Lessons in Lightness

Bookmark (0)
ClosePlease login

“Stop putting so much weight in your stirrups Rupert! You’re blocking your horse! You have to ride lighter!’

I stopped. I mean physically stopped the motion of the horse and stood there in the arena a few moments, the light streaming in from the arched stained glass window along its western wall. I needed to compute this. I needed the horse had to be immobile for a moment so that I could think without worrying about the next corner coming up, before attempting the next failed half pirouette. I looked at my dressage instructor.

“But I am riding light aren’t I?”  I protested, “I mean, I’ve got nothing in my hand!’ And it was true. There was no weight of contact on the rein. ‘And I’m sitting like you told me, feeling for my balls, not with my arse full in the saddle!”

“Yes,” said my instructor in her skeptical European purr. “But your legs. They are so heavy!”

Surely no heavier than most anyone else’s, I thought. What did she mean exactly?

The words spilled from my mouth even as I thought them: “What do you mean exactly?”

But as was so often the case, my dressage instructor could not say what she meant exactly. Only that I was “blocking.”

Ok she was right; the attempted pirouettes weren’t working. But it’s not enough, as so many of us have found out while on any learning curve, to only be told what isn’t working. One needs to be told how to do what will work.

“Your legs. Why so much weight in the stirrups?” she gestured towards my lower limbs with evident disgust. “Look how down are your heels!”

“That’s not a good thing? I’ve always been told that’s a good thing!”

“No!” she half yelled, as to an idiot, which in fairness, I was. Still being yelled at doesn’t un-idiot one. Being understood does. Or rather being helped to understand. Yelling induces fear. Fear is not understanding. Fear blocks learning just as my “heavy down heels” were somehow blocking the sideways movement of my horse.

“And your knees!” she rolled her eyes. “So tight! Why you pinch the horse so?”

And then I got it. In the school of horsemanship I grew up in – hunting, eventing, and jumping generally – weight in the stirrups is absolutely necessary, as is the rolling in of the knees – especially when jumping across country. If you don’t do that, then the impact of landing over the first big hedge will have you fired straight out the front door into the mud.

The trouble, I realized, was that I wasn’t the only one not understanding. My instructor, bless her, only knew this form of Baroque dressage as the sum total of her horsemanship. She couldn’t in a million years imagine what it was like, let alone know what was needed, to clear a six-foot fence out of hock deep mud. It wasn’t in her universe. So, she couldn’t see the value in the way I was sitting, nor understand how that might be necessary in another school of horsemanship. She only knew that here it was wrong. More than that she had no respect for any other form of riding. Which meant she was ninety percent disrespect, because ninety percent of her clients were coming from other backgrounds. Not the ideal learning environment, neither for me nor for the horse.

To his credit, the Lusitano stallion I was sitting on didn’t seem unduly bothered, but lifted his tail and let go a rhythmically cascading cargo of steaming feces, accompanied by a slight, not unpleasurable groan.

How to unlearn thirty plus years of cross-country riding in fifteen seconds then?

“Take my stirrups away?” I suggested.

It went better, but I didn’t by any means nail it. Much work to be done.

Lightness, the instructor, kept saying. But what did she really mean? The way she said it, the way she insisted on it, the way she denigrated anyone she didn’t feel did it or had it, felt anything but light. There was a spiritual heaviness to her world view. Yet technically I could see that she was right – any real contraction of the leg muscles in this form of riding disallows the horse from moving in three dimensions. Ok time to unlearn then,

So I dived in. I studied Baucher, and learned how the relaxation of the jaw, which unblocks the underneck and after that the horse’s back, is the key to engaging the horses hind legs (whodda thunk?). I studied Oliveira and learned that descente du main and descente de jambe (letting go of the hand and the leg) could only occur after horse and rider had both learned a cruder more direct support of both those aids, and only after that could they slowly wean from them (like from a co-dependent relationship?). I studied La Gueriniere and learned that once the leg was soft, the knees could be used to set and regulate tempo, and the inside knee, if softened like the inside hand, produced bend that was smooooooooooooth (Baby!). I studied Steinbrecht who revealed that the work between the pillars caused the horse to be light all by himself (and also that although the modern Germans revere him they don’t do much of anything that he recommends except going forward). I studied Xenophon and learned that the lower leg must be both flexible and firm and that the curb rein, if held mostly between thumb and forefinger both lessened pressure on the horse’s mouth and helped the horse to yield softly to the outside rein (he learned this while working as a mercenary in Persia in between bouts of studying with Socrate for chrissakes!). I studied with Master Luis Valenca and learned that the key to all really good ridden work was the work in hand  so that the horse could understand the exercises without carrying weight first, (Oh my God, there’s my horse, in piaffe, in passage, in canter pirouettes walking next to me! Shit!).

I dived into knowledge. Swam in it. I rode. I trained. I drank deep from the well. I learned to do the fancy stuff. It took some years, but hey, all things do.

But lightness…even when the horse was light underneath me, why didn’t it feel really light? I mean emotionally, spiritually…And when I was teaching, was I not sometimes exactly like that teacher rolling her eyes at me for my blocking legs? There I was wanting all this lightness from my horse, from my ride, But was I light? Shameful though it is to admit it, sometimes when I was training horses, I got really fucking intense. Was that light?

Lightness, I realized, had not so much to do with how you sat, how you applied aids, how soft your hand was on the rein.

It was in the mind. I was heavy minded. I couldn’t be light.

I was taking it all waaaaaaaaay too seriously. My horses didn’t argue with this assessment.

Light in the head. Lightheaded. Intoxicated with the joy of it, I needed to ride like that.

Light in heart. Ride lighthearted. Ride like that. Yes, light like that.

So now that’s what I’m trying to do, to be around my horses,

I’m chipping away at it y’all. Chipping away.

Leave a Comment