“Do you give the horse its strength
or clothe its neck with a flowing mane?
Do you make it leap like a locust,
striking terror with its proud snorting?
It paws fiercely, rejoicing in its strength,
and charges into the fray.
It laughs at fear, afraid of nothing…”
Since the creation, the dawn of the human race and establishment of the diversity of God-given creatures, the LORD has appointed man to “have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on earth” in Genesis 1:26. He has bestowed upon the human race the responsibility of caring for and possessing authority over His precious creation; animals. Currently, scientists have both identified and classified over 1.2 million species of animals, one of which is the horse.
From a tender age, God seemed to have wired into my heart a hard drive within which my love for horses resides and continues to manifest to this day. As a competitive equestrian and servant of the most high God, I believe that it is my job (considering I have a passion for horses) to glorify God in working with them and discovering how God reveals Himself through the wondrous beasts He’s handmade for humanity to take pleasure in.
On account of our daily training, here’s the lowdown on what it’s like to do a basic conditioning session with an equine athlete…
Pictured above is my horse Pepperoni. Like a dog, Pepe (and all horses) also require the necessary training to qualify their services as safe pets or even athletes. They require one’s undivided attention, genuine commitment, and loving respect. In order to have a solid relationship with any trainable animal, both beast and human must establish discipline in their routine of daily life as companions and teammates. As august as horses are, they are not perfect and do often vary from day to day (regarding their performance). Therefore, as a rider, I must take into account what I can do in order to aid my horse in making proper use of his body for the benefit of his health and his athletic career as a showjumper.
When at the reins, the utilization of the legs and hands are vital in communicating with a horse. A common misconception to the viewer about equestrianism is that the rider “just sits there.” I can assure you that’s not remotely close to the truth. Did you know that the common horse’s neck is four times stronger than the human body alone? Riders don’t “muscle down” their horses to control them; they finesse them. As a rider, one must consider the ratio of leg-to-hand to use when working with a horse. The ratio of leg pressure against a horse’s barrel (sides) and hand against the bit often depends on the horse and their innate mechanisms of carriage.
For Pepperoni, he tends to become heavy in the front end of his body and extends his neck out in front of his chest. Considering he has a slightly heavier, more bulky and compact body type, the potential that he has to properly use his muscle mass and exercise his musculoskeletal figure should not go to waste. With that, he also prefers to bulge with his outside shoulder. This means that he distributes more of his body weight on his outside shoulder (whichever one is facing the fencing of the arena), which mars the straightness of his body in motion.
Quality carriage throughout the horse’s body is crucial to performance; it’s a cardinal element to training a horse to use their body correctly and exercise their muscles properly. That way, they move soundly (healthier throughout the structure of their being, not injured). Without posture, horses become crooked throughout their frame and their pace is inconsistent, as is their impulsion deriving from the hind end. These identifications of simple errors are a prelude to fixing the problems.
Now that a few errors have been called to attention, it’s time to train them out of Pepe’s system. The instant I mount, I always start by wrapping my legs around the barrel and shortening my reins at a respective length so that I have contact with the mouth, yet the pressure spanning from the bit to my hand isn’t too tight in Pepe’s mouth. Once I have a good feel of where his body is between my hand and legs, we get to work.
While in motion, I apply more pressure to Pepe’s sides with my inner calves, elevating my upper body with my core, and carrying the reins slightly higher over his neck, so that the ratio from leg to hand is fairly balanced and Pepperoni feels the elevation of his rider. In doing so, it tells him to elevate his stomach and ultimately his back, so that he’s carrying the middle section of his body correctly. Furthermore, I am constantly balancing the ratio from hand to leg so that Pepperoni is proceeding forward straight throughout his body and within my aids, regardless of his gate.
With this being said, he should also be engaged in his hind end. In other words, he uses his back legs and haunches to rhythmically propel himself forward as a whole. Therefore, he has a feeling of rhythmic impulsion rotating throughout his entire body.
With the rhythmic impulsion deriving from the hind end, I now am in the position to ask Pepe to carry his head and neck properly. In order to do so, I keep him engaged in brisk, motivated pace while subtly caressing the reins between my fingers. That way, the contact from the bit to my hand should slightly move in his mouth, causing him to (with his head and neck) respectfully capitulate to the pressure of my leg and hand as well as the rest of his body working correctly mechanically. In the eye of the observer, his neck should be gracefully rounded so that his face is in a vertical position with a light, buoyant feeling about the front end of his body as the rest of his frame is rhythmically in a compact motion. At length, the previous description should depict what it looks like to have a horse utilize their frame properly at all three gates (walk, trot, and canter) as well as over fences (jumping).
Regardless of the animal one may have and their process of training or athletic conditioning, it’s important (especially as a Christian) to acknowledge the responsibility God has given us and to be thankful that we daily witness among the approximately 1.2 million intriguing species known to man, spoken into existence and breathed to life by God.
In considering this, I always pray over Pepperoni after riding, thanking God for giving me the privilege to have him in my life not solely as an athlete, yet also as a companion and member of the family. John 15:12 says, “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.” In that, the love of Christ should not only be distributed from man to man, but also from man to beast, respecting Christ’s command and inherent task for us to have dominion over His creation.
Photo Credit: Paige Heaney