University of Vermont AAHS


Why I Call It Harmony 

Jan Dawson
President, AAHS


[Reproduced from Caution:Horses, Vol. 2, No. 2 Spring/Summer 1997]

People are always asking me why do we call this column "Harmony". Is it a plea for world peace? Or am I referring to Ray Hunt's wonderful book, "Harmony with Horses". Or maybe I have a secret desire to sing in a barbershop quartet.

It's none of the above. The title refers to that elusive feeling between horse and rider when everything is working; when the horse's feet are extensions of the rider's body and when the rider's hands truly belong to the horse. It is that perfect round of jumps. It is that rejuvenating trail ride when both the horse and the rider return refreshed and exhilarated.

"Harmony" also refers to those riding lessons when everything goes right; those times when the student can perform easily and accurately all of the teacher's instructions and the lessen horse is happily enjoying his work as well. In a harmonious barn the school horses look forward to their lessons as much as the students. In this barn the instructor looks forward to the lessons as well. They are not a chore, but a rewarding challenge.

HARMONY is a state of mind, a safe state of mind.

That all seems like a tall order but can be done. Here is the recipe:

1. The instructor must plan her week. What horses will be used with which students. She will also rough out her lesson plans and have her goals for each lesson clearly in mind.

2. The instructor will not over-schedule any horse. She will ask that the horse do only what he is comfortable doing. An uncomfortable horse is a dangerous horse. If it is necessary to make the horse briefly uncomfortable in order to teach a new skill or refine an old one, this should be done out of the lesson situation or, if within the lesson format, only with advanced students and then with great care. That is horse training and as a general rule that should be done by the instructor.

3. The instructor will always remember that requests made to the horse must be clear and only ask that the student make such requests as can be made clearly given the student's level of skill. The level of difficulty should go up in small increments. It is good to remember that the horse cannot think. He can only respond to pressure. If a request is made and the horse responds incorrectly, it is good to ask again more carefully, perhaps "rephrase" the question. Most horses think they are right and it is the rider who needs to be more clear. Even at the beginner level this is usually a serious issue, especially to the horse. And if it is important to the horse, it should be important to the instructor, as well.

4. The same rules hold for the student. The student must be reasonably able to do what is asked so increments should come slowly and in small bits. It is extremely important to understand that the student usually thinks he or she is doing what the instructor asks. Rather than becoming frustrated with continued failures, consider that the student must not be understanding the instruction, What the instructor is saying may not be what the student is hearing. Just as a trainer would do with a young horse, if the student seems to make a mistake consider rephrasing the request.

5. We must teach the student to listen to the horse to see if the application of the aids or cues have been understood; and we must listen to the student to see if our instructions were clear.

6. This is the most important ingredient. The instructor must have absolutely clear in her mind what skills are being taught. The instructor must understand each skill so that she can verbally explain each skill in a step-by-step manner. In most instances the parts of a skill must be performed in a specific order or the skill itself cannot be performed at all. For example, at the simplest level the skills for mounting must be in the correct order or the rider cannot get on the horse. Or consider the skill of a canter departure. We know that we do not want our students to be trotting faster and faster until their lesson horses fall into a canter in self-defense. No one learns anything that way. We want the student to understand how to carefully put the horse in the position to canter and then ask. The student should neither bang away with the legs nor the horse anticipate. The horse should wait until he has the whole sentence that says "canter, now". Hopefully the student's legs and hands should not say "canter sort of, like maybe sometime soon, or just forget it, NOW".

It takes two to harmonize. If one is out of tune, both sound awful. We cannot consider the horse without considering the rider, and we cannot consider the rider without considering the horse.

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