By Zaneta Georgiades
In the Straightness Training (ST) programme, one of our favourite mottos is ‘ST is for the horse, the horse is not for ST,’ which means that all the exercises, steps and concepts need to benefit and enhance our horses’ lives in some way. This is why one of the basic frameworks that we learn about in the home study course and the mastery programme is about the four areas of the horse and the four areas of the rider. These areas are physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. All eight areas (the four belonging to the rider and the four belonging to the horse) need to be considered, improved, strengthened and taken care of.
The physical area of the horse
ST ensures that the horse’s basic daily needs are taken care of, that he is well fed and watered, and that he is not in any pain. Only then do you start to follow the map of the six keys of ST as well as the ST sequence, which systematically balances the horse’s natural asymmetry as well as building strength and flexibility in the horse’s body. This logical system teaches the horse the dressage movements first in walk, then trot and finally in canter from the ground. As the horse finds each exercise easier, we add our weight to their backs to ride those movements, and also take the tack away to experience those movements at liberty on the ground or ridden.
The physical area of the rider
We need to make sure that we also take care of our own bodies! It’s important to make sure that we get enough sleep, healthy food, enough water, and explore exercises that balance our own natural asymmetries. Our asymmetries affect and compound the natural asymmetries already present in our horses. We cannot expect our horses to be well-balanced, symmetrical, healthy athletes if we do not take care of those aspects in ourselves as well.
The mental area of the horse
ST provides horses with mental stimulation. The most important foundation for this is that our horses have enough space to move around in during the day and that they have interaction with other horses, preferably in a herd environment. Horses are incredibly social animals as they are, first and foremost, herd animals by nature. A herd helps a horse to learn about and practice boundary setting, personal space, leadership, partnership, togetherness, calmness and play. Space to move and interaction with other horses is a vital part of a horse’s physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health.
During training, we also make sure that our horses find the work interesting. We prevent our horses from becoming robotic by alternating between the five pillars of ST, namely groundwork, lunging, work in hand, riding and liberty, as well as flowing between leadership styles, namely telling style, hand over style and coaching style. This encourages the horse to be a thinking partner who participates with us in the accomplishment of each exercise. We do not do exercises to the horse, we practice the exercises withhim. This is why we need to expand our own mental area.
The mental area of the rider
It is essential to practice our own deep understanding of the exercises so that we truly grasp the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of what we teach our horses. Deepening and widening our understanding of the theory gives us the ability to break things down into simpler pieces and explain ourselves very clearly if our horses become confused. A famous quote from one of the dressage grandmasters, Francois Robichon de la Guerineire, says it all: “Without theory, practical application always remains uncertain.”
The emotional area of the horse
After taking care of the previously mentioned criteria first (dietary needs, space to move and interaction with other horses), we can look at developing our horses’ emotional fitness. In some horses, because of previous traumatic experiences, there can be imbalances in their emotional reactions. We use groundwork and liberty exercises to build a relationship with our horses through communication and motivation. This helps horses develop confidence in our leadership, willingness to follow our aids, and calm responses to our questions so that we can set them up for success in each step of the process.
The emotional area of the rider
For the rider, the emotional area is about practicing our own emotional fitness so that we do not react unreasonably or unexpectedly to our horses’ behaviour. If I lose my emotional balance and get into a fight with my horse, then there is no way that I can lead him back into calmness and understanding again; so it is imperative that we learn how to keep our own internal state calm and connected to our horses so that we can guide them back to harmony if they become stressed and upset.
The spiritual area of the horse and rider
This area has its foundation in the successful tending of the other three areas. We have our horses and ourselves physically well, mentally stimulated and emotionally peaceful and happy. For our horses this allows them to express themselves in their work with us and it means that they feel seen, respected and understood by us. For us it means that we keep our own spirit alive when we are with our horses and that we remember to have fun! Growing and training with our horses is an intensely rewarding process but we miss out when we are too focused on an end result, achieving perfection or worrying about what other people think. Ensure that both you and your horse feel like winners at the end of a session, that you are both left looking forward to the next hour you get to spend with each other.
These concepts are explored at length in the ST home study course and the ST Masteryprogramme. More information about these online programmes can be found at www.straightnesstraining.com.