As I’ve been posting about Mark Russell’s Lessons in Lightness, I thought I would do some quotes and thoughts upon the Phase I of the program that I am working with on Z.
One thing I like about Russell’s book is that he sums things up in an elegant way that is clear to understand: “…each horse enters training with his own perception of balance and his own areas of stiffness that block energy flow within his body.. the horse will resist or evade the rider’s aids whenever he encounters stiffness or difficulty moving his body in the requested way…” (p.1)
In a traditional riding setting what happens is the horse resists or evades, the rider demands with more emphatic aids, and the horse becomes even stiffer. Perhaps what was requested (being railroaded into it by brute rider force) is done, but now the horse has body muscle resistance that does not provide the best ride possible and sets up a longer road of future blockages and inability to perform.
I am sure you have seen this scenario at a show or a lesson – a person jumps their horse repeatedly over the same two jumps. At first the horse does okay but instead of a relief and reward for the effort, or changing the work, the rider continues jumping the same jumps. Eventually, the horse tires and starts to make mistakes. The rider becomes frustrated and berates the horse, forcing it to jump more!
It’s this type of thinking that must change if you are going to travel Russell’s path. I admit that I can revert to old habits, especially when I’m frustrated and it’s 104 degrees outside with sweat soaking my eyeballs and my horse is just thinking, “hm I would rather eat grass then do this shit!” It’s one of those things where we have to grow up and take responsibility, take a deep breath, and consciously go, “No, I am smarter then my emotions!”
Russell’s lightness training has three foundations: Relaxation, Flexion and Strength.
Relaxation starts at the front by relaxing the jaw. This is done by asking the horse to reach down with his nose to at least between his knees. The cue I am teaching Z is a slight vibration on the inside rein means to stretch down. At this time she is giving it to me but not deep enough or holding it long enough. However, each day is better and remember I am working in a sidepull, not a bridle/bit which Russell uses.
Flexion is the lateral and longitudinal exercises, started on circles. Russell’s photos of his shoulder in definitely is different. He deeply bends the horse and I would suggest you look at the book and attend a clinic. I am not sure I get this yet, so my experiments may be horribly off base as to what he is talking about.
Strength is simply the power to be able to do the exercise correctly and this takes time for the horse to muscle up his body to perform these exercises. Like any riding, the basics should be done first, building to the more complex that require more physical strength and dexterity.
Freedom to move forward and freedom from the rein also empowers the horse to think and make decisions. (p.21). Interestingly enough this can be synched with Klaus Hempflings’ idea of his leading positions covered in Dancing with Horses. Klaus states that Leading from Behind empowers the horse more then leading from the front; letting the horse go freely forward and make up his own mind about finding the right balance, in riding, also empowers the horse.
An interesting side note is that in my videos of Teaching a Horse to Lunge, many people get in trouble with their horse when they try to lead from behind! This shows that there are holes in their foundation that need to be fixed before moving forward.
Phase 1: (p. 22-23) There are two other phases in his training but for my use at this time, I’ll be covering only Phase 1 in the blog.
- Relaxing and Releasing the Jaw
- Lengthening the Horse down stretches the spinal column
- Moving in a long/low frame without contract, encourages forward movement and deep hindquarter tracking under.
- Spinal alignment (follow the nose) and bending properly (usually this means not overbending!) around the leg aid
- Work on circles, spiraling in and out to engage, align spine and promote flexibility and strength
- Shoulder in and Counter Shoulder-ins to relax and flex rib cage and pelvis
BTW my Connect with your Horse from the Ground Up by Peggy Cummings book and my Connected Halter came in the mail – these exercises which also promote a relaxed state in the front with lots of bends and lengthening will be added to the work above.