The concept is called "self carriage." It's a term used to describe a horse holding himself together, both physically and emotionally.
Most (not all of course) performance or traditional riders tend to think, the rider must hold the horse together with their hands and leg support. Often, even on the ground I see trainers holding their horse on a short rope. There are other ways.
On the other hand, a lot of "natural riders," tend to think they know all about self carriage, but fail to help a horse truly balance. This is often due to a lack of complete understanding of how a horse is supposed to carry a rider during performance maneuvers.
Before I get too deep however, I want to compliment both performance riders and natural riders.
The best thing about performance riders, for the most part is... they understand how a horse isn't naturally balanced enough to carry a rider through high level maneuvers and stay sound. So, all the work they do to create a balanced horse is within reason and human understanding. Even if it means holding a horse together long enough for the horse to learn what's required of them and then slowly working toward lighter hand and leg support.
The best thing about good natural riders, is they tend to give the horse more responsibility early and therefore have to do less, to manage the horses movements. They also tend to keep things slow and easier for the horse. Of course that's just a generalization.
Both styles have their place, and lots of good trainers understand both sides of the coin.
Mastery Horsemanship is the place in-between. Where riders can learn about self carriage and learn about proper balance and postural control.
Now we can get into a little more detail about what some early or novice performance riders can learn from natural riders and what natural riders can learn from performance riders. Basically, some novice performance riders try to "hold" the horse together indefinitely, rather than teaching the horse to hold himself together.
Take a look at these two pictures.
Rider holding it together with hand and leg support.
Horse holding it together by herself.
Which would you rather have?
Honestly, I like both pictures for different reasons. And I'm not suggesting a person should ever ride without a bridle. This takes incredible skill and concentration and should only ever be trained with safety in mind.
The pictures merely show that anything is possible.
What I can tell you, conceptually, about these two pictures is... The black horse would fall apart if you dropped the reins. Perhaps even quit cantering. The rider seems to be holding everything together. If the rider is a well educated rider, in time he'll be able to soften his hands and give more responsibility to the horse. He may be working toward that goal, so I can't criticize one moment in time... I can only use it as an illustration.
The white horse, on the other hand is moving without all the rider input and maintaining an elevated and engaged posture. The point is, a horse can learn to carry themselves with less rider support... in time. That doesn't mean you start there.
Even if you never attempted bridle less riding, you can incorporate the idea of self carriage into riding.
Well educated riders know how to balance a horse and soften their balancing aids (cues, or support signals). When a horse is soft in the hands and responsive to the leg cues, they can perform at higher levels, without too much rider support.
Granted, the pictures aren't identical. Anyone can see that. The concept is, however, that mastery horsemanship can teach riders about self carriage in a way that supports performance at a competitive level and... the performing arts.
To be clear, the concept of self carriage is often misunderstood. Hence I'm writing this article. Let me explain. Self carriage does not mean bridle less riding. Although a horse in self carriage can be trained to perform tasks without a bridle.
It also doesn't mean, putting your car on cruise control while you take a nap in the drivers seat. The horse does not actually carry themselves indefinitely. Nor does the horse understand every detail of your requests without some support.
The best riders, or what I call "masters", keep track of what the horse is doing on many different levels. Masters are able to monitor the horses balance, left to right, and right to left. They also monitor the horses posture, flexion, and foot placements. They focus on the horses attitude, energy levels, distraction levels and what I call, "the gas tank". In other words they know how much time they have, before the horse can't function at full capacity.
To become a master, requires, time, and excessive amounts of knowledge. This website, is designed to be that educational platform for riders of all ages and all disciplines. It's designed to be a place where Western, English, Latin, Natural, and Performance disciplines can all come together and take the best from each world.
Back to self carriage:
When it comes to self carriage, masters train their horse to take more responsibility with each task independently. Not all at once. For example:
Today and for the next week you might be working on teaching your horse to steer at the walk, with lighter hand and leg support. Next week you'll be teaching your horse to steer at the canter with less support. In the months following, you'll be asking your horse to do haunches and shoulder maneuvers with less support from you. One day you'll be teaching your horse to do flying lead changes, half-passes, piaffe, passage, vertical flexion, and more with less hand and leg support.
But don't be fooled. Just because you aren't using heavy rein support to hold the horse together, doesn't mean you don't need to train your horse to understand your goals. You may very well need your reins to teach each goal. For instance, you must teach the horse balance before you teach the horse the responsibility of holding his own balance. Which very well may be, exactly what the rider on the black horse is working on in the previous picture.
Contrary to what many "natural" trainers think, the horse is not naturally balanced for the tasks we intend to do with them. For instance, if you want to maintain the walk, but your horse keeps trotting without your consent, you must do something to help the horse know what you want. You may need your reins for a moment in time, to encourage a walk, instead of a trot. The same concept applies with cantering, flying lead changes, vertical flexion, posture, timing, foot placement, and much more.
Also, don't be fooled, that just because you aren't using heavy rein support to hold your horse, that everything is perfect. You must still maintain communication with your horse. You can't simply push a button and take a nap in the saddle. You have to think like a leader. You have to constantly monitor and make minor corrections. Those corrections might be invisible to a spectator, but you and your horse both know about every correction, and every detail in-between corrections.
Now we've nailed down a few concepts about self carriage, let me just apologize to the performance and natural riders who already get this whole concept. I don't intent to bash anybody. I want the world to improve. Both for horses and their riders. If you share this article, you can be a part of that goal with me. If you already value these concepts and have more to add, comment below.
Share, comment, like us on Facebook, and email us with any horse questions you would like me to write about.
PS. Buy the book that has changed the lives of many horses by turning horse "lovers" into horse "leaders." And get the Beginner Ground Course FREE.