Doing Nothing Well: An Interview with Lendon Gray

by Pam Whitfield
(First published in ANRC Riding Highlights, Spring 1999)

Three-time Olympian and Sweet Briar ’71 graduate Lendon Gray uses the forward riding system as her base for riding, teaching and schooling at Gleneden Dressage in Bedford, NY. Stabilization and non-interference form the foundation of her program. “At any level our goal is self-carriage,” she says. “The most important thing you can learn to do is nothing.”

That’s a very conscious nothing. “The emphasis I learned from forward riding is just being a part of the horse. In other words, basic intermediate control where you just connect with the horse and don’t interfere with him at all; that is so important,” she says.

“When new riders come to me I say, ‘Prove to me that you can ride on a loose rein.’ I tell them I don’t care how the horse goes as long as it’s safe. I say, ‘See what he does without you.'” Lendon adds that stabilization is even tested in dressage: “It’s part of our competition movements. So it should be part of the day to day training.”

Lendon laments the fact that many riders have lost the ability to ride non-interferingly, “to totally leave the horse alone.” She explains, “many times when I need a horse exercised I’ll put the lower level rider on him. She goes along oblivious and in so doing, isn’t going to undo anything I’ve done.”

She states that for the horse to carry itself, the rider must allow it to do so. “You should be able to take your leg off the horse and have the horse go on, not stop dead, but maintain the frame, carriage and tempo. Whether doing basic walk-trot-canter work or riding extensions and pirouettes, you should be able to make the request for an adjustment. That takes one stride, then you should be able to be passive for a few strides.”

Passivity includes awareness of and sympathy with the horse. “You can be passive on a loose rein and flop or you can be passive and fit the horse like a pair of breeches fits you,” she continues. “Then your hands become part of the horse’s mouth, your legs part of his sides, your seat one with his back.”

Lendon feels that a rider at any level must not forget that the goal is to become a part of the horse. “You don’t have the right to change his way of going until you can be totally non-interfering, until you can be invisible on his back and he doesn’t know you’re even there, you’re so consistent.”

According to the dressage rider, misunderstanding contact often undermines the horse’s stabilization. “People think contact is holding or pulling. Contact is simply taking the slack out of the reins and nothing more. With a new student I stand in front and take the reins at the bit so I’m holding them and say, ‘take up contact.’ They always pull me nearly off my feet.”

Lendon emphasizes the lightness that comes from a feeling ride, the by-product of a non-interfering mentality. “Contact is not hard pressure. Contact is feeling the hairs on the horse’s sides. If contact is five ounces of pressure, then you can use eight ounces and get a response,” she says.

Teaching the rider to ask the horse to carry itself, light and forward yet stabilized, results in a quieter, more effortless ride. “The horse should be able to maintain gait and tempo without the rider nagging. If you’re constantly pulling on the reins to slow him down or kicking the legs to kick him going, then what do you do for fine tuning?” Lendon asks.

In Lendon Gray’s program, stabilization and non-interference go hand in hand. “Whatever you want the horse to do, you can allow him to do for a few seconds on his own,” she concludes. And that makes for happier horses as well as better riders.