The Giving Scale

These fairly philosophical posts seem to be writing themselves as I reflect on my teaching and training lately. My own progress in the saddle, the unbelievable progress of my horses over these last few months and my total pride and pleasure in the work of my committed and talented working students and students keeps me reflecting on the meaning of dressage in my life.

As I reflect and grow as a trainer, I expect more such posts to spill forth. But this evening, the technical trainer in me wants to respond to yesterday's post. As I was riding today I realized I couldn't leave yesterday's word 'give' alone. That word is beautiful especially since it calls to mind things like generosity and gift giving.

But, of course, as an instructor it is also a very dangerous word. Often when I say 'give' to a student it is interpreted as 'drop' or 'abandon' or 'disconnect'. In an effort to clarify what we are looking for in a give, I thought I would try to add a few more layers to it.

In my last post, I implied that giving was different colors and shapes and sizes and I think it might work best to think of 'give' as existing on a scale. The mildest form of give is what I am going to call, AIM. To aim is give your horse's energy a direction and a plan. Aiming jumps energy forward in a positive way. Horse's respond to aim by willingly sending their energy with you.

ALLOW would be next. In allowing, we let the energy we have aimed come through our bodies. We allow by moving in the same pattern as the horse in the direction of our aim. This allowing is positive reinforcement for the horse who has followed our aim.

Next we SOFTEN. This is an often used phrase and we are often talking about softening our forearms or fists or backs or knees. In softening we decrease the positive and/or negative tension in a group of muscles. Like taking the kink out of a hose, when we soften muscles we are allowing the energy that we are aiming to flow in a specific direction. The horse feels the freedom from restriction as an invitation or an open door that they may flow through.

The next word I thought might be helpful is OPEN. I was specifically thinking of opening your fingers into the posture that would allow you to cup water in your hand, but it might also mean to begin to draw your calf away from the barrel or your thigh off of the saddle. In opening we are creating a very clear but small space for the horse to inhabit. We are saying come here, there is room for you. I will catch you, but I will not come and fetch you. This is a larger risk than the others as this is the first time, depending on the size of the opening and the clarity of your aiming, that energy might have to jump through space to stay connected to you.

The next step, RELEASE, should be the first time that position changes. A smart rider doesn't release her position, as in moving her entire rein aid forward by allowing the elbow to reach towards the mouth, unless she has had positive feedback from the open step. If the horse can't stay in connection in the opening than the release will be a disaster for sure. But the open step went well, so the rider releases her elbow and possibly shoulder. Or she creates a space between her seat bone and the saddle or takes her leg off of her horse's side. Sometimes this is a reward, sometimes this is a test to see if the horse is following our aim and is independent enough in balance that they can manage for a stride or two with very little physical contact from the releasing area of the rider's body. Release is what most riders think of and perform when they hear 'give'.

I think it is also worth adding the concept of YIELD. To yield is to allow a horse's pressure to move our posture. We yield the rein in a stretch to the horse (yes, we ask them to take it first). We might accidentally yield our leg to a horse that is avoiding bend or yield our balance forward to encourage a horse that has gotten contracted in his or her back. Yielding is sometimes deliberate and often accidental. It is a big decision with large consequences for the horse's balance and therefore his or her sense of well being.

In this little scale of giving, I would like to mention that I find that I almost never use opening, releasing and yielding aids of more than one of my systems at a time. Meaning, if I am opening in my receiving aids (think rein aids), I am not opening my balancing/directing aids (think seat and back) or in my creating aids (think driving aids). This is just as true if I am releasing my seat aids or yielding a leg aid. My other two systems are in support and are still aiming energy.

Perhaps you can take this scale and turn it into your own palette. Add colors and mix them together and let me know what beautiful paintings you ride.