The Language Barrier

Marcos the Magnificent on a glorious day in 2015.

‘Twas brillig and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogroves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Lewis Carroll, The Jabberwocky

Dressage has a jargon all its own. We all want our horses to be ahead of the leg, working over the back, with rear engagement, up in the shoulders, and soft in the bridle, with an elastic connection. We want the horse to be straight, but to flex in the poll, bend around your leg, and to be latitudinally and longitudinally supple. In the beginning, it may as well be written in Na’vi. Through hours and hours in the saddle, each of those terms of art (and many, many others) eventually become associated with feelings, and the feelings are subjective. (What is soft in the bridle to you, may feel like a lot of pressure to me.)

No one has taught these terms to my horses, and they have shown an appalling indifference to reading books on dressage, studying tests, or even watching videos. They’ve joined no social media groups, and frankly, I don’t believe they even discuss it among themselves at the round bale.

To be fair, I have learned precious little horse language. While I can generally tell that the plaintive, wailing whinny from the horse I am riding to its herd members in the barn means something akin to “send reinforcements,” and the impatient nickers before breakfast are, “the service around here gets slower and slower,” I know nothing about the sophisticated communications that go on between them, the little grunts and huffs and tail swishes that represent their essential communications.

All this to say, we have a language barrier.

We have a language barrier at the most basic level, and the horses have made far more progress to overcoming it than I have. My horses know the words, “canter” and “trot” and “walk” and “whoa” and on the longe line, they will execute transitions between these gaits on verbal commands.

In the saddle is a bit of a different story, because my whole body becomes a chorus (or a riot) of voices sending signals to the horse. Every bit of tension that I carry, every stuck aid, every nagging, unanswered cue – they are all streaming information to the horse, potentially loudly and potentially in conflict. In order to communicate with them, the stream must be clear and unambiguous. Think of it this way. If you had twenty televisions on your wall, all on at the same time on different channels, maybe even in different languages, you would have a very hard time discerning any particular message or program. However, if only one program came on at a time, it would be easy for you to understand each message.

When you are riding your horse and asking for a leg yield, but your are busy in the reins and busy in the saddle and your leg is just stuck in a pressure position, your horse probably moves over at first, but when there is no relief, and only continuing noise, maybe he gets tense. Maybe he attempts a different response, like speeding up. There can be no understanding from his perspective that a light, well timed leg aid means move over because it is a chaos of different signals without relief.

I am working without a trainer right now, and riding outside; I do not have mirrors to check myself or a pair of eyes on me providing guidance. To help me, my husband has been taking a lot of video of me riding (and then patiently nodding or commenting as I evaluate the videos, frame by frame, and comment on my many mistakes).

Marcos working on piaffe. He could be a bit rounder, partly because of my inconsistent connection problem.

My most pressing current issue is maintaining a consistent connection. This is very important because without a good connection, there is a serious disruption in the line of communication. There are too many moments where I allow a bubble in the reins. I am working hard on this now and watching lots of videos about it on (which I recommend, by the way). I am happy to say I have made a bit of progress, even though there is still a lot of room for improvement.

Overcoming the language barrier is essential, because when your horse is ahead of the leg, working over the back, with rear engagement, up in the shoulders, and soft in the bridle, with an elastic connection, straight, but supple in the the poll, bending its back, and latitudinally and longitudinally supple, it is ecstasy. When it all converges at the same time, a moment of euphoria blooms between horse and rider. It lasts only for that moment until it requires nudging, nurturing, coaxing into the next moment and the next and the next, until you have strung together enough lovingly tended, independent moments in succession that you have a great ride. It requires a lot of commitment, a lot of effort, openness, nuance, and a heaping portion of humility. I make more mistakes than magic moments, but sometimes the mistakes are just as much fun, and they are necessary to the journey. The journey itself is the goal, a thousand, a hundred thousand, a million tiny steps with my horses.

One thought on “The Language Barrier

  1. So glad you’re back on Marcos, beautiful animal that he is. Never understood the level of detail involved in dressage. Assuming that last photo is recent, you two present a lovely scene. Kudos to Photographer Andrew too!

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