March 30, 2022
Where is the energy leaking?
This question asked by Emily Kemp last summer has been key for me in pinpointing what is going on in my horse as I’m riding her.
I want to bring K around not only with cardio fitness and muscling but the muscles in the right places to carry herself in strength over long distances with less potential injury over time. I want form AND function. I want efficiency and strength. This month as I gradually increase fitness, I am inspired to dial in this concept of energy and where it’s going. As an endurance rider, I want optimum efficiency. Leaks are never a good use of resources!
I have spent a couple of years focused on finding straightness on the trail (thank God I became forced into this for my own good!), and finally have a sense that is coming into … alignment (pun intended). I understand pretty well what straight looks and feels like, and if we are both focused and connected I can ask for it, and now I have a good chance at maintaining it for increasing intervals.
Today as we rode along the mountain trails I stayed in the question: where is the energy leaking?
Each day is unique and I begin with observation to see where the horse is which will determine where we are starting. Today was a scattered horse whose attention was on the herd and environment more than me. I took that into consideration while bringing her in and tacking her with limited success adjusting her state of mind. When I got on her she immediately walked off before I could put my feet in the stirrups and she took off heading who knows where.
It was a great place to begin! She was leaking EVERYWHERE both mentally and physically.
I addressed this first by attempting to direct the energy. In some cases shutting it all down, plugging the cracks and starting again might be helpful but it seemed to me she wasn’t going to get still enough to make that work out for us without a fight- and I never want to fight if I can help it. So I took the massive energy leakage and began building some banks to channel it in the direction I wanted to go.
It doesn’t feel great to be on a horse who is going out in all directions. It was like chaos in her mind and body. I like to imagine banks to a river help direct the flow into something productive and beautiful … without them you end up with a swamp!
In this case I didn’t get too picky on the speed leaks, but first addressed the direction. At the core this was a massive mental leak, but I chose to help her with the physical to get down to the mental. I did this by becoming more specific about my line of travel and her attention ahead. I was riding in a halter and lead rope but I carried a dressage stick to help me fine tune if I needed it. If her mental attention leaked out to the sides I used whatever seemed best in the moment (rein, leg, stick) to direct her energy focus on the trail ahead. This was physical, however in short order she began to come out of the chaos, relax into a good forward walk and the connection between us became quieter and stronger.
Now that the mental leak was largely sorted out, I began to dial deeper into the physical. I used to think walking on trail for hours got boring. That is because I had so little imagination for all that can be accomplished walking- that must be accomplished first at the walk and will not come into alignment in trot or canter if it is not first built at the walk.
I have fabulous training grounds right out of the barn with a great mountain and mostly wooded, grassy (and somewhat rocky) logging roads that are wide enough to work both straight lines and lateral movements. There are also various fields we can stop and do some circles or long side pass practice along the way. Though the roads are kept pretty clear there are often random logs that are great for problem solving and working together (trail obstacles!).
The first thing I check in with is walking a straight line. This is the thing that has taken me a couple years to dial in. Maybe you will be quicker! You need some riding that isn’t rocky single track to learn this (though we love those trails!), and when you think you have it down try it in an arena, field or pasture to test it. Here is what it should look like:
Mentally fixate on a line of travel on your trail and ask your horse to stay on the line. Create an imaginary box around you and negotiate realistically with your horse as to what your horse will succeed staying in and that box should continue to narrow down as you improve. If you’re new to this your box might be pretty wide. Make sure you and your horse are capable of succeeding as you start so this is fun and encouraging! As you choose your line of travel notice if your horse “leaks” to the right or to the left. Allow the leak then ask to return- do not hold your horse to the line, this creates a horse that cannot hold a line- like a car needing an alignment so you’re always holding the steering wheel in order to travel straight on the road. Your horse CAN learn to walk straight but you have to ask for it first. Have patience, just keep returning to the line and allow them to sort out the game.
If you can walk on a straight line of travel, the next thing you’ll begin to notice is if the body, or neck, or head, hind or shoulders are leaking. In this case they would be pushing on the rectangle to take it out of shape. This takes time to catch in subtlety but it’s worth the deep dive any time you are walking you can ask yourself what you’re feeling here. If you have a physical pathology developed where your horse is traveling off balance it may not be fixed by simply asking for straight. It could be an injury or your own imbalance that is causing an issue the horse is compensating for. First check in with your own body and consider exploring a therapist (counterstain is amazing if you can find someone who does that) or even yoga or pilates — something that can help you understand better your own idiosyncrasies. This is such a gift to your horse who might be forced into compensating for your own imbalances. We aren’t going to be perfect as riders and we may have real physical issues, but doing the best we can and continuing to improve what can be improved is a mark of excellence that is worth engaging in.
As for the horse, I think taking some time to experiment in various sizes of circles in a field can help show you if you have a shoulder falling in or a mid-section collapsing and you may need help to develop a plan to strengthen a weak side. I have a good friend who took in a horse with a shoulder that always collapses in, she’s been digging into Manolo Mendez videos and articles to give her some ground patterns to help the horse begin to pick up that shoulder on her own first from the ground, then using the same concepts from the saddle. The process to help this horse come back to balance after years of poor riding has taken a few years but has been incredibly gratifying to watch! [Mendez is truly an artist with horses and has tons of great resources to get you thinking about balance in your horse mentally and physically definitely check out his website! www.manolomendezdressage.com]
All of this can become a rabbit hole, but I promise it has a ton of pay off for longevity of your horse physically and strength in whatever competition or fun events you engage in.
Note: as a trail rider I realize my horse likes to be aware of her surroundings, however I discourage her from walking with her head going side to side constantly looking around. I do it gently and ask her to focus forward again- this is a mental leak- I want her to know over time she can trust me to basically keep us from being eaten by a cougar and her job is to keep us moving forward. I am not particularly hard on her for looking however her eyes naturally have a great range peripherally so I want to discourage too much body connection to distraction, I patiently remind her to return to what we are doing, please.
Once I sort out if we are moving basically straight when I ask, I check in on leakage to the front and rear of my rectangle. Will my horse basically stay at the pace I ask (make sure it’s reasonable for the terrain and fitness level). Is she rushing? This will ALWAYS mean she is heavy on her front end which I DO NOT want EVER. In endurance circles I overhear many times people who are fighting for speed with their horses in a race. If we are ever in a tug of war over speed the horse is necessarily heavy on the front end and rushing out of balance. Adding a tool (bigger bit, tie down etc) to fix this will make the imbalance worse. Riding many miles with imbalance will eventually result in injury or chronic issues. It’s a mental leak in the rectangle that is coming out physically. This can be fixed (with a ton of patience, especially if the problem has been cemented in lots of rushing practice) but probably not on race day!
If my horse is rushing I try to sort out why and then “close the front door” for her. Is it my own excited energy she feels coming through that I need to tone down? Is it the environment (race day, high winds, deer or turkey nearby?) how do I help support the horse?
K loves race day starts, she is much more energized and engaged. In our case when that environment has her jacked up I negotiate and manage it so I am not fighting with her but once again channeling it. I will allow her to move faster in the start if she will work with me to find balance in her body and not go out of control. This works for us and she stays “with me.” In her case we settle down into a good pace pretty quickly because we are more connected than if I were to fight and hold her the entire time. This puts us working together toward the same goal, not in a fight (fights are huge energy leaks!) but this is also something we practice all the time, not only when it’s dialed way up and we have no tools for it.
In my case I am more likely to have a horse that is leaking out the rear which basically means going slower than I am asking. She isn’t “lazy” as much as she needs support and direction similar to a horse leaking out the front needs support and direction by closing the front door. The dressage stick is super helpful for that as well and if I ask for a speed and she doesn’t maintain it- AFTER I check my own energy, ask with some leg pressure and if nothing changes the stick tap on her hind backs up my request and it’s amazing how quickly she finds the pace and can maintain it.
Focusing on these things will make a significant change in the horse’s physical strength, balance and efficiency as well as the rider safety. You are going to be taken by surprise less often if you are connected and engaged in riding with intent, and the horse will feel more secure knowing you are really up there as the pilot making decisions along the way not a checked out passenger.
The next layer we are adding on the trail is lateral work. I want to fine tune her body moving sideways (while forward) in balance. Usually her front end is more active than her hind, which means the energy to the side is not moving in balance- it’s leaky in the front and sticky in the rear. Early in this ride I asked for lateral (side pass) movement to avoid some tree limbs and when my leg asked to move I got… nothing. This is where the stick comes in handy because I don’t want to have to kick to get a response; the stick is more a clear request to back up my energy shift, slight turn of my head, then leg – then stick. After one reinforced message with the stick she got… less sticky (yep another pun!) and began to tune in to me more than before. When the rocks and footing were agreeable I asked her to zig zag along the trail checking her balance and focus on me as I’d get more subtle asking for a side or to return straight.
I paused at a water hole for my dogs to get a drink and was reminded that sometimes horses are ready for a break and will stand quietly and recharge but often not. Headed back home at this point K was not feeling restful and instead of fighting with her to stand still, I used the time to ask for fine tuned movements at a halt. Disengage the haunches can be refined to just pick up that hind foot (I know some people don’t want to overdo disengaging), asking with either rein cues or leg cues for a shoulder to move over without leaking forward are great quiet connection conversations to have when you need to wait in position for something and your horse is not in the standing still mode. A back up step seeing how subtle the ask can be is also a great option here.
Back in motion I considered the “aha” moment working with Joe Wolter last fall: if my horse is not carrying this straightness and balance at the walk I am not going to have a strong and efficient trot. I should probably forget about what’s happening at the canter!
I am attempting as much as I reasonably can to live by the personal rule: never transition up unless I am certain my current gait is balanced and straight. That includes NOT rushing or dragging. I want the energy of the upward transition to… go UP, not leak forward, back, or side to side. When my horse moves from walk to trot the energy in strength takes her up, into a springy efficient trot and even if it is extended I don’t want it heavy. Every time my horse even slightly “rushes” into the next gait it is an unbalanced gait and is not as easy to bring into balance. As Mary Poppins reminds us: Well begun is half done!
When my horse lifts into the next gait without speeding up to get there it is powerful.
Moving in balance and straightness is one of the best things we as riders can do to extend their career and help stave off tendon, joint injuries and even arthritis or lameness. It’s simple but takes patience, focus and intent. Considering where the energy is going mentally and physically (and sometimes emotionally) has become one of the most helpful tools I’ve found to identifying how to get my whole horse moving “through” and strong.
Truly, straightness, balance control, forwardness, suppleness, easiness, calmness and efficiency, are one and the same.Jean Luc Cornille
Enjoy the process, and let me know how you work on these things in your own training.