When I teach people how to ride, I need to be able to communicate a great deal of information in a short period of time. One of the ways I do this is to use aphorisms, which Webster’s Dictionary defines as “a short, pointed sentence expressing a wise or clever observation.” If a student persists in making the same mistake, I tell them, “Even white rats learn from experience.” This aphorism is terse, gets my point across and is certainly memorable, if you are the poor unfortunate on the receiving end.
Another technique I use is to say, “K.I.S.S.,” which stands for “keep it simple, stupid.” This certainly applies to riding horses, where our final goal is elegant simplicity.
Of course, as soon as I think “simple,” all the experts I carry around in my head start talking at once, and it is hard to concentrate. (Have you seen my new bumper sticker? It says, “You’re just jealous because the voices in my head are talking to ME, not you!”)
For example, I can hear celebrated Polish novelist Joseph Conrad saying, “Thought is the enemy of perfection,” and Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes saying, “I would not give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” Or, what about the lovely quote from English critic, essayist and social reformer John Ruskin: “It is far more difficult to be simple than to be complicated.” My personal favorite is, “Genius does not consist of making the simple appear complex, but rather making the complex appear simple.” When you get down to it, the difference between bad riding and good riding is that you can’t see good riding. It’s simple; it’s just not easy.
You may be thinking that this is all interesting, but how will it help your riding on a daily basis? Try this: When you ride, don’t make things more complicated than they need to be.
For example, imagine that you are working on your horse’s dressage. Every time you turn down the centerline, he drifts to the left. Being human, you immediately turn down the centerline again, and this time, you pull on the right rein. Not only does this not help, it makes things worse. Now, he is drifting left off of the centerline, but he is bent to the right. The more you pull on the rein, the more he bends right and drifts left. Finally, some dimly remembered voices in your head (there they are again) remind you to straighten your horse with your legs, not your hands, so you try the centerline again, and close your legs. Worse. Now he is not only drifting left, but he is also starting to rush and lean against the bridle.
In frustration, you finally take a break, and think back to this column. K.I.S.S.—remember? Whenever things are going wrong, I want you to figure out, “What is it that I might be doing to cause my horse to react this way? What could I be doing to cause him to drift left?” You recall that things got worse as you added more and more aids, only to wind up in a puffing, sweating snarl of failed horsemanship. Let’s try this: When you start work again, get your horse settled and working quietly at all three paces. He has been drifting left, so “cheat” a little and work mostly on the right hand, so that the wall on your horse’s left shoulder helps to keep him straight.
When you feel a little better about how he is going, turn down the centerline again; this time, however, I want you to take away one aid, not add more. During the break, your thinking should have gone like this: “If I use one leg more than the other, my horse will move away from my active leg. I don’t think my aids lack symmetry, but let’s see.” Down the centerline you go again, but this time you keep your hands quiet, and instead of adding any aids, you merely soften your right leg. In other words, take away the aid that might be causing the problem. Ride your horse down the centerline, and observe his reactions.
Chances are you either made things better, or they stayed the same. Either way, you know more than you did a moment ago. If your horse continued to drift to the left, you at least have the satisfaction of knowing you are not part of the problem. The solution then becomes simple: Add more left leg at the girth until your horse becomes straight.