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Amy Skinner on Micro-Managing versus Guiding

Published: 8/17/2016
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Editor's Note: Amy Skinner is a regular guest columnist and has been a horse gal since age six. She  runs Essence Horsemanship, rides and teaches English and Western. Skinner has studied at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Spain, with Buck Brannaman, Leslie Desmond, Brent Graef, and many others.

Read more about Amy here.

Read more Journals & Journeys here

By Amy Skinner

My primary love is dressage.  I love everything about it: -
  • developing the horse as an athlete
  • the thoughtful process of creating a more balanced horse
  • the persnickety, delicate balance of all my body parts working in alignment with the horse’s. 
  • the quiet process of slow daily work to create a bigger, better picture. 
It could just be my temperament, but I appreciate that nothing is too fast, and everything is subtle.  Like art, every detail counts to create a masterpiece. 

[Photo at right: Skinner works with clinician Jec Ballou]

But in my observation, one of the primary downfalls of dressage is the tendency of many riders to over-school and micro-manage. I’ve ridden many schooling horses who had to be “held together” or they would fall out of balance.  If my leg was not constantly driving, if my outside rein not constantly holding, the horse would either not collect, would fall in, or would speed up, slow down, fall on the forehand, etc.  A horse like that is not a pleasure to ride, and I can guarantee he is not having a pleasurable time being ridden.  

On the other hand, a horse that is ridden too loosely - without guidance from the rider’s focus, seat, and reins - can become wobbly and frustrated.  This is a horse that runs the risk of being over-corrected because he is not clear on what is expected of him.  For example, a rider not guiding as she rides past a gate may find their horse gravitates toward it.  

In my yoga class, we are taught how to put our bodies into each pose.  Some of them are difficult for me, requiring strength and flexibility I currently lack.  My instructor explains how to get into the pose and keeps an eye on her students to make sure our bodies stay in correct alignment (with a little wiggle room for those of us who lack flexibility).  

Above all else, emphasis is placed on correct alignment in all poses. For example, in a forward fold, it’s essential to keep a flat back. If you can’t yet touch your nose to your knees with straight legs, you would bend your knees to maintain a flat back.  

The instructor guides each of us, helping us work toward bettering ourselves, but she doesn’t nag or hold us up.  What good would it do us if she coddled, forced, or held us in position?  We each are working toward better understanding our own bodies and developing a feel for when we’re in correct alignment. It doesn’t help us become more balanced if we just do what she says without any real understanding of why or how to get there.

Riders should strive for guiding the horse and setting it up for success without micro-managing.  Horses should have enough contact and feel from the rider to have a clear idea of where to go, what speed to go at, and what shape to take.  It should be a continuous conversation between horse and rider, with the rider leading a second ahead of the horse. 

That means the rider has to know:
  • where her horses’ thoughts are headed
  • what is happening around them
  • how to predict and respond to the horse before it has taken them completely away from the rider’s intentions.

A fair rider will not wait until the horse is across the arena headed to the gate or headed to his friend before she corrects.  That’d be like telling a teenager: ‘do whatever you want,’ or not paying attention to them, and then waiting until they were in trouble to punish them.

A good horse person heads off trouble.  Better than that, they continually set the horse up for success, trying to offer a path for the horse to take so his thoughts can be on what to do, rather than on what not to do.  

When riders become good leaders and partners, they find less problems with horses drifting toward the gate, trying to head back to the barn, or being buddy sour.  This is because they are providing the horse with all the information he needs to do what is expected.

Read related article on Contact.

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8/18/2016 Julie Kenney
Wonderful article!! Great job explaining how to be aware of your horse, yourself, and your surroundings to help guide your horse instead of over-correcting (or disciplining) well after the error.

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"Practice sharpens, but overschooling blunts the edge. If your horse isn't doing right, the first place to look is yourself" - Joe Heim