When I first became involved with horses, I heard people using terms such as “coming through”, “on the bit”, “half-halt” and “wrap your horse around your inside leg”. It sounded like a secret language that all the serious riders understood — one I needed to learn to join the chosen elite!
Now looking back several decades, I wonder how many people either understood those terms or if they did, meant the same when using them. I suspect that they were repeated by trainers, dressage judges and riders without any real comprehension or consistency of meaning. This still happens.
This assumption of meaning, using hackneyed phrases and soundbites, leads to a block of real understanding. It would be so much simpler if we would stop using those terms, or at least admit we don’t have a clue what they mean and slow down to figure it out.
Even more importantly, how can we ensure that the horse understands the terms and avoids the joint confusion?
I recently heard someone say, “What a wonderful rhythmical canter”. The canter was indeed very regular, but it was four-time rather than in the correct three-time beat. This is an example of a word that is used all the time with an assumed understanding.
People are told, “You need to get a better rhythm” — but that’s not possible. The rhythm is either correct or it isn’t, depending on whether the hooves are falling in the correct sequence for that pace. One can improve the regularity or tempo, or create more impulsion, which will up the quality. But one shouldn’t lump all those qualities into one word, hoping that the rider knows which element of the bundle needs work.
Another frequently heard expression is “use more leg”. This leads to the rider using more leg and the horse doing less. Instead, instruct the rider to get more response from the leg. Now we have a horse going from a light leg and not becoming immune to the aids.
The words “supple”, “stiff” and “bend” sound like physical issues, which then take us down that road to seek a solution. This road is frequently a cul-desac, because it is the wrong solution. We are describing mental issues, of acceptance and understanding of the rider’s aids. A very different solution should be adopted if we want to explain this to the horse.
Are we not trying to use our training to enhance and replicate what a horse does naturally? When horses know and understand, they are supple and not stiff (resistant is a better word) and they will bend as part of being straight.
I’m often amused by the wacky explanations used for “coming through”, “half-halt”, “uphill” and “impulsion”. When I watch horses, seldom are they forward or attentive to the aids, nor are they in balance. My definition of impulsion is “available energy” — much easier to understand.
Use simple words
Let’s use simple words to produce important qualities, only going to the next layer of improving the quality when the basics are secure. The most important starting point — yet not used in the training scale,
except in the small print — is forwardness: the horse taking me. This is a state of mind.
The horse does not have to be tracking up, engaged behind, uphill or anything else — it just has to take the rider on the line they want to ride, that is straight (quarters, forehand and head following each other on any line the rider chooses) and staying regular, ensuring a correct rhythm (the right footfall for that pace) is maintained.
Clarity in our words allows us to remove so much confusion. I find this misunderstanding in all levels of rider I teach around the world. Let’s have a rethink of our language to make it easier for horse and rider to
work in harmony and achieve their goals.