As horsemen, it’s important to ask ourselves whether we are actually riding our horse, or essentially carrying our equine partners every time we step in the saddle.

How exactly do I define what riding a horse is? To many of us, riding is much more than mere utility. We find comfort, focus, purpose and strength astride our saddles. Being horseback is more efficient and effective when accomplishing a number of tasks, and often makes it more fun, too. But getting down to the bare basics, as I understand it, riding is essentially being successfully carried by a horse from one place to another. (“Successfully” pretty much meaning we don’t fall off.) Simple enough. 

But when we look at our humble mounted jobs with a horseman’s perspective, things get more complex. We seek answers. We create situations that challenge us and our animals. We strive to improve sheer passage from one place to another for ourselves and our horses. Something I’ve been aware of lately is that sometimes we get so involved in being carried from one place to another that we actually end up carrying our horses instead. We make all the decisions for them. We hold them up, we push them here, we push them there, until they rely on us to make every little move and decision for them. We mandate full support, physically and mentally, instead of training their bodies and minds to carry themselves. 

The best way to achieve lightness is to not hold onto your horse all the time. Allow them to make decisions.
Photo by Bridget Britton

A lot of us don’t even realize this happens. At different times, I think we all do it. Once in awhile, I think I’ve got this concept dialed in and then I feel someone videoing me, or I enter a show and run a reining pattern and I start to become a control freak again. And that’s not to say we can’t hold our horses together when necessary. Sometimes it’s a must. But without allowing them to find their way a bit and learn to properly travel and carry themselves through tasks, trials and maneuvers, we are shorting the experience for our horses and ourselves. 

A horse that carries himself has his feet under him and aware of what his body needs to do to be comfortable, more athletic and aware. He is positioned and ready for cues from his rider, and he travels softer, stronger and with more purpose and confidence. We essentially rob our mounts of the opportunities of these advantages when we push, pull and carry them through every step. Something very broke will bypass this. They have the right sort of muscle memory to stay together, despite our every cue. But often, when a horse learns to lean on us for every little thing, he can get lazy, cranky, hollowed-out and stumbly. 

As a rider, I appreciate something that’s intelligent, ready to move in any direction when asked, and travels well. “Lightness” in a horse is something to appreciate and strive for. All of those things come with a horse who learns to carry himself properly. He won’t lean his shoulders into his turns. He finds his stops smoothly and confidently. Think about it: it’s sure hard to achieve “lightness” when you are holding together the travel pattern of a 1,000-pound animal. 

I don’t have the answers. I’m on this trip with everyone else, just trying to make the most of my many opportunities to ride, learn and improve. But thinking about my horse carrying himself better is something that excites me, and I believe that being aware of the whole concept will really improve my riding in the arena and outside of it. 

And hey, what a load off my mind that would be!

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