Two weeks ago I held a clinic at my farm with Andrea Walz, a certified instructor of Philippe Karl’s School of Légèreté. Légèreté is the French word for lightness. I find Mr. Karl’s philosophy and training methods to be very complementary to the tact needed to correctly ride OTTBs. At our clinic Andrea mentioned, “Your horses are like deer. They are so soft and sensitive to the hand.”
I have to thank Stephanie Durand (another certified instructor from the school) for teaching me precisely how to create lightness in my horses. I never truly understood lightness (and yes, lightness in the hand with the poll the highest point, not a horse backed off behind the bit/behind the vertical) until I rode with Stephanie last month. She taught me the key to achieving lightness with a horse is descent de main. It’s so simple, but the lifting and then quickly releasing the aid and lowering the hand (while still maintaining contact), teaches the horse to carry himself without leaning on the hand. Of course, this method varies with breed. Take for example a tank pony chugging along on the forehand and you might have to use some big upward acting demi arret with vibration to get his attention, while too much hand with an OTTB will cause him to overreact and invert.
Stephanie also taught me how to create lightness in my horses with action reaction. High and wide hands are a technique used by the school, known as action reaction, to teach a horse to take the contact with the hands. (Side note, action reaction is only done after the correct foundation using flexions in hand is established). It is not used on every horse, but if you are riding dressage with an OTTB, you will probably use a lot of action reaction. You also don’t do action reaction once the horse has learned to take the bit, or it might be more subtle than high and wide hands, perhaps a simple opening and closing of the fingers.
In the past I was making huge arm movements (yes, the school of high and wide hands), to achieve action reaction with my horses. On occasion my horses do need this reminder that they must push into my hands and take the contact. However, Stephanie taught me that OTTBs are very fine and delicate in the mouth. Rather than lifting my hands, waiting for the horse to take the bit, and then lowering, she preferred that I slowly close my fingers on the reins before I lift, and open my fingers before lowering. This subtle distinction in my hands is what my horses prefer – and it created a tremendous change in the quality of their contact. This soft and upward creates a horse with a very fine and delicate mouth that is truly a pleasure to ride.
The methods taught by the School of Légèreté differ greatly from what is traditionally taught in modern dressage. These methods are nothing new, but rather forgotten. The main idea is that you never act backwards on the horse’s mouth. When you use a backward acting hand on the mouth (see sawing your fingers backwards, pulling backwards, anything that draws your hands backward), you are essentially pulling on your horse’s mouth and inflicting pain. This is uncomfortable for the horse, and the reason why many horses do not accept contact with the bit, or if they do accept “contact”, they aren’t truly on the bit but behind the vertical.
So, how do you ride a horse if you cannot use a backward acting hand? Mr. Karl clearly outlines the solution in his book Twisted Truths of Modern Dressage. By acting upwards on the corners of the horse’s mouth (occasionally lifting the hands) the rider can communicate with the horse without inflicting pain. As a result the rider has a better connection with the horse, the horse is more likely to trust the rider’s hand, and the horse becomes much more obedient to the aids because the rider is communicating in a language that respects the horse.
Philippe Karl clearly outlines the training progression of a horse in his book Twisted Truths of Modern Dressage. By following the book, auditing clinics in Pennsylvania, and hosting open clinics in New York my horses have made tremendous progress. Once you teach your horse to trust your hand they will do (almost) anything for you.
Trust is an important condition to communicate with any horse, and the School of Légèreté is the only school that explains in detail the use of the hands to the rider and the meaning of it to the horse. In classical dressage school it all begins by the jaw yielding (flexions in hand that mobilize the jaw by lifting gently on the corners of the mouth) to relax the strong jaw-poll-neck muscles and initiates the communication and trust between the horse and the rider’s hands. This is all necessary to teach the correct language before action reaction begins.
This week I am headed off to Pennsylvania to audit the EDL Teacher’s Course taught by Bertrand Ravoux. In less than a month we have another open clinic at the barn. Stephanie Durand will return to teach a Légèreté clinic November 8-11. This is an open clinic and everyone is welcome to attend. If you haven’t had a chance to audit and learn a bit about Légèreté this is your last chance before winter cold sets in.
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