The Chi of Riding in Lightness
What Is Chi?
Simply put, the Chinese character chi represents the energy that resides within all living things. In Chinese culture, the practice of tai chi and qi gong (chee kong) evolved, in part, as a way of mastering the flow of chi within the human body.
Understanding and mastering energy flow is key for advanced riding. Once you learn to feel energy flow within your own body, you will feel it within your horse as well, opening a pathway for extraordinary communication between horse and rider.
What Does It Mean to Ride in Lightness?
The equestrian concept of “riding in lightness” is based on the premise that the horse can become so efficient with the flow of energy within his body that he will fully engage forward from the rider’s seat without any driving force from the rider’s legs; and once strengthened, he will be able to sustain an educated balance without resistance in the rein or holding by the rider’s hands. Those who practice riding in lightness contend that the impulsion and response created through this soft connection
unleashes the horse’s power in its purest form. They further assert that riding in lightness develops a distinct, often intuitive bond between horse and rider that is unequalled in any other method of training. It is important to understand a little history, so in a nutshell, riding in lightness evolved from the French equestrian School of Versailles during the 1700s. In particular, the French riding master François Robichon de la Guérinière is credited with its inspiration. Master de la Guérinière originated
the shoulder-in movement, proclaiming it the essential exercise for all training. In the 1800s François Baucher, while controversial to this day, created his legacy by asserting the benefit of flexions in order to achieve lightness to the rider’s aids.
Also called the “artistic school” or “academic equitation,” riding in lightness has been guided into our time by modern masters, principally the late Nuno Oliveira in Portugal. Students of Master Oliveira, and the many who learned from his students, have maintained a dedicated following and have preserved his principles.
Why Use the Term “Lightness”?
Many of Oliveira’s followers, in my opinion, have become masters in their own right and some of them may argue that the term “riding in lightness” is redundant since all serious riding strives for the utmost in lightness. But down here in the trenches, I relish the term because so few riders have heard of anything but the leg-and-hold method. By emphasizing lightness (and a specific order of training to get there) more riders will learn there is another way and, accordingly, I believe, become better
horsemen and horsewomen. The ideals of lightness are not exclusive to dressage. In recent years trainers within the
“natural horsemanship” movement have advanced the concept. Although not completely aligned, natural horsemanship and riding in lightness are all-inclusive: Every rider and every horse, in every discipline, can benefit from the unique awareness, suppleness, and strength that develop through the practices of these training methods. What I have come to realize is that this “unique awareness” is energy awareness. Throughout the rest of the article, the terms horse and rider are interchangeable because there is virtually no difference between how energy passes, or is blocked, through the horse’s body and how it flows
through the rider’s body. This is also true for the terms tai chi and dressage because they use such
similar techniques to improve all the elements of energy flow.
Pathway to Energy Awareness
For me, tai chi and dressage not only share a common intellectual understanding of physical movement but also develop the physical ability to perform such movement artfully. This morning I watched my horse perform a classic travers movement in the field with all the roundness and sophistication as when I am on his back. He was keeping another horse from entering his “space” at the time, but the point is that he has so well learned the efficiency of energy flow that he assumes that
learned porition of balance and uses it routinely. It took tai chi and qi gong exercise (pronounced chee kung) for me to gain an instinctive feel for artful movement. Qi gong literally means energy mastery. I readily acknowledge that, for me,
much of the artfulness is a picture in my mind because I have reached an age that puts limits on gracefulness. But I can call up enough relaxed movement when I am in the saddle to give myself a real sense of satisfaction with my riding. Other forms of relaxation and exercise can produce similar results, and I have tried many of them, but for me tai chi and qi gong struck a cord that the others missed. Please note that each horse and each rider will begin training with their own perception of
relaxation, balance, and areas of stiffness that restrict the flow of energy within the body. Training and exercise will relax the joints and supple and strengthen horse and rider, eliminating so-called “energy blocks” and developing an enhanced natural gait or riding position infused with a flow of movement that has an educated center of balance. To bring horse and rider into harmony, energies must unite. The Way We Were As a child and adolescent without much formal riding training I was always “in the ribbons” at recognized shows. I was told I was a natural. But then something happened to me just as it does to
many other amateur riders—it’s called life. For us adults, the stress of juggling work, family, and other interests with the horses we love creates a fast-paced environment that changes our breathing, relaxation, rhythm, alignment, and balance so we no longer come to our riding with the same demeanor or posture. This change is often imperceptible. We’re competent equestrians, but as we subconsciously compensate for these physical changes, we ride more stiffly and our horse moves
less fluidly. It often takes a video camera and an honest eye to recognize the change. What Comes First?
The slowness of tai chi and qi gong compels you to breath, relax, align, and balance with all the freshness of youth and produces the same artful movement for the rider as dressage can do for the horse. And because the horse’s natural rhythm is slower than ours, practicing the exercises teaches us to better align our energy with theirs (an important factor that eludes many riders.) Think about following the energy flow as you ride. We all know that the horse’s impulsion is generated
in the haunch and moves forward along the spine. In order to attain the lift in the chest and shoulders necessary for advanced work in any equestrian discipline, the energy created in the haunch must reach and pass through the withers with sufficient intensity to support lift. But tension (within the horse and rider) deadens thrust, causing that intensity to wane. Many riders compensate by increasing their aids to produce more impulsion when in fact stronger aids dull the horse’s natural
sensitivity—and can produce forced or false movement. The slowness of tai chi and qi gong compels you to breath, relax, align, and balance with all the freshness of youth and produces the same artful movement for the rider as dressage can do for the horse. And because the horse’s natural rhythm is slower than ours, practicing the exercises teaches us to better align our energy with theirs (an important factor that eludes many riders.)
Think about following the energy flow as you ride. We all know that the horse’s impulsion is generated in the haunch and moves forward along the spine. In order to attain the lift in the chest and shoulders necessary for advanced work in any equestrian discipline, the energy created in the haunch must reach and pass through the withers with sufficient intensity to support lift. But tension (within the horse and rider) deadens thrust, causing that intensity to (Force produces tension, and
energy movement through tension is strained and less free-flowing.) Proponents of riding in lightness believe you must first teach both the horse and rider to process energy more efficiently. The rider can then utilize the more free-flow of energy movement to advance the horse within a range of motion that can be balanced with lightness to the aids. Other
schools accept force (meaning driving with the leg and holding energy in the hand) to advance the horses training. This approach produces free-flowing energy over time, so it is ultimately possible to use less force and become lighter with the aids. Horses trained to similar levels under these different methods can appear alike to an untrained eye, but be poles apart to ride. This is where personal perception becomes important: What defines “light”? Is lightness two pounds or two ounces of
pressure in the rein? Is allowing your leg to “lean” at the horse’s side too much? How do you train yourself to be so aware and so feeling?
A Pathway to Energy Mastery Learning the mind/body connection of “pushing” energy through tai chi and qi gong movement can
give the rider a heightened degree of sensibility along with an understanding of how both horse and rider process energy to perform and balance (advanced) movement. When the rider accepts energy from the horse through his/her seat, he/she can then transfer energy back to the horse by pushing it through the rein (through their thoughts). The energies of horse and rider can then co-mingle and produce an exquisite union between horse and rider. The ability to have lightness and connect with the horse at a deep intuitive level occurs when the energy flow is pure. The less tension that exists in either horse or rider, the purer the flow of energy. You do not need to be an Olympic-level rider to feel energy in this fashion. I made dramatic
changes in my riding after practicing tai chi and qi gong for just one year. I began to ride with a different mindset as soon as I started the program. It is easy to lower you breath and relax once you have the physical tools and the intellectual understanding to make and maintain the changes. Eliminating tension through proper breathing and relaxed movement allows more oxygen and blood to flow through the muscles. David Ritchie describes in Riding with Chi how a relaxed body
transfers energy fast, whereas a tense body impedes energy movement. This directly relates to giving aids to the horse, for instance. Patricia Norcia discusses how without a keen mind/body connection, we tend to give an aid and hold it far too long. Aids need to be applied fast and immediately released. An aid can pulsate when necessary, but the need to prolong an aid is evidence of energy blockage. In the example I used earlier, if the horse’s energy travels freely and can pass through the rider easily, the horse’s chest will lift with little activity from the rider—and certainly without force. The horse, once
tuned to respond to lightness, will work with the rider toward an ever-heightened level of sensitivity as both become more energy efficient. Because some tension exists naturally within all movement, it is the degree of relaxation that
becomes an important measure for riding in lightness. Relaxed movement is not limp; it is poised and ready to respond. Mark Russell emphasizes how the rider needs to be supple within their relaxation so the horse’s energy can move through their body and not be blocked by stiffness or tension. This is how energies unite and move as one. I hope riders will listen to the discussion on Disc 1 of Riding with Chi with an open and inquisitive mind and try all the exercises on Disc 2. Together, we believe, they form a powerful tool for improved riding, whether you are a firm believer in the concept of lightness or just want to achieve more lightness in your riding. That is why all of us involved with Riding with Chi decided to bring this
message to the marketplace…to openly discuss energy in terms of tai chi principals, how these principals are aligned to riding in lightness, and promote all the elements necessary to put more riders on a pathway to energy mastery.
Copyright © Andrea Steele, 2009