Respect for the Nature of The Horse


Here at Morgado Lusitano, it’s called a riding vacation. But I came here for more than a vacation. I came to have fun. I came to spend time with old friends and to meet new ones. I now know that I came for the amazing food and evenings drinking wine by the fire in the library. But the main reason I came here, is to continue the pilgrimage I started on the Camino de Santiago. I came to rediscover and re-meet myself as a rider; To re-ignite a passion that never wanes but sometimes gets snarled up in life’s other demands.
Over the years, I have imposed limits on myself- both imaginary and real. Like many of us, I have had multiple years of really tough challenges in my horse life. I have arrived at several intersections over the years where I have felt the need to reconsider how I’m “doing horses” and maybe make a pivot. I will always have horses as a primary presence and passion in my life but I do believe that sometimes, half-halts are in order. What kind of rider do I want to be? Is competition still important to me? Is riding more fun than not? What brings me the most joy now? These are questions that cannot be answered by trainers or in books. Questions that, I think, can be best begun to be answered by immersing myself, for a time, in a place and in a culture that is all about The Horse. Portugal is the place where I started my Camino journey one month ago and it is the place I have returned, to complete it before going home.
Once again, this journey is not happening in a linear way. It is simply not possible for me to go day by day. But several themes have emerged during the short time I’ve spent riding at Morgado. My articulation of these themes are my own interpretation but have been inspired by the horses and trainers I have had the privilege of learning from this week.
The horse has two primary instincts. One, to flee from danger. Two, to stay in balance. Most of the problems we come up against, as riders, occur when we, intentionally or not, work against these fundamental instincts. Morgado trainer, Martim describes- “We must have more intellect than other athletes because we must understand the nature of  The Horse in order to ride well.” Horses are not made for us. They were not put on this earth to be ridden by humans. We must be conscious with our minds in order to help the horse feel safe. We must understand their motivations and reactivity in order to create a situation in which they feel trusting enough to partner with us. And we must be aware of how we use our bodies in oder to help, rather than hinder the horse’s own efforts to stay in balance.
It is our job to support the horse, both laterally and longitudinally, by how we sit and hold the reins. And then… it is our job to, not just to ask them for things, but to ride in a way that makes it possible for them to perform athletically with us. Ahhh! This is a life-long pursuit. It is a dance, not only with the horse, but with our own learning. We must grow our capacity to keep making mistakes and trying again; to accept that what we know about riding could fit on a cigarette package but keep trying to fill up a billboard. We need to ride with confidence and conviction to help the horse feel safe but also be humble about all that there still is to learn. I am reminded again and again, this week, of the places where I take back too much on the reins, ask the horse to perform without adequate energy, give too much support with my aids or not enough. Over and over, I feel the horses respond to my own light bulb moments by offering instead of holding back. This is one of the great gifts that school horses have to give us- not only their wisdom and knowledge, but also their generosity.
Though all horses teach this, my rides on Nordeste, a five year old Lusitano stallion, were for me, the best reminder of how important it is to respect the nature of The Horse. Martim reminds us that all horses are unique- each horse has its “own book” and the way we teach and ride each horse will be different even though the principles remain the same. It has been an honor to ride Nordeste- a horse who is naturally gifted in collection but also elastic and expressive. He is sensitive and forward but also calm and willing. He has been trained in a way that preserves these qualities. This makes him a particularly good mirror. He is in a bit of the “messy middle” part of the training process which generally occurs at this age. He knows many of the lateral movements but flying changes are not yet confirmed. He has a lot of power and is learning how to use that power and allow the rider to help shape it.
For me, the challenge he posed, was to dance between riding him in the soft elastic way that is my nature but to then add in some pressure without losing energy, harmony and willingness. This has long been an edge for me in my riding and I was delighted that his trainer, Pedro trusted me to ride a horse with the capacity to let me practice this dance. Like many horses, his tendency is to shorten his neck instead of  lowering his croup and lifting his thorax. This reaction causes a break in the flow of communication between horse and rider and a loss of expression in the gait. I feel this immediately and decide that this will be my objective with him: How can I create the expression I want and ride him correctly but with a seeking neck and a strong connection over his back? The fun thing for me about working this out with Nordeste is, first off- he is not mine. We come to this moment together with no shared baggage- just that which we each carry- me from other horses and he from other riders. And also, he has in spades, the combination of a stable temperament combined with the ebullient energy that Lusitano’s are know for. Martim had reminded me that, “in collection, regardless of the training phase we are in, we always ride with the aim of reaching the neck extension…this is not because the rider ‘pulls the head up’ but because the rider stops the extension earlier (in the arc.) If the horse does not use the neck, it does not progress in the gait.”
So, this is my project with this horse: To help him trust me enough to give up his habit of shortening the neck so that I can add some collection in while still keeping that lovely neck seeking the arc. In order for this to happen, he will need to feel that he is in balance. If he is not balanced, he will not “seek” the bit, but instead “push” into it or “shrink” from it. The nature of The Horse is impossible for us, as humans, to fully comprehend. But I have come to believe that if we focus on these two things- 1) building their TRUST and CONFIDENCE and, 2) allowing them to constantly seek the best possible balance they can in every moment- we can begin to tap into the harmony that is possible between us.
I have always believed that dressage lives at the intersection between art and sport- it is an expression of the magic possible when the psyche, spirit and athleticism of horse and rider come together. This is, I think, why riding is such an addiction for those of us who pursue it. It is a PURSUIT. There is always a journey and rarely an arrival. We have to continually imagine that which we do not yet know is possible. We are romanced by what we imagine and driven by our love of the unique partnership that horses and humans share. At the heart of this partnership is a deep and abiding respect for the nature of The Horse.