Many marriages have not endured as long as the relationship Caroline Rider shared with her first horse, a Quarter Horse called Kentucky Brandy, that lasted 25 years until his passing, at age 32, in 2003. “I grieved,” says the 41-year-old Maryland horse trainer. The pain of loss transformed itself into a desire to help others experience what she and Brandy had shared.
“I knew I had something special in our connection. He would lie next to me in the field with his head in my lap, and come running to the fence to meet me when I got off the bus after school. Brandy taught me that, once you have a horse’s attention, you can teach them anything.”
From those early lessons in attention and intention, and conversant in the delicate language of nonverbal communication, Caroline is putting her signature on natural training: Rider Horsemanship, Inc. What separates her from other natural horsemanship clinicians is her Tao of Horsemanship™ approach: combining natural horsemanship with a Taoist way of living and interacting. She teaches three core awareness skills – intention, position, and movement – that are key to success within our selves and with our horses.
“Being present is important to becoming the leader that your horses will accept and trust. My focus is helping owners understand where you need to be for your horse, when you are needed, and why you are needed to either be, or do, in that moment. This approach seeks mindfulness – a way of being with horses that asks us to be conscious of our intent and actions, and always present. When we are present,” she says, referring to a Taoist concept, “‘ten thousand things’ become possible.”
MOVING IN RHYTHM
Among those possibilities are better understanding of your horse’s natural balance, rhythm, and movement. In the third of her Tao of Horsemanship™ DVD series, “Riding as One with Your Horse,” she explains, “When in rhythm, you are not only riding ‘with’ your horse (not ahead of him, nor working too hard to keep him going), you are learning when the feet are landing and leaving.
“It is only when the foot has left the ground that you can ‘take it’ anywhere. This is the most important area of focus when learning how to influence movement: footfall. You must know when the foot is leaving to do so.”
She continues, “It is not only understanding footfall that helps a rider influence movement, it is feeling the rhythm of the legs as they shift your hips, and take your legs with them. When you are synchronized with your horse’s movement, there is congruency to your movement. When we are not congruent with our horse’s stride/movement, we are oppositional, which shows in our body as tension, awkwardness and brace.
“This becomes incongruent body language and can be upsetting to your horse because it sends mixed messages. Misuse of the aids, and frustration within the rider, may result in fear and a lack of confidence between the two. To avoid this, we must be congruent (in harmony), with our horse’s movement, and develop trust.
“This is of utmost importance because with a routine and consistent approach, we become dependable and this allows a horse to trust us. Once this level of trust and synchronicity is achieved (us mirroring them), we can ask them to mirror us by changing our position, shifting our movement and adding opposition (by sitting up and stopping), or taking their legs with ours and asking for more speed or energy in their movement. These ingredients establish a riding relationship with our horses: one that works naturally, builds confidence, trust, partnership, harmony and unity in movement, and creates the foundation for bareback and bridle-less riding.”
Eliminating stress and avoiding breaks in communication begin well before your horse is under saddle. Rider Horsemanship™ outlines seven “pre-flight” steps:
- Saddling and Bridling
- Centering Your Balance Point
- Backing Up
Step One, Saddling and Bridling includes ground-tieing, a patience-building exercise and foundation for good saddling and bridling manners, including expecting a horse to lower its head for bridling and accepting the bit.
Step Two, Mounting, expects the horse to meet you at the mounting block, line up, and stand, quietly and patiently. “When mounting, turn your foot in the stirrup so that it faces forward, towards the horse’s nose. This will help balance your weight as you pull yourself up, using the horse’s mane to help. Putting your weight on the neck, not in the stirrup, which will keep the saddle still and allow you more balance as you mount.”
The purpose of Step Three, Awareness, is: “Before going anywhere, we should have clarity of mind and purpose. This process of communication begins with your mind and travels through your body, thus to your horse.” She helps riders increase self-awareness and their influence on their horse through exercises using soft eye, body awareness, breathing, centering, grounding, balance, and intent.
Centering and finding your “balance point” is the Fourth Step. After squarely sitting in the saddle and becoming aware of both your seat bones, draw your legs back behind the girth, so each ankle aligns with your hip, elbow, and shoulder. “This keeps your core centered. Your foot should be flat in the stirrup, with the heel slightly down enough to stretch the calf muscles.
Step Five is to ask your horse to “Come into your hands, by creating a feel through your hands that sends a message (vibration) to your horse’s mouth. This feel also produces contact or tension for your horse to follow, release, or give to.”
That softening paves the way for Steps Six and Seven: Flexion and Back Up. “You should prepare both you and your horse for softness by flexing vertically and side-to-side (laterally). Achieving bend in the neck releases the top line and helps the horse achieve self-carriage. If a horse shows brace, or opposition, return to the softening process until communication is re-achieved. We go back to softening before we ask for a back up. You should be able to hold, not pull, the reins, sit straight, and have a horse release and back with softness.”
From these seven steps, Tao of Horsemanship™ riders of any discipline can warm-up, school, and practice such exercises as trot transitions to build feel for their horse’s natural balance, movement, and rhythm. “The Tao of Horsemanship™ focuses on developing awareness within. Once we are more conscious and aware of where we need to be, when, and why with our horses, anything is possible!”
FROM ONE RIDER TO ANOTHER
“When we are open to all possibilities, we create true communication: expression, choice, exchange between horse and human. Here at Rider Horsemanship, our mission is to create a more natural approach to being and working with horses. When we experience true unity and oneness with our equine partners, anything and everything we dreamed possible can happen.”
Maryland, where Rider’s Crossing Farm is currently based, sees more than its share of owners whose ponies have wild origins on Chincoteague or Assateague Islands. A popular tourism attraction, the annual Pony Swim and Auction can sometimes pair first-time owners with wild or green animals.
“My experience was with a four-year-old Chincoteague Pony named Spirit. I was unsure of myself and her,” says Shannon Lindsay, of Chincoteague, Virginia. “My ten-year-old son and I had fear issues due to horse-related accidents. Caroline taught me to be there for Spirit. I now ride with confidence, and my son and I are having fun.”
The relationship Caroline once shared with Brandy lives on in the horses and people she has helped since launching The Tao of Horsemanship™ and DVD series. Just as Brandy once waited for her at the end of each school day, our horses are waiting for us, to be present with them, to listen to them, and to communicate not as rider and servant, but like Rider and friend.
To learn more about Rider Horsemanship and Caroline’s 2009 clinic schedule, visit www.riderhorsemanship.com.