The Goldilocks Principle
Or…what a child’s story has to do with horse training
Most of us are familiar with the children’s story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. If you can overlook the notion that Goldilocks seems to have little respect for other people’s homes or property, you will notice a theme in her explorations—in any situation regarding choice, neither extreme was quite right. Taking the middle road always led to the greatest degree of satisfaction.
I have come to embrace the “Goldilocks Principle”, as I have nicknamed it, in teaching riders and training horses. I have been gratified to recognize that many other accomplished horse trainers subscribe to a similar philosophy.
Take contact, for example. In dressage training, it is not correct to pull strongly on the reins, nor is it appropriate to ride with reins which are completely loose and floppy, in most circumstances. The “ideal” is a length of rein and strength in the weight which allows for a steady, consistent, elastic feel between the bit and the rider’s elbow. So, you know, something in the middle.
When you are getting ready to jump your horse, Denny Emerson always tells riders to look for the “adjustable jumping canter”—which he also calls the “middle canter”. The middle canter is not fast, rushed and tense, nor is it lazy, four beated or “tranter-y”. It has forward intention, and just enough jump. The rider can ask the horse to change the shape of their stride, but they always have the power available. Again, it is somewhere in the middle.
If we think about equitation, in its truest sense, we also avoid extremes. The rider should always remain balanced over the horse’s center, which occurs when the ear/shoulder/hip/heel line is maintained. The correct position for the rider’s lower leg: not too far ahead or too far behind center. Ideal is “somewhere in the middle.”
The Goldilocks Principle. You never knew that the story was about horse training, but Goldilocks got it right.
And while we are talking about training philosophies….
I was reading a fellow blogger’s post, where the author discussed that the training process isn’t always pretty. This is another concept which I find I consistently come back to in helping riders and horses to improve. When you try a new skill out—salsa dancing, throwing clay on a wheel, drilling a fence board on straight, whatever—do you typically pick it up effortlessly, or do you sometimes struggle a bit? I know for me, some new things come easier than others, but in most cases, it is clear that I am a neophyte. Why should it be any different for our horses? Some new things they will pick up quickly, but others will require a process of trial and error to get right.
The same is true for riders. Some people seem like naturals; maybe they have an inherent sense of balance, or timing, or “feel”—we kind of hate those people. Most of us have to experiment, make mistakes and apply aids in different combinations or intensities before we figure out what it is we are trying to do. It is okay if new skills don’t come easily. But it is important to know that what we are asking the horse to do is appropriate and fair, and that we are asking them in a manner which makes sense.
Riding horses is a complex, active sport. Equestrians always laugh when we hear comments such as “the horse does all the work”. Sure, at the end of the day it is our horse which gets us over the fence, up the mountain or down center line. However, that can only occur when we have achieved clarity in interspecies communication, combined strength and suppleness in our own bodies such that we appear to be still on an object in motion, and done enough preparation work to set the horse up to successfully complete the task at hand.
What makes riding a partnership is that sometimes they mess up and we help them out. Sometimes we make the mistake and they save our skin.
And sometimes we get it just right, and things come out somewhere in the middle. The Goldilocks Principle.