One of my favourite expressions of joy, which I encouraged wholeheartedly with my horses, was to show their joy and delight in their own athleticism with a buck on landing. They were most likely to do this at the crest of a hill, at the top of a bank, or after a complex series of fences that have challenged them. Wheeeee! A celebration! “Look what I can do!”
Back in the day, I could sit a buck. Or rather, I could float above them and let them rock and roll a bit under me, always laughing, loving the adrenaline, letting them go at a speed of their liking for a bit, thanking them and then asking them to move on to something that required their concentration again.
O’Reilly taught me this. My fiery red-headed Irish crossbred. I’ll never forget Robin Hahn coaching me in a brief jump school between the initial veterinary inspection and the jog at the Rolex Kentucky Three Day Event. It was NOT the time to teach something new, or practice anything in particular. The sole purpose of this jump school was to allow O’Reilly to express himself joyously and have a little fun! He had been in year-round training, mostly in dressage, and was at the end of a grueling mandatory training camp with the legendary Equestrian Master Jack LeGoff, who was a raging alcoholic. We needed a little fun! Our last dressage test had been good … but lackluster and uninspiring. I thought this might do the trick, and it did!
We always approached a jumping session as though each jumping effort was one less that this little horse had left in his body to give me. So, we flowed from a 1-foot-high cross rail to a small oxer, to tall vertical with as little energy spent as possible; neither rushing nor repeating anything unnecessarily. Until we got to a sweet spot that required him to be sharp, use his cleverness and his body, and woo-hoo! He let out a buck and a joyful squeal on landing! I let him put his head between his knees for a few strides, confident he wouldn’t lose me. I could let him play like that, with my ridiculously long legs and the balance gained from over 10,000 hours in the tack by age 10. It was as easy as breathing to me.
Now, I would probably hit the dirt. Now, I am out of shape, without the core strength or flexibility to sit a buck and survive. But a horse still deserves to express himself the same way he would galloping and playing in the field, without being punished.
So, what would I do now if I were to ride again with my desk-jockey-level fitness? First, I would commit to a fitness program; to something I could do out of the tack to be flexible and strong enough to let him play and absorb his motion. Sit ups. Some work on a Swiss yoga ball. Running up hills. Then, I would wear a neck strap - or more accurately, my horse would - and I would hang on to that holy-shit handle for all I was worth! I’d laugh while he bucked, keep my heels ahead of the rest of me and keep laughing until it was over. Laughing is my go-to coping mechanism for lots of things and there is some science behind why it is a good idea on horseback. For one, it keeps you from holding your breath, which is one of the worst things you can do around a prey animal, whether you are mounted on its back, or standing on the ground.
Then, if I was feeling precarious, I could always lift his head with the free hand not on the holy-shit strap, sit back and turn him away from home, or send him forward, or send him up a hill … lots of options. But I would endeavor to not punish him with a loss of balance, or be cross with him for something he would do in the field if he was joyously carousing with his herd mates.
And then hopefully I would remember to take that enthusiasm to the bank, to revel in it and look for opportunities for more fun and celebration, because that is why we do it, right? Not to ride the perfect shoulder-in, or the get a better score, or to make a team, or to upgrade at the next show. Those are biproducts of a joyous relationship – they will happen if we remember to make it fun, I promise. And hopefully, I would smile as I drove away from the barn and wonder how I might celebrate with my own little ‘buck on landing’ and revel in my own small accomplishments, or enjoy the outlandish antics of my horses (or my children) without grabbing at the reins and catching them in the teeth?
For now, at a time when I am not riding and my boys are mostly grown, this is all nostalgia and hypothesis … but it also comes with a message and a question. How can you let your horses express themselves? Or your children? How can you make it more fun? Can you approach your ‘work’ as ‘play’? Can you loosen the reins and celebrate? Can you give a little buck on landing, too?