Equitation/Chapter 16

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BY "legs" one means always the leg below the knee. The thighs remain always in permanent contact with the saddle, and always entirely independent of any movement or pressure of the calves. The common expressions of riding-teachers, "Close your legs," "Use your legs," "Fermez les jambes," refer, then, only to the free portion of the limb. They do not mean, as many beginners mistakenly suppose, that the horse's body is to be enveloped by the whole leg from hip to ankle!

The legs, including the feet, are the second mobile part of the rider's body and the most important means of controlling the horse. They and their effects are the essential promoters of every action of the horse, physical and moral. They must, therefore, act to just the right amount, neither too much nor too little; at just the right instant, neither before nor after, in accord with the fingering of the reins and the cadence of the stride; not interfering with the step, but reestablishing the tempo if lost; coordinated with the sensibility, nervousness, energy, or the lack of these, of the animal. The action of the legs demands, therefore, the highest "tact" on the part of the rider. Many are called, but few chosen to the proper management of this delicate and powerful aid.

To explain the effects of the legs and the causes of these, and to deduce from such general principles the correct manner of using these effects in practice, is the most complicated subject in all equestrian science.

In ancient times, before the invention of the bridle, the legs provided the only means of controlling the horse. Later came spurs. All the masters of equestrian art, from Xenophon to James Fillis inclusive, have laid down the principle that the effect of the contact of the legs is to impel the body forward in whatever direction is indicated by the reins.

This is, nevertheless, only partly true. When the legs are pressed against the flanks of an uneducated animal, their first effect is merely to tickle the panniculus carnosus muscle, which envelops the body from chest to haunch. But although this muscle does adhere to certain of the locomotor muscles, its action is entirely independent of the whole locomotor system. When, therefore, the horse feels the touch of a foreign object, it merely uses the panniculus carnosus to shake the skin, whether that foreign body be legs, spurs, or flies. It is, consequently, only as the result of education that the horse learns to support unmoved the rider's legs and spurs.

But below the panniculus carnosus, from thorax to pelvis, lie the great muscles which move the fore and hind limbs, and which are the principal agents in locomotion. Of these the latissimus dorsi carries the arm upward and backward, the longissimus dorsi, when it acts alone, is a powerful extensor of the vertebral column, and the deep pectoralis, attached at the angle of the shoulder, draws the whole fore limb backward. The student desiring to understand more fully the attachments, relations, and actions which are effected by pressure of the rider's legs, should consult some standard work on the anatomy of the horse.

It is, then, easy to understand that the rider's legs affect first of all the horse's hair, skin, panniculus carnosus, and abdominal tunic, all of which have nothing to do with locomotion; while the great pectoralis and its adjuncts, the latissimus dorsi, and the muscles of the haunches and hind limbs, are either affected only secondarily or remain unimpressed. But the first contact of the rider's legs is for the horse rather unpleasant than otherwise. It takes, therefore, patient teaching to accustom the untrained animal to endure this contact without anxiety, nervousness, or fear. Only after the horse, standing quiet and calm, supports the pressure of the legs on all parts of the body, from as far forward as the rider can reach to as far backward, has the time come for teaching the significance of this contact for the more important muscles of locomotion, such as the great pectoralis.

All masters of equitation have heretofore advocated putting the legs in contact with the horse's flanks and holding them there until the pupil makes one or two or more steps forward. I differ completely with this idea. The horse, standing, has all four limbs directly below its body. But in order for it to move forward, one of the fore legs, executing the three movements of the stride, must reach forward and come to the ground, ready to receive the weight. It thereupon becomes the fixed point upon which the great pectoralis acts to pull the body forward. But an acting muscle pulls one of its ends toward the other; not both ends toward the middle. If, then, the rider's two legs press equally upon the middle of the great pectoralis muscles, their natural action is prevented. All that the horse can then do is to stop; or if it be energetic or violent, to rear; or possibly to back, if the fixed point on which the muscles pull is the pelvis, the haunches, the ilium, or the loins. It is some improvement on the usual procedure gently to open and close the legs, making little repetitions of the contact. But even this is not completely satisfactory.

I advocate, therefore, this device. First, I make contact with both legs. Then, still keeping contact with one leg, with the other, very gently, I make and break contact, my leg never going more than half an inch out from the animal's body. Very soon, I see the fore leg on the same side take its forward stride, and at the same time I feel under me the opposite hind leg come off the ground. This is the first step! When one has obtained the first step, if he is a trainer, a master, he may feel sure that millions of steps will follow by and by. Now is the time to prove to your pupil, by caressings and rewards, that what he has done is what you asked. You have obtained the correct response, scientifically and naturally, without the quarrel, doubt, or confusion, which are the result of the wrong method of the old masters of equitation.

I dwell especially, at this point, on the importance of patience and moderation. Do not forget that you are an instructor, and that your pupil does not yet understand the meaning of your effects. Accept, therefore, your duty. Act as if you were dealing with a child who does not yet know the meaning of papa and mamma. Teach by kindness. Do not be violent. Do not kick the animal because it does not yet comprehend you. If you do, you will be sorry afterwards. Remember always that a horse, once properly educated, answers to the delicate and intelligent effects of your legs as it answers to the deftest fingering of your reins; and that all your domination of the animal is the product of your intelligence, a strength of effect, never, never, an effect of strength.

When, from standing, the horse will pass to the walk at the effects of the legs, without showing anxiety or haste, it should be taught by the same methods to pass from walk to trot, and from trot to gallop.

It is, however, one of the axioms of equitation that any effect of rider on horse loses its influence more and more the longer it is continued. If, then, bits or calves or spurs are employed continuously, without relaxation, the horse in time accepts the contact, becomes wonted to it, and all the effect disappears.

It is, therefore, necessary, from time to time, to "render the legs" in the same way that one renders the hand. Otherwise the sensibility to the pressure of the legs will wear away, or the hind hand will become fatigued and the horse refuse. But since the effect of the legs is less natural to the horse and less obvious to the rider than the effect of the hands, even more care must be taken to employ this effect with proper moderation. Moreover, if after obtaining motion forward by means of the contact of the legs, the rider continues to maintain the same contact as before, the horse will soon fail to understand the meaning of the first pressure. Relaxation of the contact is absolutely essential for conveying the meaning of the contact.

There are, however, two different ways of rendering the legs. Suppose that, to urge the horse forward, the rider needs three degrees of pressure. He exerts these three degrees, and the horse goes forward. The required speed being obtained, the legs then return to their normal one degree of contact, and the horse continues the movement for himself. This principle applies to all gaits and speeds.

There is, in addition, a second way of rendering the legs, which though unrecognized by the reasoned equitation, is far too much practiced—namely, the loss of all contact with the horse's flanks. To do this, one ought to be very sure of his seat, his horse, and his surroundings. Even then it is wiser to confine this meaning of the verb "to render " to occasions when the horse is standing still. Evidently, rendering the legs with the horse in motion, should not involve, at the same time, rendering the hands. One who does this is said to "abandon" his mount, a serious fault.

Thus far, for the sake of simplicity, I have spoken as if the effect of the rider's legs on the horse's body were the same, whatever the precise region of the contact. This is not, however, entirely the fact. There really are three different effects corresponding to three different positions.

Contact well forward near the girths tends to collect the horse and to aid the hand in establishing the state of equilibrium. This position tends also to keep the animal in equilibrium during movement.

Contact far back against the flank, on the other hand, tends to draw the hind legs forward under the center of gravity, and thus to favor stopping, or even going backwards.

The intermediate position between these two is the one which sends the horse forward, as already discussed.

These three different ways of using the legs, understood by both horse and man, will avoid certain mistakes on the part of both.

One more principle is to be noted. The action of one rein alone or of one leg alone has no meaning. The only effect that the horse can learn to understand is the additional or repeated effect of one rein or one leg while the other remains unmodified and uniform.