Making Weakness A Strength

“The disability from which I suffer is a great handicap, but there is a bright side to everything and my inability to apply the aids strongly has been a great lesson to me. I can use but very little force, and the results obtained by my weak efforts have convinced me that horses are generally over ridden; that much more strength than necessary is habitually used in applying the aids. The rider must reduce his actions to the very minimum and leave the horse the greatest possible freedom in his.”
Captain Etienne Beudant (1861 – 1949)

Captain Etienne Beudant was a French Dressage master who learned his trade training military mounts as a cavalry officer. In 1917 his horse is killed under him and fell on him, seriously and permanent injuring his hip, forcing his retirement a few years later. He continue to train horse at the highest level, even with his handicap and, as the quote above suggests, gained an important insight from the experience.

Some months ago I injured my right shoulder and for a while now I have been living with the pain of a rotator cuff issue. Now I am not comparing my temporary injury to the one that crippled Beudant; with treatment and physical therapy I should recover completely in time. In the interim however, I have been told to limit the use of my right arm. This means no more lifting of hay bales or mucking out stalls for a while, which I can live with, but is has also caused me to take special note of what I do with my right arm while training and riding horses.

Now I am not a small guy and even at the age of 51 no one would call me weak. Despite my size, I have always tried not to ever rely on physical strength when it comes to working with horses, as even the strongest person is laughably weak compared to horses and to think one can force the animal to do something though strength is the height of folly. Gentleness in handling is a fundamental aspect of what I teach my students and cornerstone of my training. So how surprised was I yesterday when while working with Orion, my 9 year old Friesian/Morgan cross, I discovered that my physical strength had been working to my disadvantage in my training of him.

You see, due to his forgiving nature and steady mind, Orion has been ridden by a wide variety of riders, with widely varying levels of experience. Because of this, he is not as responsive to the aids as some of the other horses I have trained and in recent months I have started trying to correct this. Stepping up on him after riding Jupiter, our Lipizzaner, the difference in responsiveness is night and day and it is very easy to fall into the habit of employing more force in an attempt to gain a similar level of reaction with him, without even realizing I was doing it.

Yesterday I had a Cortisone injection in my shoulder and was told in no uncertain terms by my doctor I should be VERY careful how I used my arm as I could exacerbate my injury easilyt. Consequently, I was paying close attention to any strain I might be putting on my shoulder while working Orion in-hand. I have been working on the ground with him lately in attempt to focus on his mouth; in-hand work, with bit and bridle, has always been a useful tool for me in the past. The more precise contact provided by having the fingers of one hand looped through the ring of a snaffle has aided me in teaching young horses to respond lightly to the hands. However, as I have already stated, Orion is not a young horse, per say, and the bit is nothing new for him. This time however, I did not put the bridle on him, but rather I chose to work him in his halter using only the lead tied into reins. So what I had was a very willing horse, happy to be out of the pastures for work, nothing in his mouth and no way to apply much force and at the same time, I was taken careful notr of any twinge of pain from exerting any force with my shoulder.

The next 40 minutes I worked with him on shoulder-in, travers, renvers,  rein back, on the circles of various sized and along the rail. All this with no bit and no way to ‘make’ him do anything he did not willing agree to do, without risking pain in my shoulder. So instead of trying to carefully mete out what force I could safely apply, I went in the completely opposite direction. I attempted to see just how little strength or contact I could employ and still get any response, no matter how slight. I asked him to slow his walk down to the ‘counted walk’, until each, step, was, a, count, unto, itself. Only then did I ask for bend. Only when his jaw and pole were completely relaxed did I ask him to elevate his neck. Only when all tension was gone from both of us, did I ask him to move laterally. My goal was less to get him to move as I wished him to, and more, to see just how little I could do in my part and still relay to him my wishes.

By the end of the session it seemed all I had to do was think what I wanted and he responded; without hesitation, without resistance, willingly and even eagerly. His focus matched my own. As long as I was in the moment, not distracted by extraneous activity around us, he was right there with me. He moved with steady tempo, neck elevated, in perfect rassambler and with complete willingness.

Yes, this was only on short session in a single day’s training, but the connection we shared was inspiring and everything I had been seeking to help restore to him. All because I was trying to make sure that I felt not the slightest bit of and it doing so, achieved the same for him.

Until my injury has completely healed I will have pain when I over use my strength. I have until then to make using no strength at all the standard of my training and riding. I hope you, gentle reader, can find a similar place with your horsemanship without having to have pain to remind you.

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