The Importance of Lateral Movements

The Importance of Lateral Movements

 All too many riders avoid doing any lateral movements with their horse. This can be because of fear of doing them wrong or simply lack of knowledge and not knowing where to start or why such movements are so important. I constantly hear from those that say they “just enjoy hacking out”, that they have no need for such fancy movements, or from those that “do” dressage declare they “don’t’ need lateral movements until they reach Medium Level”.

I couldn’t disagree more; shoulder-in, along with most of the other lateral movements, are essential tools in helping your horse become straight and supple, two of the key elements in British Dressage’s Scale of Training. In fact, Nuno Oliviero declared “shoulder-in is the aspirin of horseback riding – it cures everything!”

To me, using lateral movements, is like doing Pilates with your horse. Lateral movements can be used to help correct the horse’s natural asymmetry, to help him become equally strong and supple on both sides – without which you cannot have straightness. They can be used to improve his core and strengthen his back – which are fundamental requirements if you want to ride your horse. And finally they can help your horse learn to engage his hind legs by taking them further underneath his body, which is required if you want to ride in true collection rather than just with “head set”.  Lateral movements help keep your horse balanced and supple whilst only ever schooling or a riding on a single-track encourages stiffness in the and exacerbates your horse’s natural asymmetry. Even if you never ride in a school you can incorporate simple stepping over exercises, such as leg yields at a walk, to positively influence your horse’s basic balance.

Most horses find the lateral movements where the horse is bent against the direction of travel – such as shoulder-fore, shoulder-in, leg-yield-with-bend-against-the-direction-of-travel, and turn-on-the-forehand easier to learn than those where he is bent in the direction of travel – e.g. travers, renvers, half pass, turn-on-the-haunches and pirouette. But don’t take this as gospel, your horse may not have read this note!

If you have never done any lateral movements before, I’d recommend you start with turn-on-the-forehand, and then move on to shoulder-fore or leg-yield-with-bend at a walk. I’d also suggest you start with groundwork, where your weight can’t inadvertently make the movement harder to do, either by working on-line or in-hand. Which one of these methods you chose depends on which you prefer, but which ever method you chose make sure that you reward your horse for the slightest try. Only look for one step initially, don’t get greedy and immediately expect your horse to do a whole side of a school in a perfect 3-track shoulder-in.

These exercises are meant to benefit the horse and help him biomechanically – just as attending a yoga or pilates class helps you. Accept that things might not be perfect to start with. It is far more likely if you experience difficulties that you are either asking incorrectly or your horse can’t actually do what you are asking rather than won’t. Slow the request down and ask for less, such as only asking the front leg to move rather than the whole horse. Over time you will be able to ask and expect more. After all you wouldn’t expect your instructor to ask you to hold a plank for 60 seconds at your first ever Pilates class!

I tend to teach my horses on-line before doing the exercises in-hand but there is no right or wrong way, use which ever method you (and your horse) prefer. The most common mistake to look out for in any of the lateral movements-against-the-direction-of-travel is over bending the horse’s neck to the inside which causes the horse to fall onto his outside shoulder. This can be caused because we have asked for too much bend with our hand or because it is the horse’s hollow side and he has a natural tendency to bend that way. If you are working in-hand you can use your outside rein to prevent the excessive bend and support the outside shoulder, if you are working on-line you need to be able to use your stick to support the shoulder.

Turn-on-the-forehand

Turn on the Forehand

Turn on the Forehand in Motion – a great "Pilates" exercise for your horse. It can be done on-line, in-hand or under saddle. You can use it to diagnose which is the stiff side (shoulders lead) and which the hollow side (haunches trail) of your horse. And then you can use it to help correct the asymmetries – it encourages your horse to step under with the inside hind leg, mobilises the pelvis and engages the abdominal muscles!Here is my very artheritic Princess Perfect (AKA Abee) doing the exercise on-line.

Posted by Fran Griffith – Rider Biomechanics on Tuesday, 24 April 2018

This is a super starter exercise which helps engage the core, mobilize the horse’s pelvis and bring a hind leg underneath his body. You will need a cavesson, a single line (such as a short lunge line) or rein attached to the central ring of the cavesson and schooling whip or cane. It is important that your horse is not frightened of the stick or cane, and he is quite happy for you to touch him anywhere on his body with it. If he is concerned and you can’t touch him everywhere, you aren’t ready to do this exercise yet. Equally you should be confident and competent enough so that your horse won’t walk over you, strike you with a front leg or trample you! If you aren’t confident about this – don’t try the exercise.

  • Stand in front of and facing your horse with one hand resting just in front of the horse’s nose holding the single rein or line. The arm should be straight (or slightly bent), so the horse is a couple of feet away from you.
  • If you have mastered the art of stelling, flex your horse’s nose slightly against the direction of travel. The rein should be lying across an open hand rather than held tight. Raising your energy, slowly raise your stick so that it points towards the horse’s tail and is parallel to the ground.  Pulse the stick slightly towards the horse or gently tap your horse on his body with the full length of the stick (shoulder, through rib cage to hip).
  • The moment the horse moves one step away from the stick, drop the stick and reward your horse.
  • The hind leg that is closest to the stick should step under the horse’s body in front of the other hind leg away from the stick.
  • The front leg that is closest to the stick should step in front of the other front leg away from the stick.
  • You are eventually looking for your horse to circle around you with his hindquarters performing the largest circle and you performing the smallest.

There are a number of videos that cover teaching the horse lateral movements from the ground; these include but are not limited to Straightness Training, The Academic Art of Riding and Manolo Mandez. Books that cover the subject include Schooling Exercises in-hand which is published by Cadmos.

Posture & Balance

Posture & Balance

When I first started teaching Rider Biomechanics it was perfectly clear to me on the ground whether a rider was sitting straight in their saddle, over to one side, leaning forwards or leaning backwards. However, it soon became abundantly obvious that what I was seeing and what some students thought they were doing were poles apart.  There was a disparity between where the rider’s brain told her ‘straight’ was and the reality I was seeing. It wouldn’t matter if I told the student to raise their right shoulder a hundred times, they would for a moment in time, but either their proprioceptive system (the body’s internal GPS) would tell them that the new position was wrong and would take them back to their reality of straight or actual tightness in certain muscle groups would prevent them from being able to make the changes I wanted them to.

Unfortunately if we want to become good riders, communicate clearly with our horse and not compromise our horse physically, we need to be able to sit in balance. So being able to sit up straight is an essential skill for riders. At the halt, when viewed from the side, the rider’s ears, shoulders, hips and heels should align. When viewed from the front, the horse’s neck, withers and spine should form a straight line and the rider’s nose, chin, breastbone and belly button should be perpendicular to the horse’s spine. Viewed from the rear, the rider’s head and spine should also align with the horse’s spine. As I mentioned, being able to obtain this neutral position is essential if you wish to have clear communication with your horse. But with the student’s proprioceptive system lying to them, trying to help them find this “ideal posture” was like searching for the Holy Grail.

I soon realised that I wasn’t going to be able to make these changes happen by just telling the student to stop dropping their left shoulder. I needed the rider to see themselves as I saw them and to understand how collapsing a left shoulder could cause their horse to drift to the right.  It was whilst trying to find the solution to these problems that the idea of PI, my electronic horse was conceived. Six years down the line, PI has become an unbelievable successful teaching tool. Cameras mounted to the side and rear show the rider where her body really is in space, whilst sensors at PI’s feet show her exactly where her weight is. Faced with both her weight and a video of herself on the screen in front of her, the student’s proprioceptive system is proved the liar it is.

Self awareness of one’s postural habits and understanding how it feels to have a neutral pelvis and spine and equal weight in both seat bones is the first step towards correcting poor posture.  Only when one can find a neutral pelvis and sit in balance can one start learning how to use the pelvis and weight in nuanced ways to communicate with the horse.

Most people take their normal postural habits with them when they get in the saddle. If they normally tilt their head to one side when they are standing, then they will do the same thing when they sit on a horse. Because so many of us work in offices, a lot of people assume the classic ‘computer posture’ with chin jutting forward, shoulders rounded and the upper body behind the vertical, others overarch their lower backs and virtually everyone sits too far back in the saddle.  Some riders slouch off to the left or right placing their hips, shoulders, and head out of alignment. This puts more weight on one or the other seat bone, puts more weight in one or the other stirrup, puts the saddle off center on the horse, or creates any one of several other off balance scenarios. And when someone has ridden crookedly for years that crooked position feels correct even when they can see for themselves just how crooked they are.

Correcting the problem literally requires retraining the brain to understand what really straight and balanced feels like. It is not easy. Whilst the rider sits on PI, we use the weight displays and cameras to work out how we need to adjust her body to bring it in to alignment. Sometimes the rider is able to make the necessary adjustments herself; other times I use my hands to help the rider find straightness. All too frequently the rider is tight in her hips and lacks sufficient core, sometimes the pelvis is uneven with one side higher or lower than the other. Permanently correcting these issues cannot be done in one session, or even on board a horse but awareness and understanding is the first step. The rider needs to understand where the issue is and what causes the problem and then work on correcting herself, using Pilates, yoga or Feldenkrais type exercises.

Explaining the Half Halt

Explaining the Half Halt

The half halt is something that virtually every one of us has been told to do at one time or another during a riding lesson. But from running my Posture Awareness Clinics I now realise just how many riders don’t understand what the term half halt really means, what they are meant to do to achieve a half halt or why they should should be doing it in the first place. Why then, if riders don’t know how to do a half halt or understand the reasons for half halting, do they not ask? Is it because they are frightened to appear less knowledgeable than their peers, or is it that they are just too intimidated to ask. I therefore thought I should set myself the task of trying to explain the half halt in detail by breaking the half halt down into a What, Why, When and How.

The What and Why

According to the FEI the “half-halt is a hardly visible, almost simultaneous co-ordinated action of the seat, the legs and the hand of the rider, with the object of increasing the attention and balance of the horse before the execution of several movements or transitions to lesser or higher paces. In shifting slightly more weight onto the horse’s quarters, the engagement of the hind legs and the balance on the haunches are facilitated, for the benefit of the lightness of the forehand and the horse’s balance as a whole”.  So basically, to put the definition in to simpler terms, the purpose of the half halt is to help re-balance our horse for a change in pace or direction by getting the hind leg that is on the ground to stay on the ground a little longer and to flex a little more.

So why would we want to help balance or re-balance our horse.  One example might be that I was riding a horse that was leaning on his bit and extremely heavy in my hands, by using a series of half halts, I could help shift some of his weight backwards. Equally I could be trotting around the arena and want to make a 90° turn, by applying 2 half halts before the turn I can warn my horse that I am about to make a change in direction. I can also use half halts to prepare my horse to go from a walk or trot into canter, or from canter or trot into walk or trot. I can use half halts before asking my horse to extend his gait or asking him to collect more. No wonder instructors keep telling us to half halt!

The main job of the half halt is to increase the flexion of the joints of the hind leg that is on the ground by using our weight or the weight of the horse’s head and neck to move more of his weight back. By flexing the hind leg more we prolong the weight bearing phase of that leg by keeping it on the ground slightly longer.

The When

Our aids for the half halt can only work effectively when our timing is correct. As I have already mentioned, as the job of the half halt is to increase the flexion of the joints of the hind leg, a half halt can only be applied effectively when the hind leg can comply with the request.  To understand when this moment is we first need to consider how our horse moves. Although the rhythm changes with the different gaits the basic premise remains the same. As the horse moves forwards each hind leg in turn reaches forward through the air, touches down in front of the vertical, receives the horse’s weight and flexes at the joints. The leg then passes the vertical, and as the body moves forward the leg extends the joints and then pushes off from the ground to propel the body mass forward.

So as we have said the purpose of the half halt is to flex the joints, it is obvious that the only moment in the footfall sequence that is suitable for the half halt is the weight bearing phase, i.e. between the time when the hind leg touches down to the moment it reaches the vertical. If you apply the half halt when the hind leg is in the air, it is unable to respond to the request and if you apply the half halt when the hind leg is behind the vertical the joints are already extending again and pushing the body forward.  In either of these two scenarios the half halt won’t go “though” as it is physically impossible for the horse to comply.

Even when you get your timing right, the half halt may not go through because the horse finds it difficult to comply. For example if your horse is hollow on his right side he may well carry more weight on his left fore and his right hind may step outside his centre of mass. In a case like this you may find it easier to ask for the horse to leg yield or full pass a couple of strides to the left to get the right hind to step further under before stopping into the right hind.

The How

There are several possible ways or types of aids you can use to apply half halts.

You can use your seat by pulling down with the muscles in your lower back and up with the abdominal muscles located below the navel, which uses your own body weight to load the hind leg and keep it grounded longer.

Another way is to use a light stirrup pressure on the same side and at the same time that the targeted hind leg touches the ground. So for example, if you wanted to half halt into the outside hind leg, you could apply a little pressure against your outside stirrup when the outside hind leg touches the ground.

A light rein pressure from either rein take the weight and the leverage of the horse’s head and neck and transfers it to the grounded hind leg. But the rein pressure should only be held from the moment the hind leg touches down to the time the hind leg reaches the vertical. And even more importantly the contact should not be thrown away when the pressure is released.

Half halting using the reins is probably the most common way of doing a half halt. But unfortunately too many people apply too strong a rein pressure for too long, particularly if they draw their hand back and then they inadvertently throw the contact away when they release the half halt. Try instead to think of half-halting through your core as you close the fingers. This will be felt down the length of the rein and if this is not sufficient, you can raise your hand gently, but only an inch or so. As you do so, breathe, draw up and hold—through the small of the back. Let your breath out when the horse obeys and your hand will automatically give again.

Students who have the opportunity to have a session on PI, my electronic horse, can actually see for themselves just how hard it is to just use their hands to apply a correct half halt. If you use your back and core muscles in the way described a slight pressure on the rein on the same side is inadvertently applied, as you release your back muscles the rein contact reverts to parity. Most students find that if they just use their hands they invariably apply too much pressure on the rein and cannot control the release. Another facet of PI’s programme is being able to try and time the half halt to match PI’s virtual footfall which is shown on the screen in front of you and then seeing how well you really did when you look at the half halt/footfall graph.

Depending on your horse’s conformation, temperament, training level, as well as your own weight and height you can use one of these aids, or a combination of two (seat and stirrup, rein and stirrup, seat and rein), or even all three to achieve a half halt. You should feel free to experiment with which aid produces the best result for you and your horse. Some horses are sensitive and have weak backs and don’t like too strong a seat aid and will invert right away if you try to sit deeper or heavier in the saddle. Others prefer a seat aid and yet others respond better to stirrup and rein pressure.

Pilates Exercises for your Horse

Pilates Exercises for your Horse

By now we have all heard that Pilates is really good for us. When done regularly the benefits of Pilates are numerous, including strengthening our core muscles, which in turn helps our back to become stronger. In addition Pilates teaches us body awareness, makes us more supple and can help reduce postural related pain.

What you may not have heard of is that “ Pilates” exercises for horses can offer them similar benefits. I normally begin an exercise that is new to my horse in hand or on-line, but all these exercises can be done under saddle too – and for the purpose of this article, I am going to describe the ridden versions.

Single Loop Serpentine

This exercise helps the horse loosen up without stress. It helps mobilize the shoulders which can release blockages in the neck and poll. The horse should become softer in the jaw, more flexible through the neck and back and more willing to accept contact.

  • Starting on the right rein, ride on the inside track (slightly off the rail). Leave the track at M and perform a single shallow loop to the 5m or 6m line, returning to the track at F. Repeat the maneuver on the other long side, leaving at K and returning at H.
  • Start with a loose rein and only progress to a shorter rein as your horse softens.
  • Start at a walk, progressing to a sitting trot once your horse is going well and knows the pattern.
  • Really work on the bend, switching from bending inside, to outside, to inside etc.
  • If your horse does not respond to the aids for a shallow turn, add in a small circle in that direction before continuing with the serpentine.
  • Repeat on the other rein.

Single Loop and Leg Yield

With this exercise you address the four corners of the horse, mobilizing the shoulders, rib cage and pelvis.

  • Starting on the right rein, ride on the inside track (slightly off the rail). Leave the track at M, by moving the outside shoulder to the inside, as though riding a normal single loop. 
  • As soon as you have left the track, change the bend from right to left and leg yield a few steps with your horse slightly bent to the left. 
  • Just before reaching the half way point of the school (in a line with B) ride a few steps straight on a single track.
  • After crossing  the half-way point move the right shoulder toward the fence and then change the bend and leg yield back to the  inside track, reaching it just before F.
  • Start with a loose rein and only shorten the reins as your horse gets softer. Try the exercise at a walk before progressing to sitting trot.

Twenty Metre Circle with Voltes

This exercise helps improve balance, as well as increasing your horse’s softness and flexibility. It targets the shoulders, rib cage and abdominal muscles by stretching the muscles on the outside of the bend.

Mark a 20 metre circle with a 10 metre volte at each of the circle points. The best way to mark a circle is to set a gateway of cones at each of the circle points (these circle points being the equivalent of 12, 9,6 and 3 ‘o’ clock). The more accurate the circle and voltes are the more benefits the exercise will have. I always use a tape measure to set out my circles accurately.

  • Start working at a walk and progress to a trot when you and your horse are comfortable with the exercise.
  • Walk round the circumference of the 20m circle paying particular attention to whether your horse falls out or in. If you miss the gateway with an outside shoulder then your horses in falling out, if you miss the gateway with an inside shoulder, he is falling in.
  • Try to correct any falling in or out by adjusting your seat or weight. If the horse falls out, try transferring a little more weight to the inside shoulder by doing two or three half halts into the inside front leg. Alternatively try nudging the outside shoulder inwards with your outside knee when the outside front leg is in the air. Use your reins as little as possible as pulling on the inside rein can exacerbate the situation.
  • After you have ridden the 20m circle a couple of times ride on to the first 10m volte. Pay particular attention to whether your horse finds this size of circle more difficult. After riding around the first volte a couple of times resume the 20m circle to the next circle point and ride round the next volte, etc. etc.
  • Repeat on the other rein.

 Riding exercises like these can really benefit any horse. You don’t need to do the exercises for too long, 20 to 30 minutes maximum. However If you do these sort of exercises with your horse on a regular basis you will start to see some huge improvements in your horse’s symmetry.

Posture, Position and PI

Posture, Position and PI

As a Rider Biomechanics Coach, I know that the way a rider sits on her horse influences the way the horse moves. Obviously, there are lots of other reasons why a horse may not be moving properly, such as the horse’s own asymmetry or a poorly fitting saddle, but one of the most common reasons is our own position and the way we sit on our horse.

The way we sit, or to put it another way, our posture, balance and alignment matters to the horse. Being able to take your pelvis from neutral alignment, apply a subtle weight aid and then take your pelvis back to neutral alignment can make your riding appear more like dancing with your horse. Your aids become invisible; you and your horse appear to be moving as one. A rider with a good seat allows their horse to move to the very best of his ability. Fractional adjustments in your weight will help your horse find his own balance and enable him to move with rhythm and relaxation.

Whilst most of us recognise that there is room for improvement in our riding and know that we need to make sure we are sitting properly and not compromising our horse’s balance, back or movement, there are others who are prepared to pay to have their horse’s back fixed regularly, blame their saddler for not fitting the saddle properly or change their instructor as regularly as their underwear rather than look closer at their own position.  Without a good seat, even the best back-person or most superb saddler will not be enough to allow your horse to move with optimal balance and rhythm. Taking regular lessons can help improve your seat but to improve our riding we need to know what our body is really doing and work on our body’s deficiencies off the horse!

One of the reasons it is so hard to correct poor postural habits is that our body’s proprioceptive system is very good at lying to us. Part of the sensorimotor control system, which is responsible for our balance, the proprioceptive system is actually made up of whole heap of proprioceptors that are sensitive to stretch or pressure in our muscles, tendons, and joints. It is these sensors that help the brain to know just where our feet and legs are, how our head is positioned and whether our torso is erect.

Unfortunately, as I have already mentioned, our proprioceptive system doesn’t always tell us where our limbs or spine really are.  Our proprioception capabilities can become impaired due to injury but we can also loose proprioceptive capabilities because of poor postural habits such as always carrying a handbag on one shoulder, sitting hunched over a computer or even just because of our age. It is because our proprioceptive system feeds our brain false information that we revert back to our “normal” position so frequently during riding lessons. If you have ever had an instructor tell you repeatedly to straighten your back, look up, square your shoulders or stop leaning back – then the chances are your proprioceptive system is telling you fibs.

To improve our own riding we need to really look at our position and posture, and work out what adjustments we need to make in our body. Self awareness of crookedness is the first step towards straightness and alignment. This is where I find the use of PI (my electronic horse) so very beneficial. Sensitive sensors under PI’s “feet” give continuous feedback of your weight distribution and whether you are sitting with equal weight on each seat bone, leaning too far forward or too far back. The cameras and video footage enables you to “see” in real time just how your shoulder/hip/heel alignment lines up and helps you learn to find what the correct position should feel like. Once you can sit easily in total balance and alignment, PI then allows you to experience how an adjustment of a hip or a tilt of a torso can affect your weight.

Just as we are able to help our horse make postural changes through gymnastic training, we can also help ourselves and retrain our proprioceptive system with the right exercises. If we want our horse to engage his core and stretch his top line, it is essential that we can engage ours! If your spine isn’t aligned and stabilized by strong core muscles and your hips are stiff, it’s going to be impossible for your horse to move correctly!

Pilates, Yoga and Swiss Ball classes are all perfect for riders as they help improve the posture as well as increasing flexibility in the hips and strengthening the core. In all these classes the alignment of the spine and a neutral pelvis are a key tenet. It is this basic postural principle that can help riders understand where and how to sit in the saddle.

What is Rider Biomechanics?

What is Rider Biomechanics?

Biomechanics seems to have become the buzz word in the equine industry in the last 10 or so years. Everyone these days is a biomechanics coach, but what does biomechanics really mean and is biomechanics really important to you or your horse?

Lets us look at the meaning first. If we look at Wikipedia, biomechanics is defined as “ the study of the mechanical laws relating to the movement or structure of living organisms”. But what does that really mean and how does that relate to you, your horse or your riding?

In a nutshell, Biomechanics is the science of the movement of a living body, including how muscles, bones, tendons, and ligaments work together to produce movement or are influenced by an outside force such as gravity, pressure or weight.

I like to break Rider Biomechanics into 3 components – the biomechanics of the human, the biomechanics of the horse and finally the biomechanics of the horse and human combination – rider biomechanics.

Basically all horses and all humans are born asymmetrical and as we grow older our asymmetry increases. This asymmetry places unnecessary strains and stresses on joints and ligaments, and if not dealt with can cause real physical problems for both ourselves and our horses.

The Biomechanics of the Horse

Like us, horses are born right or left handed – or more correctly in their case, left or right footed. They have a hollow and a stiff side and naturally carry more weight on their forehand.  Understanding the longitudinal (front/back) imbalance is easy, although this cannot be corrected until the lateral (side/side) imbalance has been dealt with. Understanding the lateral imbalances and indeed working out just which side is hollow and which is stiff can be far harder. 

The actual terms “hollow” and “stiff” have been used for centuries. The term hollow is used to define the side of the horse that is more contracted, whilst the term stiff is used for the side that is more stretched. In more extreme cases your horse can look a little like a banana, with the stiff side being more convex and the hollow side, more concave. This isn’t a major problem if the horse is never going to be ridden but in order to carry a rider without undue strain, the horse needs to develop a strong back, be equally strong and supple on both sides and learn to carry his weight more equally. Therefore the horse needs to be taught how to improve both his balance and straightness – his biomechanics, using gymnastic exercises.  It is only by training our horse’s muscles and straightening him that it is possible to achieve optimum movement, posture and position. A straightened horse will be physically and mentally in balance, symmetrical and supple and be able to carry his rider with ease. This training is often easier to do without the hindrance of a rider and can be achieved by working with the horse on-line, in hand or on the longe.

The Biomechanics of the Human

As I have already mentioned, all humans are asymmetrical. Most of us collapse more on one side, stand with one shoulder higher than the other, have a dominant hip or place more weight on one foot than the other. In addition to our asymmetry, all too many of us are overweight and lack muscle tone which exacerbates the asymmetry. Another big problem for so many of us, is our lack of ability to isolate certain muscles or body parts, so that we use a hand inadvertently when bringing a hip forward or we clench our gluteal muscles (bottom) when doing a half halt.

To remain healthy and certainly to become better riders we need to take responsibility for our own bodies, become aware of our posture, and work to improve our suppleness and balance. Pilates classes (either mat-based or using a Swiss ball) are absolutely perfect to create awareness, increase suppleness and core strength and teach us how to isolate specific body parts.

The Horse & Human Combination – Rider Biomechanics

Finally we come to the horse and rider combination, or rider biomechanics.  Every time we sit on a horse, we influence the way our horse moves, or he influences the way we sit. If we sit more heavily to our left our horse will move to the left. If we hollow our back, our horse will hollow his. Conversely a horse with a hollow back can cause us to hollow ours!  We need to be aware of our position and weight when we sit on our horse, we need to be able to adjust our position at any moment in time to help our horse achieve correct balance and alignment. We need to remember that our seat is the one aid we cannot take away, and do our utmost to make sure that our sitting on our horse’s back becomes as pleasurable an experience for him as riding him is for us.

When I teach, I like to use PI (my electronic horse) initially to help my student acquire “self awareness”. The weight sensors and cameras enable the student to see their own asymmetries and they have the time to learn what a neutral pelvis feels like without having to worry about the movement of the horse. The rein sensors enable them to see just how heavy handed (or not) they are and they can practice “giving and re-taking” of the reins and half halts without any detrimental effects on their horse’s mouth.

Once we become aware of our own, and our horse’s asymmetries we can use “dressage” exercises as physiotherapy for our horse. Changes of bend in motion are really good for developing the lateral suppleness of the horse as well as the suppleness of our own hips.

Isolating the Aids

Isolating the Aids

“The application of one aid alone will never produce an accurate and correct movement. Only the correct application and co-ordination of all the aids can bring about perfection” Charles Harris  – Workbooks from the Spanish Riding School.

An aid can only be effective if it is timed correctly so that the horse can comply to the request. Equally an aid can only be applied effectively if we have an independent seat and can isolate our hands and legs, otherwise the aid gets muffled by a whole lot of “white noise” caused by us inadvertently kicking our horse continuously or using our reins subconsciously. Looked at like that, applying our aids correctly and effectively is not such an easy task. All too many riders just muddle a long – and put bluntly follow the old adage “kick ‘em to go and pull on the reins to stop”. Just how many of us really spend time on getting our aids just right or finding out which combination of our aids our horse prefers? So this month I thought I would write about some fun exercises that not only improve your coordination and timing but can help your horse respond to your leg and rein aids in an increasingly sophisticated manner.

I originally learnt some of these exercises through an article written by George Williams, whilst some of the others are from the Ritters’ Exercise of the Month Club. All of the exercises are supposed to have originated from the Spanish Riding School.

The exercises can help the rider to learn the footfall of the horse and improve the independent use of their hands and legs. The horse benefits gymnastically from the use of circles and learns to relax from the rhythmic application of the aids. The exercises can also reveal what works best for your horse, some of the aids may make him rounder and softer, others may cause a brace. You can use these exercises to help diagnose which combination your horse prefers and how they affect his gait and posture.

To get the maximum benefit from the exercise you really to spend some time  setting out a perfect 20m circle in your school by using 4 gateways to form the quarters. This way you will know whether you are riding a perfect circle, or falling in or out.

The exercises work best for the horse at a trot, which is how they were done at the Spanish Riding School, but they can be modified and done at a walk, if you want to use them to concentrate on your actual timing of the application of the aids.

Exercises One to Six

Ride a 20m circle at a rising trot, rising on the correct diagonal – that is you sit when the horse’s outside front shoulder and inside hind leg are on the ground (if you do this exercise at a walk you need to apply the aid when the inside hind leg is on the ground).

One – Apply the inside rein, by gently and rhythmically closing the fingers of your inside hand, every other sitting moment of the rising trot. You do this over 12 strides so that you will gently close your fingers of your inside hand 6 times. You are looking to see if your horse acknowledges your rein aid by softening his jaw and beginning to flex slightly to the inside.

Wait a few strides before starting the next exercise.

Two – Gently squeeze the fingers of your outside hand every other sitting moment.  You do this over 12 strides so that you will gently close your fingers of your outside hand 6 times. See if your horse responds to this aid by relaxing at the poll. He should not bend or flex outwards. If he does, check that your aid is not too hard.

Wait a few strides before starting the next exercise.

Three – Close your inside calf inwards (the aids should be applied inwards and not backwards, and only the calf should be used) as you sit.  Ensure that you keep your leg long as you use it and do not grip upwards at the knee. Do this over 12 strides so that you will close your calf 6 times. Check if your horse feels more relaxed. Has he softened through the rib cage?

Wait a few strides before starting the next exercise.

Four – Close your outside calf inwards (the aids should be applied inwards and not backwards, and only the calf should be used) as you sit. Do this over 12 strides so that you will close your calf 6 times.

Wait a few strides before starting the next exercise.

Five – Close the fingers of your inside hand and close your inside knee against the saddle as you sit on every other stride. Do this over 12 strides. See if the horse relaxes his shoulder or moves his shoulder away from the nudge.

Wait a few strides before starting the next exercise.

Six – Close the fingers of your outside hand and close your outside knee against the saddle as you sit on every other stride. Do this over 12 strides.

Before continuing with any further exercises you can check if your horse is better able to stretch his topline by giving with the inside hand on every other sit.

Change the rein and repeat on the other rein.

Notice how the exercises have affected you and your horse. You should feel better able to coordinate the aids and your horse should feel softer and more relaxed.  By alternated your inside and outside aids you will have created a network of aids around your horse, so he should feel better balanced and not fall in or out as much on the circle.

Exercises 7 to 10

The next 2 exercises are best done at a sitting trot, although if you struggle with feeling the feet at a sitting trot they can also be done at a walk. The final exercise works best at a sitting trot but can also be done at the sit stage of a rising trot.

Seven – Close the fingers of your inside hand and your inside calf when the inside hind leg is in the air. Do this every other stride, so you repeat 6 times over 12 strides. Does your horse start to step further under with his inside hind leg and soften even more?

Eight – Close the fingers of your outside hand and your inside calf when the inside hind leg is in the air. Do this every other stride, so you repeat 6 times over 12 strides. Do the diagonal aids work better than the lateral aids used in the previous exercise or not as well?

Nine – this exercise is a stirrup stepping exercise and is intended to help transfer the weight from the outside front leg of the horse to the inside hind leg. The stirrup step should be applied as the leg mentioned touches down, between the moment of touch down and the vertical phase.  The sequence is ridden in 6 consecutive strides. Although the aid is referred to as stirrup stepping it is probably closer to stirrup whispering. Imagine gently lowering your toes as though pushing them through soft mud, or feathering a brake pedal. Apply the step with the outside foot when the outside front touches down (shoulder starts to move back) and then again on the outside front. Then apply the step with both your inside and outside stirrups for 2 strides as the outside front and inside hind touch down. Finally apply the step to the inside stirrup for 2 strides as the inside hind leg touches down. This final exercise should improve the diagonal coordination of the horse’s legs and support the swinging of the back.

The Importance of the Seat

The Importance of the Seat

A good seat is an essential if we want to be a good rider. Every book and every trainer seems to agree on this. How a good seat can be achieved or what constitutes a good seat, is perhaps a little less clear.

Perhaps the first question we need to ask ourselves is why our seat is so important when we ride? The answer is because apart from being our base of support, it is our primary aid. The seat provides an important form of communication between us and our horse. It is the only aid we cannot stop using while we are sitting on a horse; we can stop using the reins, we can stop using our legs but we cannot stop using our seat! If we are crooked either laterally or vertically it WILL affect the way our horse goes. All too many of us don’t exercise nearly enough, long hours sitting at a computer affects the way we sit, add in weak core muscles and tight hips and it is not surprising that so many of our horses have back issues.

Only a supple, well balanced seat allows the possibility of subtle influence. Our ultimate goal should be to be able to reduce our aids down to just tiny changes in our weight and position, so that to anyone watching it looks as though we and our horse are moving as one being.

Unfortunately, for most of us, a good seat doesn’t come naturally. And yet without a good seat we cannot expect a consistent and light contact or deliver our aids effectively. Our hands and our legs are reliant on our seat. Our horses don’t necessarily help us either. It is far, far easier to sit correctly whilst being lunged on a beautifully balanced schoolmaster than riding our own asymmetrically horse that has his own postural issues.  However for most of us, the former isn’t always an option so we have to make the best of what we have.

So let us look first at what is meant by a good seat. Traditionally the classical “good” seat has a three-point contact, comprising the two seat bones and crotch or the two seat bones, crotch and inner thighs. But a good seat surely has to vary depending on the chosen discipline. The answer of course is yes, the seat does need to change depending on your discipline, the movement required and whether you are riding a young, green horse or Prix St George super star. Nor is the seat static, horses are living moving beings and so our seat has to be dynamic not rigid.  But no matter whether we are riding dressage, out hacking, showing jumping or even eventing we need an independent and balanced seat that is supple enough to be able to mirror the movement of the horse!

An independent and balanced seat means that the rider needs to be able to maintain their own balance (self carriage) during upward and downwards transitions and sudden lateral movements (such as turns or even shying) without the use of artificial support (reins, neck strap, saddle), or gripping with their legs! If this is the definition of a good seat, how few of us actually have it? No wonder then that the Spanish Riding School used to expect their students to do 6 months to a year on a lunge without stirrups.

At the very least, our aim should be to allow our seat to follow the horse’s movement smoothly and to keep our centre of gravity in harmony with that of the horse. Only once we have learnt to sit without tension in secure balance can we really follow the movement smoothly and be effective with our aids. An outwardly correct position with tension in the wrong muscles just causes our horse to brace.

Contact & Rein Pressure

Contact & Rein Pressure

Contact is the third building block in the classic German Scales of Training pyramid following after Rhythm and Suppleness (sometimes shown as Relaxation). However, the question of what contact is, or more to the point, just how much contact is needed and how soft or how firm the contact should be, seems to be something that a lot of people struggle with.

According to Gustav Steinbrecht (“Gymnasium of the Horse”) there are 3 gradations in the degree of contact, namely, light contact, soft contact and finally firm contact.  He states that a perfect light contact is only possible when the horse is in absolute balance and is able to carry himself in self carriage. This is basically because balance and contact are essential to each other, so the better the horse’s balance the more consistent and vibrant the contact will be. Conversely, a horse’s balance can be improved by correct contact.

Contact therefore is, in fact, ever-changing – dependent on the balance and the self-carriage of the horse. The more your horse is in self carriage the lighter the contact is. However, as we all know, there are moments during training when things don’t go to plan and our horse isn’t balanced let alone in self carriage and falls on the forehand. And when this happens, he will get heavier in the hand. The important thing here is not to try to fix the problem by pulling on the reins or shortening them even further but to try and help the horse to rebalance himself by using a downward transition or a series of half halts and double checking that you are sitting extra correctly and that you have your core engaged.

In the most basic terms, contact refers to the situation in which the reins are stretched in a straight line between the mouth of the horse and the hands of the rider. To an onlooker, correct contact should appear as an unbroken straight line from the rider’s elbow (which should be held at or above the hip) to the mouth of the horse.  For this to happen, the rider mustn’t have their hands too high or too low but at the appropriate height for the head carriage of the horse. As a rough guide the hands should be held just above and in front of the pommel of the saddle.

How the hands are held is also important to the quality of the contact. They should be held thumb uppermost with the thumbs pointing towards the horse’s opposite ear and slightly downwards as though pouring a pot of tea. Many riders ride with what I call piano hands – where the hands are turned over as if playing a piano. This position prevents riders from being able to really follow their horse’s head with their hands (so the contact is rigid rather than elastic) so they try to compensate for this by opening their fingers in the mistaken belief this makes their hands light. But instead of having a light-feeling contact, they have almost no contact or no feeling and their lower arms can’t give to the horse or be elastic. When the knuckles are almost vertical (thumbs on top) the two bones of our lower arm run virtually parallel (when viewed from above) which permits the hand to be more sensitive and responsive and our contact more elastic.

It is also important to think of riding forward into your hands!  Our hands may move outwards (as in an opening rein), inwards (as in a supporting or indirect rein) or even upwards, BUT NEVER backwards away from the mouth. And yet backwards is probably the most common mistake that occurs!

Equally one should never ride the horse from the front to the back but all too frequently this is what we do. The horse should move forward into your hands. In training for contact the horse must play an active part and the rider’s hand a waiting, passive part. In the original German version of the Scales of Training the word Anlehnung is used, which translated literally means “ leaning to” and not “pulling in”. A rider’s hand that is too active backwards or too hard leads to disruption in the horse’s balance.

Contact gives us the ability to communicate with our horse (and the horse with us). To be correct the contact should feel alive.  If you hold your hands correctly, you feel a connection with your horse. When he chews the bit, you feel a small vibration on the reins. When we have correct contact we should be able to feel a flow of energy, that stems from when our horse’s hind leg touches the ground, travels along our horse’s spine, through his neck and poll and on into the bit and then through the reins to our hand where we feel that energy as a subtle pulse.

Contact should be thought of as a tool for sculpting the horse’s body and guiding the horse. You can use the rein contact to gauge the asymmetry of your horse. For instance if your horse is crooked because the hips and shoulders are not aligned precisely on the line of travel, the rein contact will be too heavy and inelastic on the stiff side (the side which the shoulder falls out from the line) whilst, on the hollow side the contact will be too light. If the hind legs push more than they carry, the rein contact will become heavy as the horse leans on the bit. If the hind legs carry more than they push the horse will stay behind the bit (which may feel light) and avoid the contact. As such, contact allows us to feel what our horse is feeling as any brace or stiffness will have a negative effect on the contact.

To have correct contact you need to sit correctly, using your core muscles to hold yourself in balance. An independent and supple seat is the cornerstone and prerequisite of soft contact. Your arms and legs are extensions of this correct position and are able to retain their position without brace. The upper arms hang straight down to your hips and support and frame your core. In this position, you won’t need to pull on your reins to stay in balance and conversely if the horse leans on the reins, you have the strength of your core to keep you from being pulled forward. Even when we ride with contact, we have to bear in mind that our reins are only a secondary aid. Our seat is the primary aid and it is the engagement of our core that helps the horse to engage his abdominals and find his balance.

The amount of actual ‘weight’ in your hands when taking contact will vary from horse to horse due to conformation differences and as already explained, the “frame” or level of schooling of our horse. The contact feels at its heaviest when the horse is stretching forward and down, becomes lighter as the horse comes into balance and even lighter when the weight starts to shift to the hind legs so that the horse now ‘carries’ himself (self carriage).

Another important factor is we have to learn to accept the contact from the horse as he moves into our hand. So many riders ‘give’ the rein as soon as they feel the horse coming to their hand. If they do this regularly, their horse will never be able to step in to the contact. You need to have a steady hand that ‘accepts’ the contact and closes the circle of aids. If you give away the connection at the same time you ask the horse to step under and carry more weight on his hindquarters the effect is like squeezing a toothpaste tube with the top open,  the energy runs out the front and the horse doesn’t achieve the rounded frame you want.

When the rein contact is loose and floppy the horse cannot feel fine finger communication. Without rein contact he cannot learn to go into the round balanced frame needed for true self carriage. However once the horse can hold a round balanced frame, the reins may be given to him for a few strides to see if he can maintain self carriage.

Too strong a contact will block forward movement and prevent the horse from feeling light communication and whilst it might force the horse’s head into position, he will probably “break” between the second and third neck vertebra (sometimes between the third and fourth), drop his back and trail his hind legs in compensation. Too strong a contact also causes discomfort, numbs the mouth and can damage the nerves.

So what is correct contact?  As already mentioned the reins must be neither too short nor too long but form a straight line between your elbow and the horse’s mouth. It should be the horse who seeks the contact and the rider, in turn, who grants it. In fact the definition of contact given by British Dressage says it all “ the ideal contact is a light, even, elastic feel in both reins and this is achieved by aids from the legs and seat, not the hand”.

Having said all that it is really hard to know just how hard you grip the reins. If you live in the UK my electronic horse, PI, is a great tool for seeing what really happens when you take up the reins. Sensors positioned at the bit record the actual amount of rein contact that you take up and show you just how light or heavy your contact really is. If your contact is more than 1.6kgs per rein the display goes amber to show that your contact is too heavy.

It is interesting to see what really happens when you give a half halt and whether you throw the reins away when you release it. It is also fascinating to see what happens to the contact when we do a rising trot!

So far on PI I have seen as little as 250 grams of pressure per rein to over 4kgs per rein. The contact can differ between the hands too – with the maximum variation between the left and right hand recorded so far being a massive 2.5kgs!  Remember that our contact should be even – assuming we are riding on a straight line and our horse is in balance. Unfortunately, hands that are too strong are all too common. A recent study in Sweden found that their riders took an average of between 1.5kg and a massive 2.5 kg of rein contact in each hand. So much for that light, elastic contact that BD talk about!

 

 

 

 

Relationship

Relationship

It has been a couple of months since I last wrote my last article, as apart from being on holiday and spending spent some quality time with my own horses, I have been thinking long and hard about what this article should be about. Then I had one of those light bulb moments – both my horses had given their all the other morning, Abee on line and Yafee at liberty and we were having a group scratch – when I suddenly realised that despite writing numerous articles about correct biomechanics, groundwork and riding, I had never written about the most fundamental requirement in horsemanship, relationship.

Of course, by the very nature of the word, everyone has a relationship with their horse. After all any 2 or more beings have a relationship, as the word means nothing more or less than how two (or more) beings connect. So, even if your horse hates you and you hate him – that is a type of relationship. However, that is not the sort of relationship I had in mind. From my perspective the relationship that I want with my horse and that I am referring to as being one of the foundation stones of true horsemanship, is one that is based on trust and respect, where 2 beings WANT to be with each other. A relationship that is truly two-way, where I respect my horses space and take his point of view into consideration and he respects my space and takes my view point into consideration.

If I am honest, I have really only had this type of relationship with my own horses within the past 15 years, despite the fact that horses have played a major part in my life for over 60 years. I had always considered myself a “horse-lover” and would have argued until I was blue in my face that I loved my horses, but it was probably riding that I really loved, rather than the individual horse. When I was a child I dreamt of having a relationship like Joey had with Fury or the young boy had with The Black.  Then I lost that dream, that was fiction, it wasn’t the way real horses behaved. Why should they? After all, I didn’t consider if my horses were really happy with their lot  – whether they liked competing, were frightened of trailers or liked jumping. I just expected them to do what I wanted them to do, when I wanted them to do it – and under no circumstances to try and tell me what they were really thinking or feeling – if they did they were being naughty. After all it was totally “normal” to put a martingale on a horse, use a stronger bit, use spurs or have a horse that was hard to catch, or perhaps difficult to load! It still amazes me to this day  just how blind I was.

If I really want to do amazing things with my horse – to have (in the words of Bent Branderup) “two spirits who want to do what two bodies can do” then I need a superb relationship with my horse as my foundation.  To get this relationship takes time and effort – we have to put aside our ego and appreciate that the horse is as important as we are! Fortunately with horses, it is never too late to build the sort of relationship to which I am referring. They are the most amazingly forgiving creatures and even if you have had a rocky relationship with your horse to date, if you are prepared to invest the time and effort and to start to listen to your horse then you can change that relationship around.

Obviously your safely is of paramount importance. So if your horse is aggressive towards you that needs to be dealt with first  – perhaps even consider calling in a professional to find out why. Most horses aren’t naturally aggressive; so if they are aggressive it is normally caused by pain or fear.

The next step is to spend some undemanding time with your horse – quality time from your horse’s perspective. Go sit in the field with him – and let him come to you. Learn to read his body language, how to observe, and what to observe. Start to be aware of the smallest signs – awareness leads to feel.

If he doesn’t come up to you don’t worry, it might take time ( several or even numerous visits). Spending undemanding time will help your horse gain trust in you and enable you to reflect on what you are really seeing and feeling rather than doing. If you really struggle with “being in the now”, take a good book and just observe your horse occasionally. When your horse does approach, do nothing – let your horse take the first step, touch or whatever, and just be. Don’t scratch or stroke unless you know that your horse really likes it. The time you spend with your horse without doing or expecting anything is time well spent – you will “feel” each other better and understand each other more.

Once your horse is comfortable with coming to you, then your next step is for you to approach your horse in the field. Do just that and only that, walk up to your horse; treat, scratch or do something your horse likes – then walk away. It doesn’t matter if you walk away and sit down or if you walk out of the field completely. You are still totally undemanding of your horse. Do this for a few days, does he start to want to stay with you? Then think about taking your horse out for walks – gentle ambles along the lanes – going from one grazing patch to another.

One you have worked on the basics of the relationship – it is time to strengthen that connection by learning and using a new language, the horse-human language. This isn’t just a “Natural Horsemanship” concept –   communication is the foundation for good horsemanship!

Body language is the key to you understanding your horse and your horse understanding you. Start to think about what your body is saying to your horse, are you applying too much pressure? Is your message congruent? Is your primary aid (body) at odds with your secondary aid (rein/whip)? Learn to read what your horse is saying to you – the head turned away, a relaxed neck,  a high head, a twitch of an ear, a wrinkled nose, a tail swish – all mean something. Learning to “speak” and “read” takes time and effort. If you need help ask a professional for a few lessons as this can help speed up your learning process and stop you making some elementary mistakes.

Once you have the basics in place you can continue to develop your communication skills and relationship with training your horse, either on the ground, in the saddle or a combination of the both.