Lately I have been thinking about what is meant by being ‘light’ when we ride our horses. I have come to the conclusion that this is a one of the most difficult topics to have a discussion about because the word ‘light’ seldom means the same thing to everyone taking part.
To some, it means barely touching the horse through the aids. To others, it means only 5 lbs of contact through the aids instead of 10 lbs. For one person light means never putting a bit in the horse’s mouth, to another it could mean to apply the spurs on every stride, with the reins held ‘securely’ at all times. So often when I talk to someone about their riding and remind them they should strive to ride lightly, they nod and say “Of course, I always do” and the conversation just ends there without a common understanding ever being established and with no improvement forthcoming.
What I hope to do in the article is try to break down the various kinds of ‘light’ we might be talking about and see if I can help us come to some common understanding.
Lightness of the Hand
This is the most commonly discussed subject I have encountered when it comes to the use of the word “light” and the most likely to lead to misunderstanding. Lightness of the hand is not so much a matter of how hard we hold the horse in the bit as much as how flexibly we maintain contact. A horse will more readily accept 5lbs of contact on the bit if this contact is fully flexible and following the natural movement of the horse’s head, than they are to accept contact that shifts from 0 to 5 ounces in a inflexible hand that allows the reins to keep alternating between slack and tight on every step. In their attempt to be light on the mouth, some riders create a situation that is anything but.
I have a student whose concern about being too rough on the horse’s mouth borders on a phobia. She has seen so many riders hauling on their horses to stop or steer them, or watched riders cranking down on their horse’s head to achieve some desired frame, and is so dead set against ever being one of those people that she resists the idea of having any contact through the reins at all. When she rides a finished horse, which is well prepared for riding on a slack rein, she is very comfortable, relaxed and light, because she doesn’t feel any contact through the slack rein. For most riders this would be fine, but she has an interested in classical riding and while riding in a curb with one hand was the goal of most classical masters, it is goal that is achieved through first riding in contact on a snaffle bit. For her, ‘light’ and ‘contact’ are hard to reconcile. Consequently, she is finding it difficult to adjust to maintaining a flexible contact through the reins and as a result the horse is unwilling to accept the bit and this leads to tension between them, frustration and eventually a breakdown in communication. When I try to explain that she should have so flexible and light a connection through the reins that she can feel when the horse works the bit in its mouth, her brow furrows and she tells me she can’t feel that. Here, my attempt to explain what I mean by ‘light’ has failed completely. This is my fault because I am using terms and giving examples that she cannot relate to yet.
Lightness of the Seat or Balance
Part of the reason we fail to adequately communicate when we discuss lightness of the hand is that it is not just about the hand. Yes, this form of lightness stems partly from the flexible connection through the reins, but it is also greatly dependant on having the horse well balanced forehand to haunches, left side to right. You cannot achieve a halt with a gentle squeeze on the reins and adjustment to your seat if the horse is heavy on the forehand. You cannot cause the horse to turn with a slight movement of the hand, rotation of the shoulders and/or shift of balance, if the horse is not first flexible and in balance equally from side to side.
There are schools of training and styles of riding that pride themselves on how light the horse becomes. They ride on a slacks rein, sometimes with just halter and ‘guide’ the horse left or right with a sweeping motion of the hand and stop the horse by pulling back on the reins lightly. For the practitioners of this way of riding, this is the very essence of lightness. This method uses repetition and conditioning to create and automatic response to the touch of the rein on the neck. For a great many that prefer this way of training, there is no contact through the rein at all and the balance of the horse is less important because they are not affecting balance to direct the horse, as much as giving a cue and the horse is reacting. The flexible contact of the classical methods of training seem far from light to these riders, while the classical rider will often see this ‘non-contact’ form of riding to lack connection and therefore precision.
Both of these forms of riding, when done well, are ‘light’. They simply seek their ideal of lightness in very different ways; to achieve very different goals from their training. Neither is intrinsically superior to the other. They are however suited to different ways of riding and not interchangeable to a great degree.
Lightness of the Leg
The light use of the leg, just like the hands, can be approached from more than one direction. For some it means keeping the leg completely off the horse unless being used to specifically cue the horse. For others it means keeping the leg lightly resting against the horse, in flexible contact at all times and it is by gently increasing and then relaxing the influence of the leg that the aid is applied. It both cases the aim is to have the horse respond quickly to leg aid, but like the hands, one method aims for a more automatic response to a cue and the other seeks to influence the movement of the horse legs by timing the aids to the movement of a specific step of a particular leg. The balance of the horse is still more important to getting the desired response from the classical leg aids, but both can be very light with the proper training. Again, different goals lead to different methods and again, both can be done harshly, with unkind results. I.e. one rider might have the skills to employ spurs with the lightest of touches, while another kicks the horse forcefully and stresses out the horse with no spur in sight.
When it comes to the leg aids, I tell my students that there are four levels of pressure you can apply. I break them down as Hair, Skin, Muscle and Bone, referring how deeply the contact is felt. I tell them that the ideal is to brush the cuff of the boot across the hair of the horse and they respond instantly. Of course to get to the ideal, we will have to touch skin and sometimes muscle, until through consistent application of the leg aids, timed to the precise movement of the horse, our aids can become lighter and lighter. What about the Bone level of contact? I say if you find yourself there, you are off the path and have lost sight of you goal; you must go back to the first level of contact and start again.
We all get frustrated from time to time and this can lead to a loss of perspective. While slightly over-doing the leg aids is not usually damaging to the horse, physically or emotionally, it must still be avoided whenever possible.
Lightness of Intent
There is one more kind of lightness I want to discuss and that is Lightness of Intent. This form of lightness underpins all the others. Not just the lightness of the aids, but all that we do with our horses. Fetching the horse from the pasture, leading, grooming, shoeing, vetting and all the many aspects of training and riding, find their foundation in the lightness of our intent. This aspect of lightness is the central concept that dictates that we try to never demand but always ask, request rather than force and understand before we punish.
Here are some examples:
- You go out to the pasture to fetch our horse where she walks away from you and doesn’t want to be caught. You can become forceful and run the horse around the pasture until she is exhausted and gives up, allowing you to catch her, or you can walk precisely as to show her that no matter where she tries to go, you are going to be there in her path and that you are willing to take a long as it takes, so she might as well just stop and let you approach.
- You have caught the horse and put the halter on her, now you are ready to lead her to the grooming area. You can take hold of the lead right near the clip and firmly, keeping a secure contact to control the horse, jerking on the lead if she tries to walk too slow or too fast, or if she stops to try to eat grass. Alternatively, you can give the horse a few feet of slack, holding the lead loosely in your open right hand and with the rest coiled in your left, only closing your right hand momentarily if she stops, or tries to lower her head to eat, then opening it again the instant she if again following you. If she tries to walk ahead of you, you simply make a small circle to your left and she falls behind you again.
- During the grooming process when you want your horse to step over, you can push on her hard or smack her with your brush when she leans into the push instead of moving, or you can use light, pulsation touches against her side, saying quietly “Step over.” and praising her when she makes any movement in the desired direction.
I could go on and on with these sorts of examples, but I think I have made my point. I am only going to discuss one more way that Lightness of Intent is important in the training of horses.
Make No Demands
“Make No Demands” is something that I remind my students often and sometimes need to remind myself as well. By this I mean that lightness in our training and riding requires that we try to never force our horse to do something. We must only ask them and strive to make our request as clear and consistent as we possibly can. Resistance from the horse is almost always a matter of misunderstanding, distraction or physical inability to do what we are asking of them; none of these situations is improved by force. While there are times when a horse can become willful (when they are tired, frustrated or afraid), it is not an intentional attempt to thwart us in our goals. The simple fact is the horse is almost certainly unaware of what your goals actually are.
How many times have you heard someone say, “If I don’t make him do this, he will learn he can get away with not obeying”? (usually when trying to get the horse to step into a trailer or across an obstacle or to canter or back up, etc.) This to me is just about the most ridiculous concept I have ever heard. So the horse won’t step into the trailer; it is not refusing to spite you. It has a reason, even if you can’t perceive what the reason is, and making your life difficult is not it. Perhaps on this day, getting him to put both front feet in is all you are going to be able to ‘ask’ of him. If he doesn’t step all the way in, he is not going to learn he never has to step in. He has no idea what your goal is, so today make your goal getting him to put both front feet in, praise him and call it a success. Tomorrow is another day.
“I have time” has to be your motto. If your horse has trailering issues, then work on it on days when you don’t need go anywhere. If you horse does not lead well, then work on it when you have nowhere you must lead him. If he doesn’t stand for the farrier, then start asking him to lift and allow you to hold his feet when there is no farrier around. For resistance while riding, take the time to make sure your horse is strong enough and flexible enough to actually do what you are asking him to do, then “Ask often, accept little, and reward lavishly”.
In conclusion let me leave you with this story:
A short time ago I allowed a friend to ride on of my horses. This horse is very light to the aids and sensitive and the person is an experienced and skilled rider. There should have been no issues between them, except for the small issue that they are not trained with precisely the same concept of aid use. He is very light in the hand and responsive to the leg, but she is accustomed to riding primarily with seat cues. Consequently, she steps up on him and rides as she is trained to ride, by asking him to move in a specific way with a specific seat cue, which he does not understand. This shouldn’t be a problem, she has excellent hands and is not too strong with her legs, given time he would begin to understand her intent and eventually come to respond to the new aid use.
The problem is, he was loaned to her to use at a competition and there was little time for them to learn to communicate. So, she rode as she was accustomed and he reacted as he was trained, but the time constraint gave insufficient opportunity for them to come to an understanding. The result was he got confused and excited and the normally light and responsive horse became touchy and over sensitive and the lines of communication broke down. She kept trying to make him understand, he kept trying to give her what he thought she wanted, but the result was neither. Now this was not her fault and not his fault, it was my fault for failing to see the true source of the difficulty and realizing sooner that it was not going to be a great day for either of them. No one got hurt and no damage was done to his training. Once he had a familiar rider on is back, giving him the input he expected, he as the wonderful, giving animal he had always been.
The moral of the story is that lightness of the aids, starts with lightness of intent and when that is lost, for whatever reason, all hope for lightness, in any form, will elude you.