Don't Take Out What Nature Put In: Lightness

Story and photos by Leslie Desmond Published in the May 1998 issue of The Trail Less Traveled


book1 01Life itself, along with the desire and ability to move, is the source of lightness.

Lightness. The word is widely used to mean many different things. In some horse circles, it is a popular term, but I have not yet met or heard about two people who agree on what it means exactly. What many people do agree on is that lightness, in addition to whatever else it might be, is a vague concept. I've heard that a lot of people are "working on it." There has also been a lot written about it.

The things I've read about it focus on what the trainer can do to "get" or "make" a horse become light. Two friends I rode with yesterday gave me their thoughts on lightness to consider:

The man said: "I used to sit heavy in my saddle with my feet out ahead of me. That wasn't light and my horse didn't feel light at the lope when I sat that way. After I pulled my legs and feet back under me a little, I felt lighter. So did my horse."

I think I know what he meant.

The woman said: "I don't like to ride a horse that pulls you all around and makes you have to yank on him to get anything done."

I agreed with her. That feels terrible.

What many people do to horses is intended to produce this thing called "lightness." Then, when it does show up, it is often mistaken for something it isn't. Wait a second.

Aren't horses born "light"? Isn't it the grace, power, speed and agility in a horse that draws a person to them in the first place? In art and literature through the ages, isn't it the essence of the horse that has inspired poets, scholars, sculptors and painters to reflect the horse's "lightness" in their work? Isn't it what people observe in the horse's facial expressions, and particularly in his eyes, that they love about him?

It is the horse's spontaneous response to the things he discovers in his world that reveals his lightness--lightness is the horse's birthright. It is not something the human gives to the horse, because he never had it. Lightness defines his movement and his spirit--as it is the horse's way. To be light is to know you can afford to be curious about a world you do not understand but are willing to explore. The foals do this from the moment they can stand.

They are light because they have flight to cope with fright. Why can't we harness that lightness without killing it? Light, flight and fright. Each word means something quite different. For the horse, however, the concepts are sometimes connected and at other times they even overlap. But they are not the same.

hrs14 2If boundaries are consistently made clear from the beginning, and the foal is trained through feel--which is his own language--he will continue to do what comes naturally to him. Horses prefer to get along. Will Wyckoff leads this yearling filly at the trot.
hrs11 1ahrs11 1bFollowing the feel of the halter rope

When people train a horse, I've noticed that the lightness, by degrees, begins to disappear. In many instances, by the time most horses have learned to tolerate being haltered, tied to something and have learned to pack a rider, the lightness--evidence that he is really alive--is all but inaccessible to the human.

Finally, in many of them, it is altogether gone. And because it is, the horse is condemned as a "stubborn pig." You hear references to it all over. The horse is "dull" or "resistant" or "dead-sided." He "lacks life," he's "crow-bait," he's a "whip and spur," horse, he's an "old nag," or he's a "mule."

If there is any lightness left in the horse, because it often isn't recognized for what it is, that is usually given a label too. The horse is "spooky" or "bratty." He is branded as a "snake" or "coyote." In Idaho, a lady even told me three of her horses were evil.

Hey, let's not say these things. These labels have nothing to do with what a horse really is.

It's the human that makes the horse this way by confusing him. People who think this way about a horse and are searching for that thing called lightness have missed the whole point.

Could we leave the life the horse was born with right where it is? Instead of forcing the horse to "become manageable" and then schooling him to the point of exhaustion in a fruitless search for the "lightness" he once had, can we switch the focus to our own shortfall in our capacity to learn, and instead, work with the lightness that is already there? Who will decide the all-around fitness and emotional flexibility required to operate within the horse's point of view? There is a clear choice to be made--a person can work against the horse and extinguish the life and lightness or a person can work with the horse to bring it out.

hrs14 5What happened to the lightness in this horse?

For better or worse, when you have the bottom half of yourself wrapped around the top half of a horse, you are partners. What determines how both of you feel about the partnership, however long or short it may be, is the amount of lightness each of you perceives is available to you in the other.

One more thing. Consider the wailing toddlers who don't want to stand up and walk on their own two feet. Without the desire to move, those amazing little people can make themselves feel incredibly heavy, nearly immovable. But think how light they feel when they reach for you with outstretched arms? And, when they try to help you even more, with a little jump off the end of their toes... that, too, is lightness. It is life, with the desire to move in a helping frame of mind.