I believe that God did not design the horse to be ridden. Whether you call it God or evolution or nature, it is a fact that horses are not especially well designed to carry weight on their backs. In fact, they are designed for exactly what they do in nature: most of their time is spent grazing, slowly putting one foot in front of the other with their muzzle all the way down. This is how a horse in nature spends about three-quarters of its time. The biggest part of the remaining time is spent resting. A very small amount of time is used walking from one place to the next, for example to the water and, in case of danger, in flight.
When I want to ride, however, I put weight on their backs, my own weight plus my clothes and my equipment usually and then I often want to do strange things like trot around a giant sandbox. The horse, of course, sees no point in this and might actually end up suffering emotionally as well as physically from what I insist on doing. So what is the solution? Many people just give up riding, but I’m a stubborn girl and I really enjoy riding. So I try to find ways to make riding at least ok for my horse, both psychologically as well as physically. And once I’ve discovered a trick or two, I really want to pass these on. So that’s what I do at my courses at Sundance Ranch.
Here’s a quick list of all the things that I believe we can do for our horses:
Western saddles spread the weight of the rider over a larger surface on the horse’s back, thus making it easier to carry us for a longer amount of time. Western saddles also seem easier to fit.
To further protect my horses’ backs, I really work on the rider’s seat. It’s the only topic in your first lesson with me and we will come back to it again and again during the week. Only if you can sit in balance and harmony with your horse’s movements at each gait, can it possibly be ok for the horse to carry you. I see no point in going to faster gaits or specific exercises before the seat is reasonable.
Bits may be useful for higher dressage, but for most of what I do in my riding, bitless is perfectly fine. I have found that it is entirely possible to collect a horse in a simple sidepull bridle since collection comes from the hind end and not from pulling on the reins. Many people say that it’s acceptable to use a bit, as long as you don’t pull on the reins. I don’t think my horses enjoy carrying a bit of metal around in their mouths and I also do not think that I can keep myself from pulling hard when I get scared, so I doubt that most of my riders can either. So, bitless it is.
The way you communicate with your horse is fundamental for making his or her life easier. The ask should be as soft as possible, the horse should understand what is meant and the release should come as quickly as possible after the horse even starts to think in the right direction. All that is logical and simple, but the application is not, so we practice on the ground and in the saddle.
Working in the riding arena makes a lot of sense for me when I want to teach my students or exercise my horses, but the horses sure get bored with it. So do the riders and therefore I make sure we mix lessons inside the arena with rides out in nature. After all, who says you cannot teach on the trail?
The amount of work done also matters for physical and emotional well-being. My lessons don’t last longer than 45-50 minutes and my trail rides rarely reach two hours. If my bum hurts, I bet so does my horse’s back. Most of my horses work one or two sessions during the week and have the weekends off. They also get months off in the summer and winter, except when they need training. Training can be necessary to keep the body fit and flexible or to make the horse more motivated.
Finally and possibly most importantly, the rest of their lives should be as good as possible. Horses need adequate care from vet and farrier, they need adequate feeding, but mostly they need the three Fs, as specified in “The Horse’s Manifesto” by Lauren Fraser: Friends, Forage and Freedom. Therefore, my horses live in herds, out on the pasture all year round and have grass and/or hay available to them at all times. If they are this happy in their free time, I’m sure it makes it ok to work for me a couple hours a day!
These are the principles I live by and these are the principles I teach in my course. I have found that my guests really enjoy feeling a connection to these happy horses and love to learn to contribute to this happiness. In the end, everyone is happy, both humans and horses.