In the classical schools of Europe, in addition to the use of the single pillar to teach suppleness and straightness, a horse’s education was furthered by placing him between two pillars. The pillars, in combination with a handlers on the ground, were used to develop the exercises of collection. Again, they can still be seen in the grand classical schools of Europe; the Spanish Riding School probably being the best known.However, in the French tradition that the Ecole de Legerete draws on, rather than putting the horse between two inanimate pillars, the horse learns from the connection with the person via an ‘in-hand’ programme.
Before I began training with Philippe Karl, I had done a lot of ground work with horses, but was not aware of the very specific education which can be given through in-hand work. It is not something which is part of the mainstream horse training lexicon, and unfamiliar to many of us in the U.K, at least. And yet when understood well it can be an invaluable part of what you can offer your horse, and as with high quality lunging, is a highly flexible addition to what you can do together. Working a horse -in-hand’ means that we are on the floor with him, and by using our hands and body, can have a very specific conversation back and forth. Our hands are on the bit and can offer our horse a feeling that he understands if we take the time to listen to what he is telling us. We can constantly adapt our presentation according to what the horse needs, step by step.
This ability for the human to feel and change in response to the horse, means that we can have a dialogue about relaxation, balance, movement, straightness, and posture. You can say a lot through in-hand work. It is a great way to begin the formative education of a young horse. We can show the horse some fundamental things about following the rein aids, mobilising his shoulders and quarters without the horse also having to manage the weight of a rider. It means that when the rider does get on, the horse is already confident about and understands some of the things that he is going to be asked as a ridden horse. Both physically and mentally he is better prepared. It can be a truly incredible addition to a rehabilitation programme for a horse. Horses who have experienced pain or discomfort often develop holding patterns which ultimately perpetuate crookedness and tightness. A skilful use of in-hand work can gently show a horse how to move differently and can have a profound impact on their bodies. It is hard to have such specific and detailed conversations without this training tool. It can also really help horses who are anxious or worried about people or the world. Not only can we directly ask the horse to mobilise their jaw – which impacts on the how the whole horse feels – we also show the horse that we know where his feet are and can access them without the use of force or fear. For some horses, knowing that the human knows where his feet are – and can influence them – can be a complete game changer AND, as with the two pillars, we can significantly develop a horse’s education.
We can teach a complex and interesting lateral programme, focusing on what the horse needs to address individual asymmetry and balance. In-hand work is an excellent way to progress collection through greater challenges of balance alongside the development of impulsion and strength. As the horse and the human are doing this ‘together’, this seems a more appealing conversation than one with two wooden pillars.
Right now in the U.K. the daylight is limited, the mud is high and it’s pretty cold. Being able to work your horse in-hand means you can continue to do things together without having to take off your many layers of waterproofs, and you only need scrape mud off your horse’s head. Another reason to love in-hand work.