Erik Herbermann has very kindly allowed Arrow Equestrian to publish this article on the website. This was first published by the United States Dressage Federation in their magazine "Connections" in March 2013. Please note that this article is copyright protected and is reproduced here on condition that it is neither copied, reproduced or circulated in any way.

Animation: The Art of Tuning

By Erik Herbermann

Natural Impulsion: Readers of my book "A Horseman's Notes" may recognise this photo of Sally Cleaver's Andalusian stallion, Banbury Sampson, in an impulsive extended trot showing exemplary natural "uphill" balance - sheer exuberance in motion. Note that the stallion's front knee is bent, and his front hoof does not cross an imaginary line drawn down his face to the ground; this indicates that his back is supple and properly engaged. He shows a natural poll-high head carriage and his nose is in front of the vertical. Nature knows best! Copyright Sally Cleaver

Animating a horse's response to the aids requires skill, timing and a positive attitude.

Who among us hasn't stood in awe - with smiling amazement - when seeing horses out in pasture strutting their brilliant motion; and have wished we could re-create such grandeur while riding? Though fulfilling such a dream may seem an imposing challenge, I believe it is possible to find some promising ways of approaching this goal, if we carefully analyze the essential ingredients which spawn that delightful movement in the horse.

What the old masters say
Among the most important elements to achieve our objective, the horse's forward desire is surely at the top of the list. The old masters repeatedly identified forward energy as the very life-blood of horsemanship - indispensable for achieving balance and ultimately the liberation of the horse under saddle. In addition, they explained that unbalanced horses can not carry the rider properly and how this deficiency causes the creature's body and joints to suffer; leading to all manner of lameness. What greater incentive could there possibly be to want to develop the skill of 'tuning' the horse effectively so that lively responses are gained from small animating aids?

Looking for guidance
How can we set about this important task on the right foot? A good place to start is to observe the horse's own natural tendencies and to analyze the difference - other than the obvious - between horses at liberty and those under saddle. That which strikes me first is that horses know best how to move their own body! It is essential to believe and trust in that implicitly and allow them to do just that - move their own body. We may, however, still need to remind them to use that talent a bit more liberally at times!

What awakens the energy?
What, then, ignites that exhilarating movement which causes the horse's whole body to take on a more beautiful, unified form? The answer surely lies in the creature's highly impressionable nature. Horses are great enthusiasts at heart and are readily stimulated by the tenor of their surroundings - which includes the rider. When excited by circumstance, energy bubbles up irrepressibly from their remarkable spirit which impels that magical dance to float forward with elastic ease.

Tapping into the source
Luckily, we can deliberately tap into the horse's delightful openness to suggestion by calling on the power of our own creative enthusiasm! In other words, we can succeed by becoming our horse's motivational speaker! Just as we can hardly resist an infectious laugh, or find it hard to sit still when hearing a bouncy tune, so too the highly impressionable horse will almost always want to partake in the excitement of the rider's catchy new game. Isn't that how horses set each other off? One rambunctious youngster 'high-blows', kicks up his heels and sets the whole herd galloping off in a playful frolic. It seems patently impossible for them to resist joining in on such electrically-charged moments.

Sensitive horses and animation
For sensitive horses our 'inspiration' must first come in the form of calming, trustworthy leadership. It is essential that animating influences only come into play once the horse is truly relaxed and 'drivable'. Tense or nervous 'rushing' should not be confused with true forwardness. Nevertheless, once high-strung horses do become calm and trusting, they usually also become quite lazy. Thoroughbreds often display this trait. Thus the 'inspiring animation' mentioned above also becomes beneficial in such cases.

Animating lethargic horses
When the rider's natural animating aids (the seat/position and leg, fortified by an 'inspiring' attitude) do not achieve adequate responses, then the stick or spurs - the artificial 'aid-amplifying' tools - need to come into play. Contrary to what one might think, however, the 'tuning' or 'sensitizing' of seriously dulled or lethargic horses, exacts a high degree of finesse and experience on the rider's part. Tuning must be deftly matched to the horse's temperament and the circumstances at any given moment. 'One size' does not fit all! To be inspiring and assertive during 'tuning' while avoiding aggression or animosity is challenging - a delicate line to walk. Right can turn to wrong very quickly by neglect or overdoing. Horses easily lose confidence in the rider, which unleashes a whole can of unwanted worms.

The golden middle ground
As with virtually any subject, extremes are unhelpful. Neither the faint-hearted soul, nor the aggressive, disrespectful or insensitive individual will succeed in the task of horsemanship. Besides the obvious need for equestrian skill and understanding based on adequate experience, the finest leadership is a state in which inner strength, confidence and purposefulness is merged with compassion, gentleness and patience.

How are horses dulled?
Horses are usually dulled because the rider lacks clarity and consistency. The creatures are numbed by vague requests and tormented by the ceaseless background 'noise' of meaningless, ineffectual, monotonous aids. Riders are usually not aware of such unhelpful habits. Moreover, horses may also be dulled by riders who - being full of well-meaning - feel it is unkind to backup the driving aid with either the stick or spur, other than half-heartedly so. Predictably, the horse responds with disinterested lethargy and requires constant cajoling to barely move one foot in front of the other. Of course, no one who sincerely loves horses wants to use the stick or spur more than is absolutely necessary. But, as the leader of the equestrian partnership, it is simply part of the many challenges of riding to learn how to help horses to respond energetically to fair and reasonable animating aids.

The horse's perspective
It is important to realize that even after twenty years of perfect training horses never know why things feel better or worse while being ridden. Their way of thinking is largely reactionary, rather than more visionary, conceptual, or deductive such as ours can be. As remarkable as horses appear to be at solving certain problems, when they feel ungainly under saddle, it would never occur to them to deduce, 'Oh, I know what's wrong, I feel a bit unbalanced, so if I generate more forward energy from my hindquarters, I'll regain my balance and feel better again!' Clearly, the rider's inspiring input is indispensable . . . "The rider's purpose gives the horse reason to act!"

The rider's assignment
It is the rider's task to bring the horse clearly up to an 'energy level' of, let's say, '8' (on a scale of '1' to '10') and then to show the horse that it is his responsibility to continue to move himself at that level. It is indeed not the rider's responsibility to constantly 'keep the horse going'! The rider's job is to show the horse what is wanted and then to delegate that. Delegating is done by leaving the horse strictly alone after he responds. That is, we must 'neutralize' or 'silence' the leg aids and - equally important - trust the horse implicitly to continue to do that delegated task on his own. Only once the energy level drops below '7' should we again remind the horse of his part of the bargain by refreshing the energy level back up to '8'. At first, the horse may lose energy quite quickly, after just one or two steps. But with consistency and quiet persistence the number of steps between 'reminders' soon increases . . . "Up to eight, and delegate!"

The power of small
If a horsefly weighing a tiny fraction of an ounce can animate a 1200 pound horse into action, it shows us how illogical it is to think we need physical strength to ride. Good aiding addresses the horse's mind to inspire him to move his own body. Clearly, all we need to do is to let the horse know that our 'tiny' aids are horseflies and that the annoying 'flies' will go away when he responds. If the horse does not respond, we can back up our requests by letting the 'spur fly' or 'stick fly' buzz a little louder, or even 'sting' a bit, should that be necessary. Of course, we need to use our backup 'flies' tactfully - sufficiently to help the horse understand that he should respond while remaining mentally calm; but not so much or carelessly that we either frighten or aggravate him into assuming self-protective attitudes.

'Sensitized' versus 'dulled'
Most horses can either be 'dulled' or 'tuned' very quickly. In either case the result has little to do with the horse, but has primarily to do with the talent and level expertise of the rider. Critical to success is the sense for timing and the clear 'black' and 'white' ('carrot' and 'stick') contrast between the moment of 'tuning' and the 'praise' immediately afterward. 'Contrast' is the strength and clarity of the aid! With the vast majority of horses, especially more sensitive ones, an occasional little 'tap-tap' reminder with the stick behind the inside leg, or a quick 'prick-prick' with the spur is sufficient to achieve better responsiveness. However, when initially changing the listless habits of lethargic or seriously dulled horses, the 'tuning' may briefly need to be somewhat more substantial. In this case, it is best to use only a single, more emphatic stroke with the stick. It is essential to keep in mind, however, that 'tuning' has absolutely nothing to do with aggression or punishment! And senseless, disproportionate venting of frustration or anger on the horse is never acceptable.

Fairness and kindness
The hallmark of suitable 'tuning' is its absolute brevity, the rider's 'clarity of purpose' and 'consistency' of expectations. Horses have an uncanny sense for fairness - for 'reading' the actual intention of our hearts. On this score, the horse will not be deceived! Therefore genuine benevolence of the rider's heart, combined with calm emotional detachment is central to success. Our aiding needs to be applied with unconditional goodwill and honourable purpose.

Indecision, inconsistency, endless pushing, shoving, whacking, spurring, coarse half-halting or constant 'sawing' on the horse's mouth - 'trapping' the horse forcefully between the bit and the driving aids (thinking to get the horse 'round' and his head down 'in place') -are truly the greatest indications of unkindness and unfairness. They are entirely out of place in honourable riding. Furthermore, it must be considered grossly unfair to 'awaken' the horse with stick or spur and then end up being asleep at the switch oneself - not fully prepared to consistently maintain that better level of expectation from ourselves! It is only fair to 'tune' when we are committed to keep our mind on the job and expend the necessary concentration - that vital conveyor belt of 'Thought Fuel', 'Purpose Fuel', 'Intention Fuel' - indispensable 'energy ingredients' on which horses 'run'. The moment riders stops concentrating on their purpose, the horse is instantly left abandoned in a 'purpose vacuum', deprived of the rider's Leadership Fuel. Easy-going horses stop working. Clever horses take over the leadership role, seldom a pleasant experience for the rider.

The actual 'tuning' procedure . . .
With a clear, decisive purpose in mind and with the seat and position well 'engaged', we must give a small active animating aid with the leg, as our encouraging 'inner aiding voice' says, "Let's go! More forward now!" If the horse does not respond, we must instantly re-aid with the leg and simultaneously back up that aid with the stick - making it absolutely clear that we expect a response. When the horse does subsequently respond, however slightly, immediately silence the leg - stop! giving! the! aid! - and PRAISE sincerely. Praise - that is, genuine appreciation and gratitude - is THE indispensable partner to 'tuning'. This entire aiding cycle should take less that a second. It may be repeated as necessary to incrementally raise the response to the desired level. When 'tuning', it will be found helpful to want to feel (expect!) a clear forward 'surge' from the horse to each and every animating aid.

Remember that fly . . .
It is important to underscore that the natural leg aid should only be given with light pressure. This applies even if the horse has been seriously dulled. Because, if we think it necessary to use strong leg aids during 'tuning', the horse will always wait for that stronger aid before beginning to respond ("Uh, Oh, I better get going", says the horse, "The rider really means it now!"). Therefore the desired progression of responding to ever smaller, invisible aids will not occur.

What should the hand do?
When tuning, it is crucial to have a clear forward-giving attitude with the hand. To be concerned about keeping the horse's head down in position, especially during the initial 'tuning' phase - or to think of half-halting or balancing before consistently good responses are achieved from the driving aid (riding with the foot on the gas pedal and the brake at the same time) - only confuses the horse and sabotages the simple clarity and success of our 'forward tuning' message.

After the 'tuning'
Each time after a 'tuning' aid has been given with the stick or spur, it is important that the next driving aid is again given lightly with the leg alone. This gives us the chance to evaluate whether or not the horse is beginning to respond without needing backup reminders with the artificial aids. Should the response be lethargic, then the whole 'tuning' procedure should be repeated until better responses are achieved from a light leg aid alone.

Constructive thinking
It is best to put aside any negative thoughts about what a 'slug' the horse is - however true that assessment might actually be! Such thoughts cause the aiding to be tainted with unhelpful attitudes such as reproach, criticism and resentment. Or when aids are given out of emotional exasperation (having to 'get mad' before asserting ourselves), they will similarly not achieve satisfactory results. The horse feels personally accosted and will react in a negative, self-protective manner. Furthermore, 'labeling' the horse as a slug is a self-defeating confirmation (etched in the rider's mind!) which the horse then readily adopts. Yes indeed, the horse can read our heart and mind, and will consequently ignore the rider's endless pushing and shoving, saying, "Move me, if you can!" By contrast, the experienced rider thinks of every horse as 'Twinkle Toes', and says to the horse with a bright, positive attitude, "Come on! Let's go! I trust you to move yourself! I just want to sit here!"

Signs of acceptable 'tuning'
How can we know if our 'tuning' approach is acceptable? Here we should consult the expert - the horse himself! When the above-mentioned guidelines have been well applied with a genuinely benevolent heart, the horse will remain mentally calm while increasing in forwardness literally within a very few minutes on smaller leg/seat/position aids only. Soon the stick or spur become less needed. In this way, under the deft leadership of a competent rider, the horse's willing contributions are tactfully evoked and his child-like 'enthusiasm to please' begins to blossom. From then on, normal 'tuning' (an occasional little 'tap-tap' reminder with the stick) is all that is needed to assure adequate levels of forward energy.

Signs of unacceptable interaction
If a horse seems to need frequent strong 'tuning' with stick or spur during any one ride (or worse yet, every day again), it is a sign the work is of the poorest order. Either the rider's attitude is unsuitable, or the necessary consistency, skill and sensitivity is lacking whereby the horse is repeatedly more dulled than tuned. The horse then either ignores the strong, nagging aids and becomes ever more anaesthetized to preserve his sanity; or, if continually pushed unfairly, his rightful disapproval will surface.

The best equestrian training . . .
High quality horsemanship requires of us sound character and absolute integrity - the engagement of all that is good and worthy in us. Through daily practice we need to learn to master ourselves, especially the quality of our heart and the merit of our thoughts - that is, we need above all to learn to 'ride' and control our 'inner horse'. The better we are at that, the sooner the outer horse will, like magic, be easier and more enjoyable to work with. In this way the delight of finding true harmony with our beloved four-legged friends will have an ever greater chance of occurring.

Animate thoughtfully and have a wonderful ride!

©Erik Herbermann. 2013.

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