Horsemanship and Banjo
Native Americans were, in a way, right when they initially believed conquering Spaniards were strange armored, four-legged man animals — centaurs of sorts. Because the history of martial riding is the legacy of dressage where horse and rider move and think as one being. The beauty of dressage movements lies in duplication of natural equine athleticism.
However, the movements as taught in the Spanish Riding School had definite military applications — they were designed to enhance the horse’s innate abilities for the benefit of a mounted soldier’s agility and mobility. The key to unlocking this man-animal creation is relaxation, giving in to the rhythm inherent in the movement of the horse — you ride at the pleasure of your mount. Without the horse’s trust and willing cooperation, you haven’t a hope of staying in your elevated seat. The perceptive rider senses this and responds with friendly leadership. The skilled rider knows it and manipulates the horse’s good will and faith to his/her best advantage, drawing all the
power and grace from the animal without interrupting the flow of that natural rhythm. Together, they become one — a single entity with greater presence and force than either of the two halves. It’s a spiritual connection; an adrenaline rush because the rider and the horse are two sentient yet distinct species — a real-world “close encounter of the third kind” if you will, complete with its own set of revelations.
How do you relax when you feel like a sack of potatoes perched on a fence rail? Do what your mamma told you not to — slouch. This is a calculated slouch, not a sloppy mess, so keep your shoulders back but relaxed and loose, arms falling naturally at your sides; tuck your seat under to stretch those muscles in the small of your back, they’re your shock absorbers; let you legs fall naturally to the side as if you are standing — not braced in front or straining backward, as your muscles adapt to riding they will stretch and you’ll find your legs align nicely with your spine to form one long line.
Relaxation is the essence of riding. Your seat is critical — it’s literally the “seat of power.” If you drive the animal’s hindquarters forward with pressure from your seat and hold its forelegs in place with gentle hands, the horse collects itself; it is magnificently transformed. Subtle, almost secretive movements — the slight closing of one hand and opening of the other combined with an imperceptible shifting of weight and a little pressure from the opposite heel can take a rod-straight horse and bend it into an elegant curve. Way cool, but impossible to do without absolute relaxation.
Subtlety should never be confused with weakness. In dressage, subtlety is the height of power. Absolute relaxation doesn’t mean the rider neglects technique, method or focus. However, method and focus alone create only a pale shadow of the true rhythm and never capture the grace and elegance of natural movement. Natural rhythm eludes the tense, mechanical, or controlling rider and then act of riding becomes a battle of wills — not an expressive joining of alien bodies and souls. . For two brief decades in my youth I spent more hours on four legs than two. For that time in my life when I was the horse and the horse was me. That’s the relationship I seek with the music — I may never find it, but it’s a pilgrimage I am compelled to make.
I have watched athletic and spirited horses cavorting freely, and gloriously, by themselves, in their open spaces, and have understood, about dressage, that the aim is to recreate and enhance, under control, and within a relationship between man and animal, the natural things that horses do by themselves. (Well, talented and confident horses. There are horse-klutzes too.) I was always horse-crazy, and kept drawing them, and wanting to be one, and also my best friend was my horse till I had to leave home. I didn’t at that time know about dressage though. When I learned about it and started learning to do it, way later, it made sense of everything I had in the past always but *not quite* understood about the man-horse partnership.
A significant difference is that my banjo does not cavort around by itself and strut its stuff. On the other hand, it does not require me to help harvest acres of hay every summer.
Yeah, the relaxing part is the most important. And the most difficult to achieve. How to be very strong and very relaxed at the same time. And, it is the lower back that is the pivot and the engine here, come to think of it; as you’re now saying it is in banjo playing. It must be strong, but soft and supple, and completely in tune with the rhythm of the horse’s gait, but must at the same time be establishing and steadying that rhythm. Crikey! The legs have to hang down easy, not tense (though maintaining contact always), the hands must stay soft, relaxed, in touch, subtly giving & taking; the shoulders & back must stay relaxed – and it’s your seat, and your lower back, which does the driving. But, relaxed. – ‘Relax yo’ mind’. I guess that must be the most crucial but difficult thing to learn maybe because in our Western world we have promoted a perpetual struggle between mind & body.
Strange to think that I had to give up riding (just life circumstances, not injury or anything), and then I took up banjoing. My husband said: ‘If you have to take up playing an instrument, at your age, why can’t it be the violin?’ By which he did not mean, the fiddle.