Lightness is the seam of gold we are all searching for when we ride our horses; even when we don’t realise we were looking for it. Those moments of ease and harmony are unmistakably pleasant. It isn’t always something that happens in an arena. There is a wise old saying “Get over rough ground lightly” which reminds us of a time when horses were a primary means of transport. If you do have to ride over rough ground though, it is worth taking literally.
Like many riders I discovered lightness quite by accident. I must have been about eighteen at the time and very new to dressage. I was sitting on a schoolmaster horse in a group lesson, he had been clipped that morning and we were at the back of the ride. I felt him gather under me, his neck stretched, his back began to lift and swing, it felt amazing, we were floating on air. One minute I was looking in the arena mirrors feeling rather smug and the next moment I was carted up the ride and flung on the floor. I realised that the feeling I had just before he took off was my first real taste of collection. My teacher confirmed this and pointed out that all horses are capable of giving these feelings. They already know more about lightness than we can ever teach them.
That day could have been a negative influence on my riding because that amazing feeling was linked in my mind with a violent fall. I landed badly and hurt my hip. After a rest and a week or two on the quieter school horses I was back to normal, at least on the outside. That fall had changed me as a rider forever. All I could think about was that magical feeling, how intoxicatingly perfect it had been. I wanted to know how to get that feeling and keep it, even if I was half afraid of it!
I was lucky to be based on a yard where I could see some of the lightest, loveliest dressage riding possible. I watched it avidly and soaked up the tuition and clinics that went on there. One day I was watching a man who is rightly world renowned as a rider and coach. His horses seem to dance and shimmer, always light and always happy. That became my blueprint for excellence and it still is.
So there I was, very green, very inspired and with no idea how to get from where I was to where I wanted to be. I knew my seat was part of the equation, a big part I suspected. It was a good training yard and we all knew that it was important to sit well. I took this a step further. If I wanted to ride like the man who inspired me then I had to sit like he did. That one is still a work in progress; I would say I ride in the same style and leave it at that!
There are many excellent riders and teachers of dressage but the degree to which lightness is a part of what they do varies. If you want to learn about it you must have a teacher who understands it. Within the world of high level competition there are successful riders who ride in lightness and others who do not. It is not about being able to ride the airs of high school, it is about how you ride them.
One of the secrets is to think always about allowing the moment of suspension to be a ‘jump’, of letting the horse be airborne. Nothing kills off lightness like an oppressive hand or a horse compressed tightly between leg and hand. This brings me back to my first taste of collection. When we let the horse be airborne, let the maximal power through and hold it with aids that whisper, we have to trust the horse and we have to merit it’s trust.