I must have been traveling too often, staying in too many hotels….
You know how down by the ice machine next to the elevators they always have vending machines? The ones with a big Plexiglas window and a whole mess of snack items—Sun Chips and Fritos and Ring Dings and Lorna Doones—each stacked on copper spiral holders all in rows and columns? And you put your 75 or 85 cents in the slot, the machine blinks READY READY READY, and all you have to do is “Select.” Punch B-4 and grind grind fwoop, out the slot at the bottom comes your Snickers. E-6 and fwoop, here are the Cheetos. In other words, once you’ve made the preparation, the machine is equally, universally prepared to deliver you anything on its menu.
It strikes me that it isn’t a bad idea to think of making your horse a bit like one of those vending machines. This is what I mean:
It drives me a little batty when someone has been trotting around for five minutes; I ask them to make a transition to halt; and they say, “Wait, I have to prepare him.” Or if they’ve made six halt-trots: I ask them to canter, and they give me the “wait a minute” response. Or after six leg yieldings they have to “get the horse ready” for a turn on the haunches.
Do I mean you shouldn’t prepare for those things? It’s not that at all. But like the vending machine that, once prepared, is able to deliver you anything, so should your horse (if he’s on the aids) be equally ready to offer you whatever movement you need next with no more than the appropriate positioning and a rebalancing half halt or two.
“Preparation” should be universal. Ready for one thing is supposed to be ready for all things.
An underlying theme within the subtlety of riding a dressage horse is keeping up a fairly constant nonverbal conversational stream of “If I wanted to, could I _____?” with him. In the beginning, the questions are blatant, broad strokes: Ask him to make a transition… Did it work? From his responses trial by trial, you learn to file away in your memory what he needed to feel like in advance for that transition to have worked when and how you wanted it to.
Tuning in to how a horse has to feel before the fact brings you to where, like lawyers in those courtroom novels, you never really ask an overt question without knowing what the answer is going to be. Asking for a downward transition and finding it’s not there becomes an “oops moment.” We try to avoid those!
An old rulebook definition of a half halt described it in terms of creating or re-creating attention and balance. If he’s upright, holding himself, alignable, and listening to you, any movement ought to be there for you. And by maintaining the intimate interaction with him that queries “Could I…,” you encourage and enforce the balance and attention required to make all things universally and equally available.
Like the vending machine.