“So, your homework is, the 4 phases of the go, the 5 phases of the halt, the 9-step backup, stretching those inner thigh muscles, Stick to Me on-line in zone 2, and practicing your deep seat.”
Lucky for me, this instruction was for Scott and Rocky, at the end of our two-hour lesson with Erin on Saturday. My own homework with River was similar: Stick to Me on-line in zone 2, and riding Point to Point. For riding, my goals are to activate my thighs instead of riding from my stirrups, and use the reins only to support my focus and my body language rather than as a steering wheel.
The lesson was more like a clinic, which was awesome practice for me mentally, as my goal is to attend clinics next year. There were the two of us with the two horses, plus another student and her horse who came into the arena for the last half hour or so, to warm up for her own lesson after ours. Sometimes we did the exercise at the same time, and other times one pair would go practice at one end of the arena while Erin focused her instruction on the other.
One of the most powerful segments was the simulation of Stick to Me. Erin put Scott at her right shoulder and me at her left shoulder and then … walked. She didn’t even have to walk fast or turn suddenly for it to be challenging to stay right with her. I did pretty well, considering — I guess those 5 years of marching band weren’t wasted after all, if I could stick to Erin as well as I did without a drum major out in front.
Stick to Me
A game in which the horse has to keep a zone of his body within a specified distance of a zone of your body, no matter where you go or what you do. You start on-line in zone 1 and practice your way up to all gaits at liberty. Think of it as ballroom dancing, where if you drop the lead, your partner can wander off to the snack table without saying goodbye. And where you stay utterly tuned in to your partner so you can sense their suggestions and guide the dance that way so they have more fun.
But the exercise gave us a wonderful insight into what Stick to Me is like for the horse. Erin explained about giving the horse clear direction so that he doesn’t feel left behind, and giving him time and space to do his part, before we go up the phases. I thought of chorus lines and how experienced dancers become at sticking to each other in the right zone for the maneuver.
Another effective simulation was our attempt to walk at different speeds while slapping the ground with our stick and string in a steady, intense rhythm. This was to help us feel the normal human habit of confusing “intensity” with “speed.” We can get more intense without getting faster. It all comes down to rhythm. In my head, I played a half-speed version of the Imperial March (BUM BUM BUM bum BAH dummmm bum BAH dumm) and matched my stick to it, then adjusted my stride to however many steps were necessary for each beat at any given speed.
Here’s a herd of alpacas advancing to the Imperial March and demonstrating that intensity is rhythmic, not spastic.
When I started my Point to Point pattern with River, Erin coached me to smile, which had the usual effect of lightening my whole aura as well as my body. “River is serious enough for everyone,” she said. “Riding is fun! Be fun! and light! smile!” Sure enough, when I focused on my destination and smiled, River’s walk became much more free. Before that, my intense concentration was probably molding my face into a really good driving face — except that I was projecting that intense, concentrated, serious energy forward, which made a barrier that River wasn’t sure about walking through.
Let’s just take a moment to shiver delightedly at the fact that our horses can see us up there in the saddle, including our faces and thus our facial expressions, with only the slightest tip of their nose to the left or right. In fact, I’m not even sure they have to tilt….