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The Art of riding the Icelandic horse

29. september 2009 kl. 09:15

The Art of riding the Icelandic horse

Nowadays, the terms „the art of riding“ or „artist“ in connection with riding and horsemanship, are not used as often as in the old days. More often we hear terms like: „quite a competitor“, „a pace rider“, „a sportsman“. At one point or other in time, we started to look at the results and we came to trust the judges too much, who since have controlled all riding. They are all human, with varying wits and each sees the art of riding with his own eyes. They see speed, leg action, beat and whether the horse in their opinion seems to have good willingness. These are all valuable qualities, but they're not the only criteria for judging whether you're looking at good horsemanship or artistic riding.

There's a great difference between a horse that's under control, obeying aids because he wants to of his own free will and because they help him control his body and his equilibrium so he can perform well, and a horse that fights his riders' aids, at one side or both, maintains his gaits and his balance more or less by coincidence, both on a straight track and in an oval field, and is tense and scared.

There's also a great difference between being able to persuade a fully developed and talented horse that has been trained and prepared by somebody else, to present his gaits with good results, and schooling and training a horse yourself towards such achievements. You must make him understand the aids and respond to them of his own free will, work in an equal rhythm with a strong and supple upper line and a bent neck, with low loins and high shoulders in a powerful gait with a correct beat. That's the art of riding!

Coordination – harmony – cadence

Cadence (Kadenz) is an international word from the musical vocabulary which means that, when an orchestra plays or more than one person sing together, the instruments are tuned together and the voices sound harmoniously, for example at the final tones. I think it's quite appropriate to compare the art of riding with music because these two arts have lots of things in common. Do we need more than look at the many horse names related to music: Ómur (sound, resonance), Hljómur (sound, chord, timbre), Hrynjandi (rhythm) and many others?

What is harmony or cadence in the art of riding? It's a rhythm of increased willingness under control, where the horse responds to all aids without defending himself, where he goes from one movement to another with a strong upper line and a bent neck. Such an art is the result of a lot of preparation and training. A horse that's harmonious isn't asleep, he's a horse that you can ride without anxiety while he's still very powerful. Without harmony riding isn't any good. If we loose the harmony, the horse stars to be the boss. That doesn't necessarily mean he will bolt, but he looses his trust in the rider as a leader and starts to defend himself, for example against the reins, and that could just as easily happen in walk.

With some riders and horses you can see that the horse has taken over control because he doesn't trust his rider, so he prefers to being the leader all the time. The rider sometimes is proud because he mistakes it for willingness.

Willingness – energy – concentration

In order to reach harmony quickly and well, it's often enough to have sufficient willingness, energy and concentration. I use these three words, because I think many people misunderstand the term “willingness”, which is energy and concentration. A horse can't make use of his willingness without harmony, and there's no harmony without willingness. Willingness is the psychological and physical state where a horse answers his rider's aids quickly and well, carries on with concentration and keeps it up without assistance. A horse that's willing stays in harmony during an exercise or the riding of a gait without being supported all the time by his rider.

There's a whole universe between distress and willingness. Willingness is a vibration within the horse which you can't always judge according to how he runs. We must lend a horse the willingness he isn't born with by encouraging him, and often it's enough to slow down a bit to achieve energy and concentration in such horses.

But the most difficult thing in reaching or maintaining willingness is to avoid creating tension by forcing a horse too much, like when very willing horses are forced by a steady pull on the reins or less willing horses are spurred on without pause. It's best to reach a willingness and concentration that suits the gait, exercise or increase in speed you're trying to achieve. Then, the horse does the exercise more or less by himself, with only minimal aids. Then there's a lot less risk that the rider will do too much, while his horse performs an exercise or a transition, walks or runs the various gaits or increases his speed. 

Collection – carrying – sitting down – lowering the loins

These are all words that are used to describe a horse that's well prepared for difficult exercises, particularly the tölt. He is harmonious and willing, light on the rein and has a bent neck so that rein aids work on the onset of the neck. Then the collection stars there, at the shoulders and breast. Why the breast? Because the rump is more or less kept up by muscles, a horse doesn't have collar-bones like we do. That's why he needs to get a good grip on his rump and keep it well up. Then his back can become strong and supple and he can lower his loins. All this is necessary preparation for a horse to be able to carry and collect himself, and later on for the tölt.

“Facts” yield to science

So far, people have believed that with an increased collection, the horse steps further forward with his hind legs and carries more weight on his hind legs than on his front legs. In a recent study at the Vienna Veterinarian University in Austria it has been demonstrated with precise measurements (on various horses with various riders, performing various exercises) that this isn't true.

Dr. Michael Kapaun maintains that it depends on the speed, how far a horse puts its hind legs underneath his belly and that a horse doesn't carry more weight on his hind legs when he is collected, but on his front legs. He only carries the weight for a longer time on his hind legs, so in tölt or in other difficult carrying exercises his hind legs are longer on the ground than otherwise.

To me this sounds very convincing. A free horse (not ridden) or a horse in piggy-pace carries about 60% of his weight on his front legs. A horse in tölt equals out the job of carrying weight, by bending the joints in his hind legs well an carrying the weight for a longer time, not by carrying more of the weight. Thus, his hind legs stay longer on the ground, while the front legs stay down for a shorter time and are longer in the air. This makes the horse lower at his hind quarters and higher at the front.

Knowing how to co-ordinate muscles and aids

In his excellent and informative article on horse movements (Eiðfaxi, August 1999), Magnús Lárusson mentioned a very important muscle, the neck muscle. This muscle connects the lowest cervical vertebrae with the first ribs at both sides and it provides hold, so the back muscles can stretch and the whole back muscles can stretch and the whole back can lift up while the horse lowers his loins by contracting his stomach muscles and bending the joints in his hind legs. If a horse starts to defend himself against the reins or opens his mouth, this muscle doesn't work properly anymore. That's why a horse can only achieve a correct collection when he's straight on the rein, bends his neck properly, allows the rein aids to work on the onset of his neck and thus on his whole body instead of only on his head.

Many of us have experienced it or seen it, when a horse tölts slowly in a forced manner because the rider gives him incorrect aids. We've also seen horses tölt without any force, with a correct bear, while they were ridden freely, with little or no rein contact at a greater speed. What happens is this: When the horse gets more freedom, he lowers his neck and makes his neck muscle work properly again by himself and he can work with a strong, supple back. That's why we are often not helping our horse, or even obstructing him completely from working correctly. Some horses are more prone to this kind of problem than others. A horse with a short, low set neck, will run a larger risk than a horse with a long and high set neck. The problem with this is, that a horse that carries his neck too high, can show a lot of leg action for a short time, as long as his back keeps up, because there is a muscle lying from the breast along the neck and up to the poll, which has influence on the height and length of the steps of the front legs, depending on the raising of the head. That's why it is important to allow your horse to bend and lower his neck a tiny bit, to get a hold on his front quarters, rump and back, and to achieve the raising of the head because the horse lowers his loins, contracts his stomach muscles and bends the joints in his hind legs, keeping them longer on the ground than in the air, while moving forward powerfully.

We have learned

Even though Icelanders haven't got a very long tradition of riding, they do have a tradition of horsemanship to which they have been loyal, cherishing the experience of the old artists of riding. We have been very busy studying innovations in riding and mastering them and I hope we'll never stop learning. Today we reap the rewards, particularly in matters concerning biology, of the fact that most of our best riding teachers have studied at agricultural colleges. It's very practical to know, which function muscles, bones, tendon and ligaments have.

Riding is based on three factors: Sensitivity and inherent talents, skill – to give the horse the correct aids, and science. That applies to what we've been discussing here. Those who visited the World Championships in Germany last summer, could see that these were the factors that decided who won. The horses are all so equally good that it's the art of riding that provides victory.

It was pleasant that the judges would see thins this way, but it was sad that they needed a special comparison of the horses to arrive at the correct conclusion. It will be something to look forward to, if the same quality horses and in the art of riding will be a guiding light to the judges for years to com. Then we can remember the words of the Portuguese riding genius Nuno Olívíera, who said: “The art of riding isn't necessarily to try as best you can to please some jury or other. The art of riding is a private conversation with a horse, searching for agreement and perfection.”