Q: How do you ride freestyle and balance that with the need for a horse to travel biomechanically correct (balanced, straight, not incorrectly bent or inverted, etc) while carrying the weight of a rider?
A: I think of it in this way ...
There are many ingredients to that wonderful balance and connection that you are describing, a full connection and a circle of energy: Free, forward energy, the feeling that the horse is 'just there' underneath you, light on his feet, accepting of connection - yet in self carriage, moving with an engaged hind leg and a strong, elastic top line.
These are not things that we humans invented ... horses already have this capacity, but yes, by sitting on them, if we don't put a focus on making it easier, we are likely making it more difficult for them.
Freestyle riding is one tool to help achieve these qualities ...
... IF you practice your freestyle in a way that focuses on this outcome. Many students think of freestyle as letting the horse just do what he wants and letting him struggle to find an answer.
To me, freestyle means giving the horse a real opportunity to feel what it is like to be trusted, light and responsible. For me, I ride freestyle (meaning having a focus to not use my reins to maintain what I am asking for) if I have a horse that is not ready to ride in connection with the reins. In other words, if I try to ride in a connection with the reins in this moment, there is a good chance he will not have a positive connection due to a long list of possible reasons.
Yes, I think we do have a responsibility to help horses develop a posture that will allow them to carry our bodies in a healthy and pain-free way ... but we must be careful not to think that the answer lies only in their mouths. Freedom to move is so important ... and remember, they know how to move their bodies better that we do.
Unless we are excellent in our efforts to use our reins to make them better, there is a high chance we are actually making it harder for them. Any problem in the body will show up in the mouth, and a mistake in the mouth will certainly negatively effect the whole body.
Once a horse has an 'issue' in his mouth, it can be more difficult to change later, so I do my best to keep the connection in the mouth as trouble-free as possible. I use freestyle to eliminate having problems in this very delicate, sensitive area of the horse ... meanwhile doing my best not to create other problems by not having that connection. The mental, emotional benefits to riding well without reins are huge ... the physical benefits can also be huge (self carriage, perfect impulsion, excellent seat connection) IF we do it well. There are many many times that I use a freestyle-type exercise for the purpose of improving my connection with the horse when my reins are there.
So then, there become two questions.
- Ideally, if we were perfect in our ability to ride our horses in connection with the reins, would we still need freestyle? And...
- In reality, since we aren't perfect, is freestyle a chance to have another avenue to achieve a quality of balance, trust and communication until horse and rider are better prepared to ride in connection with the reins?
The answer to the first question is 'Yes'.
I think the really great trainers are riding in freestyle much of the time. It comes down to your definition of freestyle. Great trainers/riders really are using their hands only for communication about connection and can drop the reins and still have a light, rideable horse.
There are many times when I am training horses, that they may start to become heavy or not positive in the connection, and there are certain 'freestyley' kinds of communications that I can return to in order to quickly interrupt the momentum of a horse beginning to fall out of balance and lean on (or hide from) the reins. For example, one reminder of a well-established exercise of 'stay on the rail and stop in the corners and relax' can be called upon, and is worth the million strong half halts that may be needed to get the same result, in a horse that gets pulling around the arena and falling in in the corners. Of course in order for that to work, I must have previously put the time in to make that a well-established and understood exercise.
I have rehabilitated many 'dressage-trained' horses that have been bored to death and abused by poor attempts to ride in connection with the reins (dressage-trained was in quotes because that must not have been dressage training the way I dream of it). With these horses I put a big focus on freestyle ... it is amazing when they finally realize they have a choice and they are trusted and they are shown that I want them to be bold and make moves on their own! Just today I was joking that I should call my system: 'The Method for the De-Petrification of the Zombified Dressage Horse'!
If your training is going well, (no matter what the technique), there is nothing like the feeling of heading off with no reins or no bridle on a horse that has been given the opportunity to carry you up and proud on his own. His posture will be up and light and engaged.
The answer to the second question is also 'Yes'.
It is a question of process versus product. There are many times I have a horse, or a student who is not ready to ride in connection with the reins in a positive way ... should they not ride? Should they go into the horse's mouth and start trying to figure out how to have a nice soft contact even though the horse is impulsive and the rider is unbalanced? No! They should be given some exercises which will develop their balance and individual responsibilities now, so later, when they are met, they will have a better chance of that connection being yummy.
The real answer is to be able to do either strategy WELL. Then you can decide which strategy each horse needs at any particular time to make the most progress. Riding with the connection or not each has their own set of benefits and pitfalls. The reality is, until we are perfect, we must choose our lesser evils and a path of least resistance.
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Karen Rohlf, author and creator of the Dressage Naturally program, is an internationally recognized clinician who is changing the equestrian educational paradigm. She is well known for doing dressage with a priority of partnership, her student-empowering approach to teaching, her virtual courses, and her positive and balanced point of view.
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