by Mary Gallagher
I often stress to my students that riding is a process of connecting to the horse’s feet: our hands connect to the front feet, our legs to the back feet. Knowing this and training ourselves to consciously connect to the feel of the feet can enhance understanding and improve our communication with our horses. With attention and practice we can begin cooperating and synchronizing with our horse’s movement.
The key is to master one foot at a time. Getting connected to the feet is a lot like juggling. It's easy to juggle one ball, but when a second is added, suddenly things get complex. To get four balls in the air seems impossible when you are just beginning. So what do we do to make this easy in the beginning stages?
We can start by paying attention to just one foot; like in juggling one ball tossed in the air is easier to keep track of than two. In the same way we can start with one foot in a slow gate like the walk or the backup, until we develop a sense of where it is at all times.
In this series, I will introduce exercises to build awareness one foot at a time.
SIMPLE GROUND EXERCISE TO CONNECT TO FEET DAILY:
Mirror your horse. Lead your horse, leaving at least a couple of feet of lead line between you and the halter clip (or knot), walking at his side. Walking straight ahead, try to get in sync with your horse’s front feet. (Have a stick in your outside hand if your horse lags behind. A little encouragement from the stick from behind should help.)
As always, other issues may arise, such as direction, cooperation, and/or your horse respecting your space, so address those as they (possibly) happen, until you get to where you and your horse are walking straight ahead, side by side. Notice the horse’s willingness to play this game; it really is natural for them to be in harmony with other members of the herd. Once you’ve got it right, switch and do the same on the other side.
Now try this exercise over a pole or rail. If you have it right, you and your horse will step over the rail with the same foot at the very same time. Again do this from both sides.
Practice while riding. When you are ready to ride, walk your horse straight and get one hand in motion with the horse’s front foot. (Try to get to where you don’t look down at your hand.) When that hand is working well, switch hands and work on the other. Later try the same exercise riding over a pole and see if you can feel which foot stepped over first. If you are still having trouble feeling the foot, raise the pole about 3 inches and walk over it again. The extra effort the horse makes in stepping over it will make the movement of the foot obvious. Then add a second pole 3 feet from the first (it can be raised as well) see if you can pick up the motion of a hind foot. Play with this exercise a little every time you ride, you can never get too good at it.
The benefits of becoming aware of, sensitive to, and in time with the feet are many and invaluable to the rest of your riding. I’ll share more advanced exercises in later posts, but in the mean time, get good at these! Your horse will appreciate your efforts, and you will both be ready to progress as partners in synchronicity!