Yeah, we hear it all the time. “The horse does all the work.” Or, “The rider’s just sitting there.” And don’t get me started on what I’ve seen on Twitter.
C’mon. You know The Great Ones at anything make what they do look easy, right? The hard work, let alone the 10,000 hours it took, only shows in that they’re invisible.
Equestrian sports are team sports in which a human athlete’s partner is:
At least ten times larger. He or she has a mind of his own. (I will alternately use he and she throughout the post. Brace yourselves.)
Thinks like food.
He strides into an arena filled with predators, especially the ones who perspire out all the Brazilian beef they enjoyed at dinner the night before. He depends on the self-confidence of the rider as communicated through body language, some conscious and some not, for reassurance he’s safe.
Speaks a different language.
You must learn to speak hers. Her language is largely silent, more so in Olympic dressage, as the rider’s body communicates through pressure, positioning, and the projection of energy.
Anxiety transmits down those reins like gossip over the telephone. If the rider is afraid or nervous, her partner wonders what she has to fear.
Here’s how it’s physical for the rider:
Each extremity, even your seat and your body angle, confers a different message, even each part of an extremity.
Your hand pressure and positioning on each rein. The height at which you hold your reins. The positioning of your elbows. Your shoulders. Your breathing. The angle at which you sit. Engaging the hamstrings. Your use of your calves, thighs, and heels. Sometimes in combinations. Sometimes separately. All that positioning and breathing tells the horse what to do.
Riders have to practice that fine-tuning, as well as customize it for each horse. Each horse speaks the same language of movement and pressure, except each is an individual. Imagine how it is when we speak English with new friends with regional accents and dialects.
As for jumping and eventing?
What we don’t see on TV is riders walking the course and counting the strides to jumps before they saddle up.
Jumping is about strategy, covering the course accurately, quickly, and safely — and not necessarily in that order.
Again, all those physical cues from the rider come into play.
From mind to body to another mind.
As this article says in Horse Nation, we riders on horses are #twohearts .
We’re also two minds. Two spirits. Two different agendas who agree to work together, if only for a little while.