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Life as a Canter Pirouette

Published: 3/13/2014
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Editor's Note:

Amy Skinner is a 24-year old instructor at Bay Harbor Equestrian Center in Bay Harbor, Michigan.  For four weeks, she is studying under Rafael Soto and others at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Jerez, Spain.
"My goals here are to improve my horsemanship and certainly my feel, timing, and balance, and expand my horizons a bit. Generally I don't run around in breeches, more like ripped jeans and chaps."
Read Part I, on timing, balance and feel.
Part III, on getting to a peaceful place.

By Amy Skinner

When horse and rider are out of balance, the canter pirouette fails miserably.  Like a snake that eats its own tail, it is conflict with its own self.
Done well, the canter pirouette is a testament to one of the loveliest achievements in the art of riding.  The human and horse in harmony, with respect for one another, grace, and fluidity. 

Like dancing partners, one leads and one happily follows, and together from your partnership you create something beautiful, something larger than life, and something virtually impossible without harmony together.  In learning the canter pirouette, I couldn’t help but learn a lot about myself and my life as well.

At first, I was obsessed with the “aids:” 
  • Control the canter and begin collecting it til the horse is almost cantering in place.
  • Outside leg back, inside leg at the girth. 
  • Outside rein contains, re-balances, inside rein and leg create the flexion. 

So many times I made very cerebral and clumsy attempts at this graceful movement.  It was like trying to dance with someone and thinking: “OK, left foot here, right foot there, step back..Agh, stepped on his foot.  Try again.  One, two, three, oops, Missed it.” 

No doubt your dancing partner would become quite fatigued in short time at having his or her feet stepped on and being yanked around clumsily. Nobody can dance fluidly or beautifully when they are stuck in their mind. And yet, in order to learn to dance, first we must memorize the steps.  It begins quite clumsily, then over time becomes a bit more natural, and finally as we become proficient at it, we can turn it into a work of art. 

After that, our own creativity is the limit!

I got to know the horses I was learning on quite well, and what they would offer to me changed dramatically depending on what I offered them.  Some of my attempts felt a bit like I had to “hold” the horse, and consequently, because I had shut down his energy, bludgeon him with my legs to keep him from losing impulsion half way through. 

Then as I improved, I found my seat was able to stay a little softer, which kept the horses more relaxed and able to stay forward.  After that, it was only a matter of directing that energy.
Like a musical composer, all I had to do was direct the flow of energy in rhythm, around in the pirouette and forward again.  I found that if I gave the horse an exit, a place to go forward, the result was a beautiful and expressive pirouette; a happy horse that could dance, without me  inhibiting him, but rather guiding him.

Through this practice, I got to thinking about my life

Am I trying too hard at times, and “getting in the way” of what needs to happen? 

I wonder how much smoother things would go for me if I could stay back and wait, or go with what “was” in rhythm. It started to think about about Ray Hunt’s philosophy of “setting it up and letting them find it,” and realized it had many applications outside of horsemanship.

I thought about my job and my relationships.  If a situation wasn’t going the way I thought it should, in the past I had always tried to “make” it be what in my mind it should be.  This had always lead to conflict and struggle, and left no room for others or myself to find a peaceful way of being together. 

Tom Dorrance talks about it as the “ path of least resistance” in his book True Unity. He quotes, “If you’re real friendly to people and make it easy for them to be with you – that’s the [path of] least resistance and they’ll be with you.  But if you don’t, then it’s easier for them to go around you.”

I believe that with this approach to life – a life without force, but with patience, grace, and letting things flow – can make such a difference, and the results are very real. 

If we take the time things need to let them happen on their own, to suggest rather than to coerce, and to allow things to become our horse’s or husband’s or coworkers’ or friends’ idea on their own, we can live a more humble, peaceful, and joyful life.

As the master Greek horseman, Xenophon, once said, “Anything forced can never be beautiful.”  In this quote from his book The Art of Horsemanship, Xenophon was referring of course to the gentle and patient training of a horse, but I choose to take it a bit further than just the canter pirouette, and apply it, or at least try, to every aspect of my life.

Read Part I, on timing, balance and feel.

View Reader Comments:

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3/20/2014 Mary Lee
I think this article is very insightful.
3/21/2014 Stephanie Rayner
As an art teacher, artist, and as a human being I found this to be not only a truth I have witnessed many times...but one I need to be reminded of. The quote "passion rides a mad horse" is true...and tho as an artist I do have to ride THAT horse...when dancing with others this is a much needed reminder. thank you. VEry pure writing from the centre of our being. Thank you again for that.

"A canter is the cure for every evil" - Benjamin Disraeli, The Young Duke