A new student recently told me he was diligently taking notes, carefully describing the corridor of pressures that create each a specific shape we ask horses to take when we are riding. He planned to take all his class notes and develop them into a book. Then, he figured, people could read the book, know exactly what combination of pressures created what shapes, and every movement they wanted to get would just happen like magic when they rode. It would finally make riding simple and easy.
Since any instructor or trainer welcomes initiative and forward motion that can be molded into the activity they want, I didn't say anything. I just let him go on thinking that was going to work. I knew that before long he'd be back, scratching his head and wondering why it didn't.
One of the things I knew he was going to find out was that while a corridor of basic pressures creates the feeling of a specific shape in the horse, how the horse expresses that shape depends on a whole lot of other factors that are not as easy to describe on paper as a specific combination of seat, hand, and leg.
At one level, it's kind of like recipes. I can tell you that if you mix milk, eggs, and sugar together you can make a pudding. Someone else could take that same milk, eggs, and sugar and turn them into a custard or a soufflé. There's more to the end result than just the ingredients alone.
In our theory classes here at Meredith Manor, the students get sheets of "pictograms" that show how the seat, legs, and hands are holding, driving, steadying or keeping, and so on for different shapes and gaits. One thing that sheet quickly shows a student is that sometimes the same corridor of aids can have multiple meanings to the horse.
Mechanically speaking, for example, the corridor of pressures used for a figure of eight at a walk, trot, or canter are the same. But practically speaking, the corridor feels different to the horse depending on the rider's ability to co-ordinate the whole corridor and to apply those individual pressures in it so they influence the shape of the horse's body, the direction, the rhythm and the pace. That's a whole lot of shades of meaning and those come from:
People are always looking for recipes that will help them create a particular activity in their horses. They e-mail trainers or write letters to the editors of magazines hoping to find some specific sequence of actions or steps that will always create a given result. But even though the sequence might be the same, how each segment of it is applied is going to be slightly different for every horse and rider combination. What works for one horse may not do anything for the next one, not because the sequence was wrong, but because the horses were different or the people applying the sequence were different or because either the horses or the people didn't have enough understanding of each part of the sequence to apply it or they didn't understand the whole thing correctly in the first place.
The good riders and trainers know that riding is not about mechanically applying a particular set of aids. They understand that since shades of meaning can change continually for a whole range of reasons, they can never quit riding when they are in the saddle. They must ride every stride mentally and physically. They ask the horse for a stride. Then, based on feedback from the horse's response to that asking, they may ask for the next stride by applying the same corridor of pressures exactly the same way. Or they may modify one part of the corridor of pressures to show the horse what is being asked more clearly. Or the horse's response to the asking may have developed to a point of sophistication that all the trainer has to do is sit there and let the response happen stride after stride after stride until it is time to ask the horse to change the shape. That allowing, however, is not the same as quitting or letting the horse have its own way. It's still a conscious decision from stride to stride, made with the trainer's full attention on the horse.
Every single horse and rider combination will ride a specific corridor of pressures differently depending on how much each of them knows that day, how well each can mentally focus that day, how each one physically feels that day, and all of those other things. That's both the challenge and the fun of working with horses. And it means that no matter how many horses you've ever worked with, you never stop learning.