This anecdote came up recently with a client and I wondered when it stopped being taught.
When I began horse riding at age six I joined the lead rein lesson. All six ponies were led and we did steering in rides and on our own, before halting at B (always on the right rein) and trotting “to the rear of the ride”, a phrase I took for granted by didn’t fully comprehend until about ten.
When we trotted we had to count our elephants whilst sitting (or bouncing) before rising – “one elephant, two elephant, three elephant, rise!”
I hated this for two reasons;
- Why should I shout nonsense in front of other people? Doing it in my head was far better – more grown up, I thought. I was forever being told to speak more loudly.
- What is the point in counting elephants? There aren’t any and I might as well go straight into rising.
Unfortunately I was a child who needed explanations so I was glad to see the back of this exercise, but now I realise the purpose of the exercise.
I think elephants were the chosen animal as the word can be broken down into its syllables easily and the number combined with the animal equals four syllables, which is two trot strides.
When making a transition you should be in sitting trot so you can use your seat aids more efficiently; the two beat rising won’t confuse the horse moving into either a four beat or three beat gait. Have you ever ridden from walk to trot and begun rising only for your horse to fall back into walk? If you sat for an extra stride you would have established the trot and the loss of your seat aid while you rise won’t upset the horse’s rhythm.
Counting elephants makes beginners practice sitting trot, so it is not such a scary practice, a few strides of sitting helps them find the rhythm so it is easier to grasp the rising. I also believe that it improves your feel and awareness of the way the horse moves. I always encourage beginners to stay in sitting trot for a few strides before rising, but have never mentioned elephants.
Perhaps more advanced, but when you count elephants you almost always rise on the correct diagonal. Perhaps it is the extra time to feel the inside hind leg coming under to push you up, or perhaps luck, but I think the two are linked in some way.
I think elephant counting should have been taken forwards to other transitions, such as trot to walk, or around the canter work. It would encourage more preparation from riders and improve their sitting trot, as well as teaching the horse not to alter the trot in the transition from rising to sitting.
Next time you ride, have a think about counting elephants and see if it does anything for your transitions or even just improve your sitting trot! Hindsight is a great thing, and I wish the concept behind counting elephants had been explained to my six year old self, and used in relation to all transitions and with trot diagonals.