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Bend a Horse to Ride Straight, Part II

Published: 3/3/2015
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Editor's Note: Amy Skinner is a regular guest columnist and 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, and many others.

Read more about Amy here.

Read more Journals & Journeys here

By Amy Skinner

I’ve been struggling to write the second part of this article for months. Really, I have been struggling to understand wholly Ray Hunt's meaning when he said “I bend my horses so I can ride straight.”

I thought I had it, but it went away. Parts of it turned out to be flawed. In my endeavor to discover the saying's true meaning, I also set out to find real straightness in my horses.

My nine year-old mare, Dee, used to ride a bit like my Hyundai when it is out of alignment. I'd check my position, look up to where I wanted to go and set her there. Sure enough, after a few strides, she'd spill out to one side or another.

I’d dutifully set her back and watch the process repeat. Trotting or loping out in a field at times was like trying to keep a herd of gophers in line, particularly if her interest was not aligned with mine. Often, when I'd go to pick up my reins to slow or turn, she'd speed up and/or tip her head the opposite way.

Last month, I spent two weeks studying with Leslie Desmond as the first course in a three-year internship. We spent much of our time talking about straightness.
“Straightness is the absence of left and right,” she said. “If left and right are clear, than straightness should be clear.”

I thought about my mare and realized going straight was not possible because she was not 100 percent clear on left and right. I had been looking at straightness as a collection of a million little corrections. In fact, it was much more basic than that.

That realization brought to my attention another problem: What was with all the corrections? If I could get my horse clear on what I wanted, if I could find a way to communicate rather than correct, we would be smooth-sailing!

So, after completing two weeks with a head full of new concepts from Desmond, I saddled up my mare again and decided to set her up for success rather than setting up for corrections.

Where would turning left, right, and going straight be easy?

I picked the pasture where her buddies would surely want to get involved. I hoped we could follow them a bit. We started out on the perimeter with a few wiggles here and there when the rest of my horses got interested. Then we were following the herd. Right turns with the herd. Left turns with the herd. All smooth, with me blending in and Dee and I not grating against each other.

She offered a bit more energy, so we popped into the trot. Soon enough, we were all galloping together. The other horses were following our lead, even though we were behind them. They helped us go straight, but they were going where Dee and I were going. We were leading from behind, but they were pulling us, too.

It was cool. I was lost in the moment, enjoying myself and enjoying my mare's enjoyment, when I realized we were all galloping straight.

I realize we were straight with the help of the other horses. Their draw kept her straight. It may have been one of the very few times she felt straight with a rider aboard and was able to go straight without any interference. It may be a small start, but it's headed in the right direction, so to speak. Having that clarity in her mind will surely come in handy when we need straightness at a gallop by ourselves.

Leslie and Ray are saying, I believe: If you can bend the horse and they understand without a shadow of a doubt what it means to go left and right, then when you in your body are going straight, they will go straight. But if the rider is all over the place and the horse's understanding of left and right is muddy, then you get what I got: straight but a little to the left, then a little to the right...

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"There are no problem horses, only problem riders" - Mary Twelveponies