Riding the labyrinth

English: The labyrinth at the island of Blå Ju...

I started trotting Dragon under saddle last week after all our balance work in the walk. I did it just as a “data gathering” exercise to see where he was both emotionally and physically in the work. While he remained round and engaged with me, I was disappointed that he still fell in on his inside shoulder and took giant Standardbred type strides that covered the arena in about six strides. He needed more guidance than I thought he would. The softer, slower trot I have in-hand was not yet available to me under saddle. On my end, I didn’t offer him a lot of help with his balance and my rein mechanics were far from perfect and mostly absent. I was just waiting for his other, more desirable trot to appear. If he could blog about me he would probably write about how surprised he was by my lack of support and information.

But the real issue is, deep down, I wanted Dragon balanced in his trot  so we could progress forward in a facile and linear fashion. I became so frozen in my disappointment about having “something to work on” that I was unable to ride him well for the rest our session. Oops.

Triple spiral labyrinth

Labyrinths, used by humanity for the last 4000 years, are a form of walking meditation. They often describe spirals and as you walk the labyrinth you find yourself revisiting your old footsteps and describing soft, curved lines. It’s not a maze to be solved but geometry designed to help you let go of your mind’s chatter and be present. There is one way in and one way out. There is no real goal, except the process itself. It’s soul work. Labyrinths have rocks to mark your path or are carved into stone so you don’t have to think too hard about where you are going. You are free to let go of your thoughts while you meditate on following the path set out for you. Feeling each foot as it touches the earth. Breathing as you move. It’s a place to inhabit your body and allow yourself to be fully present. Body prayer.

Arena work is  based on geometry too, circles, diagonal lines and different tracks but these are conceptual rather than physical. When we school our horses it can happen that we lose our geometry as we think about balance or we forget our balance as we think about our geometry. We can forget to be present with our horse when we get stuck in judging our performance or theirs. It’s a lot to think about, especially when we are teaching something new or learning something new. We all learn better without multiple points of focus. So how to make it easier?

I am building a labyrinth for Dragon and I – not a permanent structure but a visible, physical labryinth made of colored plastic cones and mats placed at different intervals. It will describe circles and straight lines in different configurations and offer us the opportunity to reflect on tempo, shoulder balance and the “balance beam” beneath us. A physical reminder for our trotting meditation. I’ll teach the labyrinth in-hand a few times first so it feels familiar and offers both of us information. And then we will ride it.

I am continually surprised by the parallels between mindfulness and good, transformative animal work. It’s not even metaphor, it’s direct correlation. It’s not a pretend labyrinth I will be building, but real structure, designed to provide deep meditation on physical balance. Designed to remind me to be present in every step of our work because the process IS the goal. Each new exercise Dragon and I encounter can have it’s own labyrinth built for it: one for canter, one for shoulder-in, one for haunches-in, piaffe and passage. Labyrinths for collected trot work and transitions. They’re not something you have to use permanently, but they help you to focus on balance through geography until the balance work is effortless. Eventually, of course it’s all just competencies in your body – knowing your geometry, riding every stride of your horse and helping him balance, moving between both awarenesses easily and changing the labyrinth in your mind to suit the geography that will best fine-tune your horses balance. Dragon and I are far from that kind of competency though, so for now, I’ll be building labyrinths.

Horses regularly trained with ground work are more relaxed when ridden

Natalie and HarrisonA recent study of dressage horses in Germany that looked at rein length and tension revealed a surprising finding: horses who were regularly trained in ground work/in-hand  work had lower heart rates during ridden work than all of the other participating horses. This wasn’t what the researchers were investigating, but it was clear in the results. From this, the researchers concluded that, “Perhaps horses trained in ground work had more trust in their rider.”

So why would it be true that horses who regularly learn via ground work/in-hand work are more relaxed? There are a few possibilities.

1) Horses trained regularly with ground work are more relaxed because their trainers are more relaxed. It’s possible that humans who take the time to teach their horses from the ground are less goal oriented and more concerned with the process. They may be more relaxed in general and foster this same relaxation in their horses. As you are, so is your horse.

2) Horses trained regularly with ground work have trainers who are more educated about a horse’s balance.Dragon in-hand Their horses learn to move in correct balance which allows them to be healthy and sound in their bodies and, therefore, more relaxed. Physical balance is emotional balance.

3) Horses trained regularly with ground work understand the trainer’s criteria better. They have mastered the response to an aid before the rider mounts and know the “right answer” already once under saddle. They don’t experience any conflict when the rider asks for a behavior  because the neural pathway has already been installed. They are more relaxed about being ridden because it rarely has caused confusion for them.

Natalie and Aesop in the snowWhen I got my first horse  I had the idea that ground work was important but I had no idea why or what it was I should specifically be doing. I muddled my way through some of John Lyon’s Ground Control Manual but I didn’t really understand how to use it to benefit me or my horse. I’ve learned so much since then!  Now I know there are so many things you can teach your horse from the ground. You can teach him motor patterns like walk, trot, canter and whoa. You can teach him the verbal cues for those motor patterns. You can teach him the physical aid you will be using from the saddle to elicit those motor patterns while you are on the ground. You can teach him how to move in balance so he is better prepared to carry you. You can teach him how to give at the jaw. You can teach him how to bend correctly. You can and should teach the beginning of lateral work from the ground. And finally,  you can teach him more advanced work like shoulder-in, haunches-in, haunches out, school-halt, piaffe and levade.

For us highly visual humans I think that ground work is often a better way to begin exercises because we are much better at seeing our horse doing the right thing than feeling it from the saddle. Often, my feel in the saddle is enhanced by the fact that I have watched my horse perform an exercise over and over in our in-hand work. It feels how it looks. In-hand work is also a good way to teach our horses because our own bodies are often more in balance when we are walking beside our horses. With the ground under our feet we are able to be more relaxed if something goes wrong and less likely to be so busy wrapped up in our own balance that we give our horses conflicting or confusing aids. It’s a good place to figure things out. I am a huge fan of in-hand work.

I’m glad to learn research revealed ground work is good for horses. Horses with a low heart rate are relaxed and relaxed horses perform better and live longer.  In this day and age of people starting horses under saddle in under an hour and increasing monetary rewards for  the “young horse dressage program“, everything seems to be done in a hurry. The entire horse culture seems to privilege “getting up there and riding your horse”. But as one of my favorite writers and accomplished horsewoman, Teresa Tsimmu Martino writes, “In today’s horse culture there are clinics that brag about starting a colt in a day, as if the quickness of it was the miracle. But old horse people know it takes years to create art. Horses as great masterpieces are not created in a day. An artist does not need to rush.” We need more scientific studies like this one to encourage us to slow down and take our time with our horses.

So why were the horses in the study more relaxed? Likely it was a combination of all three factors – a relaxed trainer, better overall balance and clear understanding of criteria. These are things that matter to your horse, and yes, will allow him to trust you when you ride. Take some time to slow down and work from the ground, learn a bit more about equine balance and teach new things in-hand before asking for them under saddle. You can take your riding to a whole new level and help  your horse become more healthy and relaxed in the process.



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Constellations and Dressage

centaur constellationSince I was sixteen years old I wanted to learn dressage. I dreamt of  seamless communication with my horse and “invisible aids” so light we would seem like one creature instead of two.  I collected shelves and shelves of dressage books with beautiful pictures of horses moving correctly, enviably, but none of them really explained how to begin the work. They were more like beautiful picture museums of correct movement. I took years of lessons from different trainers, some better than others, one who even had grand prix level horses. But learning to teach a horse about their own body and balance is a completely different skill set than learning the mechanics of riding an already trained horse. It’s endlessly complex work. And as Mary Wanless  points out, “The map is not the territory”. Reading about a skill, having an intellectual understanding of how to slide down the rein or ask for a give of the jaw is not the same thing as having the kinesthetic feel available and familiar to you in your body. Dressage is multiple skill sets that come together to form a whole.

I remember one day in particular taking a dressage lesson on my Friesian cross, Dragon, years ago. We were trying to make a 20 meter circle to the right at the trot and he kept falling in on his right shoulder. My instructor wanted me to lift my right rein to block his shoulder and apply my right leg to “hold him on the circle”. The more I lifted my rein and insisted with my leg the more we spiraled into the circle and the more frustrated both of us became. In his confusion he trotted faster and faster and swished his tail as I provided a heavy right rein to lean against. Recognizing complete disorganization, I asked him to halt. My instructor and I agreed I should get off as he was so upset and the entire situation felt volatile. Of course it wasn’t his fault. He didn’t know how to balance his shoulders more upright from a suggestion on the rein. When he was falling on his inside shoulder he wasn’t actually capable of responding to my leg by altering his balance either. I didn’t even know then exactly what was wrong. I just knew my aids weren’t working and everything felt impossible.

The groundwork I have done with Dragon using Alexandra Kurland’s program has enhanced both my and Dragon’s body awareness immeasurably. To say he is a different horse might be an understatement.  I’m certain he would say I am a different handler. He has learned that he has shoulders and how to balance them upright through the “Why Would You Leave Me?” game. He learned the beginning of lateral work through the same exercise. I learned how to ask for jaw flexions on the ground and he learned how to soften throughout his body and be “on the bit”. He has learned to step under with his hip from a slight lift of my rein and he moves in a lovely, soft bend. All of these things transferred directly from our groundwork to ridden work.
He is quiet, concentrated and soft under saddle. Willing to accompany me into this deep study.
I feel that just now I am starting my journey of being a true rider. I’ve ridden since I was 9 years old but I was just an enamored passenger then. Now I am learning the same fine motor control I am asking of my horse so we can explore the foundation and outer edges of  balance, together. I was riding three to five times a week until the snow came and  during this time I had a major breakthrough in my own kinesthetic feel. Kinesthetic feels or physical skills are right brained and therefore implicitly wordless. But our right brain is visual so descriptions of  feel are possible through metaphor.

riding breakthrough dayI was riding in my tiny indoor arena ten days ago. I usually speak out loud about what I am asking for in each moment since it keeps me focused on actively riding and is a good way to see how well Dragon and I are really working together. There are so many body parts to remain aware of between human and horse and, as I suspect is true for most riders,  as my awareness of one body part grows I often lose track of the rest of my body. It fades away to the background. But this ride was different. As I said to Dragon, ” Soften your jaw to me and bend left” it was as if my hand that slid down the rein to request the bend lit up with awareness. Next I rotated my left thighbone and weighted my right seatbone to ask him to move to the wall and stay beneath me and each of them lit up too, softly glowing. He moved, perfectly bent, utterly soft moving off my thigh and coming under my seatbone to pick me up. Lastly, I organized my outside rein to receive his engagement and my right hand lit up. We moved together down the long side of the arena balanced over and under multiple points of contact and for the first time in my life I held an easy awareness of each point of contact simultaneously. No one point glared in the foreground. Nothing faded away. I was a constellation made of individual glowing stars but forming a whole. We were luminous, a living star chart that could change at any moment to describe a new movement, one seatbone dimming to black as I weighted the other to ask him onto the circle. For the first time in my life I consciously rode the whole horse at once. This is what I dreamed of when I was young. A  language delicate and nuanced as starlight.


I’ve learned these spells one by one. Spells for calm, spells for stillness, spells for relaxation. Spells for patience and movement. Then come the spells for balance: how to move softly bending your body like a sapling in a windstorm. Spells for roundness, lightness and, finally, spells to defy gravity. One by one I learn these spells and one by one I teach them to my horses. It’s not a simple magic that joins a woman and a horse into a centaur. It takes the better part of a decade before the true transformation takes place. The enlightenment when the slightest shift of your weight is alphabet and music to your horse.