is always receiving signals even though the rider may not intend to give them, thus prohibiting a small aid from being heard.
In order for a minuscule hand-aid to be heard, the contact must remain identical for the entire stride. Often I’ll see a rider who’s forcibly keeping their hand still, thus locking the elbow, so the rein literally goes slack, tight, slack on the horse’s mouth. To the horse, this slack, tight, slack feels a little jerk every stride. Like I pointed out with the leg aid, how is the horse to know the difference between these constant little pulls and a pull that means something? Unlike the leg though, ensuring a quiet contact is not achieved by beginning with no contact at all because then, as soon as contact is taken, it feels like a sudden jerk. Quiet contact is achieved by maintaining the exact same pressure through the stride so that, like a girth, it’s just a comfortable part of life.
The goal, of course, is to follow, but for many riders simply obeying this command is very hard. I need to introduce them to the actual feeling, which I do like this: the rider holds the reins as they do when they’re riding, and I (or these days my assistant) stand by the horse’s head and take up the reins so that our hands act as the horse’s mouth. It’s important that the reins be long enough for me to freely move them forward and back. I tell the student to keep the exact same pressure on my hands all the time, that there should never ever be slack or resistance. Then at first, I simply move my hands forward and back as the horse does in walk and canter. When the rider is comfortable with that, I move my hands with no particular rhythm, still relatively slowly and always forward and back, but often not together.
The most common problem that riders have is to keep the contact when I give; they often lose the contact altogether. When there’s slack in the rein, I simply jiggle it to bring their attention directly to the feeling instead of having it need to pass through the brain first by telling them. I occasionally give the rein all the way forward to necessitate the rider’s hand to go behind her hip to maintain the contact. Interestingly, most riders have an instinctual resistance to bringing their hand behind their body, like it’s not allowed. No, we don’t often need to take the hand behind the body, but if the elbow is honestly following, it wouldn’t hesitate to do so if needed.
If a rider is having trouble accomplishing following my hand without resisting or allowing slack, I normally tell them to think of something else–what they’re having for dinner tonight or what they’re doing this weekend. I just chat them about inane things while continuing to move the reins, and I often find that taking their mind off the the task at hand makes it better. Usually the person is trying too hard, trying to guess what’s coming, but following is about feeling, not thinking. The rider’s body should feel basically like dead weight in my hand; I don’t want them to think at all.
When the rider has achieved following my hand, I ask them to try to mimic that feeling with the horse’s mouth. I don’t care where the horse’s head is; I actually prefer the head to be above the bit because then they’ll usually move the neck more, but it’s extremely hard for many riders to resist the impulse to correct it back down.
I spent the first two weeks at Lendon’s doing nothing but hacking and warming up horses at the walk for her so I had ample time to focus on honest following, and I must say that that was the most important two weeks of training in my life. If the horse looked one way, one hand would be pulled forward and the other arm would need to bend behind my body to maintain the same contact. If he got scared and put his head straight up, both hands would need to come back, and if he reached down to get a bug, my hands would need to go forward. Many times people comment that I was a gorgeous rider, that it looked as if I were doing nothing, and this following is exactly why; I was able to use invisible aids because when I wasn’t using them, I was simply part of the horse.
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