The Value of Stillness
One of the first things I teach a rider is how to be still, to be stable, and to leave your horse alone. Having stillness promotes self-carriage in a horse, fosters work ethic in a horse, and permits horse and rider to hear each other clearly. Let’s get clear about what stillness or neutrality is, when to use it, and what benefits you’ll see when you master it.
What is it?
I use the terms “stillness, zero, and neutral” almost interchangeably, although they have slightly different feels. Being neutral is about maintaining your mechanics without interfering with or making additional requests of your horse. It’s holding your shape and letting your horse carry himself. Being neutral is maintaining the interface between you and your horse with purpose. It isn’t passive or limp, it’s the quiet establishment that “”I am here. Now I’ll let you do it, I won’t ask you for anything more.”
Horses crave this release-with-connection more than anything. For them, it’s security and freedom. It’s the reward and the release they are looking for without being abandoned or dropped. You are on the line, but you aren’t asking them for more. It’s their favorite reward “ah, I found it! That feels good!” It produces self-carriage, mental engagement, and a love of work in a horse. It produces independence, feel, and sensitivity in a rider.
When using the aids, it’s useful to think of neutral as zero on a scale from zero to ten. Zero means you are not asking for anything. You’ve left your horse alone for this moment or for these few strides.
Why use it?
Being still will foster a great work ethic and make your horse responsive to the aids. When we barrage our horses with aids, they begin to tune us out or react with evasive behavior. On a tolerant horse, it becomes background noise to ignore. On a less tolerant horse, it can produce resentment or anxiety. When your home base is “zero”, it clears the slate and allows your horse to easily hear what you’re requesting. It makes your message distinct. Good riders have very clean slates. Each aid is easy to see, hear, and understand. It produces a horse who is tuned to your low-volume aids, a horse who is eager to respond, and one who is mentally engaged.
Horses develop self carriage by being taught to hold themselves. I feel self-carriage is more than physical. It’s mental and emotional. A horse in self-carriage is confident, calm, present, and physically responsible for his balance and carriage. If you never learn to leave your horse alone, they will never learn to hold themselves.
It’s very easy as a rider to get sucked into “but my horse will…” fill in the blank and always hold them together for fear they will bulge a shoulder, fall down in front, drift with hind end, or whatever they do! You must allow the horse to find their own balance. Being neutral makes the space for the horse to either choose self-carriage or to make a mistake. Make the room. If the mistake happens, just correct it and go back to neutral. Otherwise, we are stuck holding our horses pieces together for them. If you want a horse in physical, mental, and emotional self-carriage, get good at being still.
A huge benefit to you as the rider is that when you are also physically, mentally, and emotionally still, you can hear what your horse is saying with more sensitivity and accuracy. Feel the word STILL. Hold that quality energetically when you are with your horse.
When you accurately receive what your horse is saying, you can make good decisions about how to proceed. Your horse should feel that his voice is always heard. Don’t confuse listening with surrendering leadership. A good leader listens and discerns what is going on and why? How far are you from your goal? What is in the way? What is your horse experiencing right now? What is motivating their behavior? Be still and let your horse tell you.
How do I develop neutrality?
Riders should learn to “go to zero” anytime a horse finds the right response. That is, use it as a reward for any aid given. Anytime your horse gives you “yes, right away” from the leg, the rein, or the seat, you leave your horse alone, you “go to zero.” Do not drop your body position or the interface you have with your horse. Remain present, but stop making requests. Allow your horse to find his spot for a few strides.
I try to stay at zero as long as possible to let it sink in. For very green horses, several strides are needed. For more trained horses, less time is necessary for the horse to enjoy that moment of “ahhhh, we got it.” I will sometimes allow missteps if I am in the middle of a “neutral” that was after something very important. This really helps the horse understand what the reward was for. Don’t immediately correct your horse in the middle of a “good boy!” Be very clear—when you go to zero, it’s the reward your horse was looking for! It’s how he knows he found the right response.
The faster you can go neutral and the more stable your neutrality, the faster your horses will gain. Think of being neutral anytime your horse is going well. Let them enjoy their success. Enjoy your success. Leave it be. Find stillness in yourself, become blank, become consistent in your mind and body, and listen and see what your horse says. Go back to zero after every aid, don’t guard against mistakes by holding a 3 or a 4 just in case. You’ll find many treasures in stillness.
Chasing Pieces—Don’t Take The Bait
Riding horses is more than learning where to put your body. It’s more than learning how to make a request. One of the secrets that very good riders share is an acute ability to read why a horse does something. Generally, horses don’t respond because they either don’t understand or they don’t think it’s necessary; they think it’s optional or they are not sufficiently engaged in their work to care to try. Sometimes horses don’t respond because it’s difficult or they have a physical or emotional issue that needs addressing. Sometimes horses respond in a way that hijacks the conversation.
Horses train their riders and dictate the conversation by presenting a problem to a rider knowing how that rider will react. If you always correct your horse for bracing on the inside leg by pushing harder with your inside leg, he knows he can dictate what you two discuss by bracing on your inside leg. I call this “throwing bait.”
Horses say “hey, Mom, look! I’m doing that thing! Aren’t you going to fix it?” Very often, riders take the bait. They jump right up and say “oh! oh! no! no! don’t do that!” In fact, many riders will drop everything they were previously doing and go into “fix it” mode. They allow the conversation to change. If you can quickly fix a slip up and continue on with your topic, then you know you’re on the right track. If you feel like you’re constantly in “fix it” mode, where you chase one evasion after another, or if it feels like there’s this one thing that gets the two of you spiraling down into a rut of frustration, your horse might be manipulating the conversation.
Lets say I’ve requested more bend, and my horse begins to run. Maybe, he honestly can’t keep his balance or he doesn’t understand. But maybe, he knows that if he runs, I will stop asking him for bend, will change the subject to “don’t run”, and that he can successfully avoid the topic of “bend.” If so, and I can catch that this is a diversion and keep the topic on BEND. I can retain my leadership role. If I take the bait and switch to “don’t run”, I’ve just taught my horse that he can always derail my requests by running.
Horses get very good at this. They can even string together bits of bait. Your horse says “well, can you fix this issue? Oh, ok, now you better fix this one, and now this one!” I call this “chasing pieces.” In this instance, a rider isn’t really in charge. She may be partially or mostly keeping her horse from completely falling apart. But in this scenario, she can’t progress because she can’t determine what the topic is. The horse is keeping her in react mode.
In order to overcome this dynamic, a few things have to happen. First, you have to be able to recognize it when it happens. If your horse is sincerely out of balance or confused, ignoring the problem will not help you. So you have to be accurately identifying it. Second, you must be a skilled and stable enough rider that you can ride through an evasion. This requires that you stay balanced and physically and emotionally reliable even when your horse attempts to derail you. I call this “being neutral.” It’s the skill of stillness. Third, you must be a consequent rider. A consequent rider gets a response from her horse with every aid. An inconsequent rider lets her horse either ignore or partially ignore her aids. I believe that neutrality/stability and being consequent go hand in hand. If you feel weak in any of these areas, get help from someone who understands these issues. If you are equipped with these skills, pay attention, you can gain a very big win just being aware of this trap.
Does your horse have favorite bait that he dangles for you? Does he have an evasion that always lands you in the same spiral of effort and struggle? Next time he does it, try ignoring it. Continue with your program. Don’t pounce on the bait, calmly continue with the topic you were on. When you get an honest try on the topic you are on, there’s a good chance the bait will have been withdrawn. If it hasn’t, as quietly and matter of factly as possible, correct that one lagging thing. Treat it as “oh, and by the way, fix your ribcage.” Or “oh, and now you can slow down.”
This is a very powerful tool. It works with horses who are stoic and passive in their evasions, and it works with horses who are dramatic and expressive with their evasions. It empowers you in taking control of the ride, and paves the way for progress. It’s also very reassuring and calming for horses. The more leadership you show and the more reliable and consistent you are, the happier horses are. If they know that when you bring up “bend”, you’re going to stay on bend. You become a leader they trust. They become more focused and more engaged in their work. When you stick to the topic, they do too.
Context is Everything—How to benefit from, but not get lost in, endless advice for equestrians.
A challenge for riders in any discipline is filtering the endless stream of advice from blogs, magazines, books, videos, clinicians, etc. Much of this is good advice depends on the scenario! The critical ingredient that makes it either work or not work, is context. There are three things you need to assess when using ANY tool or method.
First, what is your horse doing now? Second, why is your horse doing that? Third, what are you trying to achieve? The answers to these questions determine what the best course of action is, including if a method or principle will work for you at this time.
Keep in mind, a horse easily changes what he’s doing and why he’s doing it at any moment. In addition, what works for one horse may not work for another. This means that your equation is continuously changing. It’s no wonder that “one size fits all” advice columns or axioms tend to get people in trouble.
I’ll use an example that I see regularly in the dressage world, but that holds true for almost any training method, tool, or approach. Dressage riders are generally told to “hold the outside rein” and “ride to the outside rein.” Many riders come to me holding their outside rein as if their life depended on it, but have failed to achieve a soft, reaching, supple horse who works through his back and into an outside rein. The problem isn’t with the instruction. Riding to your outside rein is correct and valid. Where riders get lost is in context.
Before you run out and establish contact in the outside rein, (or apply any other across-the-board advice), discern with as much sensitivity possible, “what is my horse doing now?” At this step, you are determining if outside rein contact will actually help. This may change from stride to stride, so you’ll have to prioritize what is happening and possibly vary your response. Next, why is he doing what he’s doing? And, woven through this, keep in mind: what am I trying to achieve? Here are some possibilities for each step.
What is my horse doing now? One very common thing is a horse who doesn’t reach into the contact but instead sucks back and hollows his back. Outside contact is both receiving and regulating. We want the horse to reach for the boundary eagerly and then happily respect the boundary. This balance of reach and respect enables the elastic roundness that we want, increases horses confidence, balance, and adjustability in the aids. This is the end goal. What we want to achieve.
I’ve used the tense horse who doesn’t reach as an example, but there are almost limitless options. Is your horse running through the shoulder? Pulling against your rein with head in the air? Curling up and avoiding contact? Leaning and pulling? Sometimes horses are reaching but the timing of the contact is just slightly off. No matter what your horse does, your first job is to acknowledge what is happening stride by stride, and asking what he’s doing conducive to the next stage (taking up outside rein). If not, why?
Are you leaning to the inside of the circle? Is he dull to the aids and ignoring your request for impulsion? Does his saddle hurt? Do his teeth hurt? Is he fearful? Is he disrespectful? Dominant? Confused? Is your posture pushing his back down?
Answering the question “why” determines your next course of action. Become more centered, sharpen your horse’s response. Fix your saddle issue, teeth pain, disrespect, or fear. All very different solutions that you must solve before you can “just add more outside rein.” As you address the what and the why. It’s very important to keep your final goal in mind. What are you trying to achieve? This process can be very subtle and requires precision. Which is why you need to stay focused on the goal.
Knowing what you are trying to accomplish can keep you from going off track. It is not unusual for me to encounter a rider who doesn’t actually know why she’s doing something. Mostly it’s because her previous trainer told her to. This lack of context can backfire badly. Assess your situation with sensitivity. What is happening and why? Keep your eye on the goal as you address the current issue. Don’t do anything unless you understand why you are doing it.
In our example, if our rider has straightened her body, sharpened her horse’s response, changed her saddle fit, or otherwise solved the WHY, her horse is beginning to reach into his outside rein. Now she can take up rein with purpose, with feel, and achieve her round horse. And now the cycle begins again. Listen vigilantly to your horse. What is he doing now? Why? What is your goal?
Be open to new ideas, but apply them with care. Most tools are beneficial some of the time, but not all of the time. Your horse may need you to be exquisitely light, and 2 minutes later, may need a firm correction. Horses are endlessly fluid. In order to arrive at your goal, learn to discern where your horse is in the moment.