The ancient word Yoga means to yoke or bind, or more literally the union of the body and the mind. Horseback riding is very much like yoga as it involves a union between horse and rider, proper breathing, and a variety of positions that bring physical strength and stamina, not to mention awareness, to our riding. As we ride our goal is to create balance and to be present in the moment with the horse.
In my mind, nothing forces you to be more present in the moment than riding a horse. It is nearly impossible to be thinking about work, shopping or cooking dinner while you are trying to navigate a 1,000-pound animal around a ring, down a steep path or over a three- foot jump.
Riding involves channeling the horse’s energy and using your consciousness to communicate with him. You want the horse to direct his energy into a positive outcome, like flexing and bending or collecting and extending or even jumping! You want the rider to be communicating with the horse. When the flow of energy between horse and rider is at its best, you have balance. When you have a perfect ride, you know it because you know exactly what it is suppose to feel like. We’ve all had them and they all dwell in our subconscious memory.
Schoolmasters to the rescue
At some point in a rider’s career, they have ridden a well-trained horse. Nothing is more enjoyable than effortless communication with a well-trained horse. Many a show horse, such as a Thoroughbred jumper I used to lease, can no longer handle the demands of higher jumping divisions and has to take a step down to a lower level of riding. It happens to all horses as they age, they wind down their athletic abilities and with it comes the lower fences and eventually just flat work.
These equine teachers are called “schoolmasters” and they are worth their weight in gold. A pleasure to ride, they teach novice riders what perfect riding feels like for the first time. They give veteran riders a perfect ride, when they have forgotten what it’s like from riding horses of different schooling levels.
As riders our peak ability is determined by the horses we ride. I spent most of the year flat riding a young horse. I hadn’t been on a schoolmaster in about a year. Every rider benefits from taking a step back once and a while. Whether you are training young horses or just pleasure riding, it’s important to get on that schoolmaster that knows everything and can remind you where you need to be. Jumping a schoolmaster can really remind you of where your proper position should be and where it is in reality.
For me, that schoolmaster ride came last Sunday, on my former lease horse, a bay Thoroughbred named Mikey. Visiting Fox Hill Farms again and seeing Barb and Jane and all the horses was so much fun. It was pleasant outside, about 45 degrees and no wind, so we opted to have our jumping lesson outside. At the posting trot I was instantly reminded about his ‘big bouncy trot’ and how I have to post lower to the saddle to keep my position and really use those calf and core muscles I’ve been ignoring lately. During walking breaks, I would ask him to do a laterally movement here, an outside bend there, just to keep him listening and active to my leg.
Mikey reminded me to sit tall with my shoulders back, keeping that straight line from my shoulders through my hip to my ankle. To me working at the walk is like yoga. You are putting yourself into the correct positions and holding them, building physical strength. As I held those correct positions, Mikey the schoolmaster obliged with supple movements and easy transitions.
In riding, just like in yoga, we should practice awareness over action. For example, a horse trots too fast, we post faster to keep up with him — that’s action. An external force upon us that we are reacting to. If we practiced awareness instead, then when a horse trots too fast, we would be aware – internally – that we need to slow the pace, and we would post slower and lower. Our schoolmaster is well-trained and knows this cue and would come back to the pace that is ideal. He has taught us, reminded us, how to have awareness on horseback.
We can also be caught up in doing rather than being. Jumping horses can be a lot of doing rather than being. Mikey excels at teaching me to be in the moment around the course. He teaches me to breathe, to relax, to clear my mind before we begin. As a schoolmaster he reminds me to set my pace, maintain it and leave it alone. Being not doing. To make proper turns and keep straight lines when jumping, Mikey teaches me to keep the proper position with eyes up, sitting lightly, hands soft and following. Being ready for the next jump, not doing the next jump. Just being Mikey brought me back into awareness, into that perfect position and gave me a much-needed perfect ride. Afterwards I gave this old schoolmaster two big carrots as a thank you!