How do you ask your horse to transition from walk to trot? Would it be weird if I share with you that I trot my horse from the movement in my nose? But is is true, I do. And I ride my trot transitions from collected trot to extended trot and back to collection from my nose too.
When I like to transition from a walk to a trot, what I really want is to change the rhythm of the walk into the rhythm of a trot. Picture the spine and rib cage of the horse as a pendulum. What I want to do, is change the three-dimensional swinging of the horse’s spine by influencing the pendulum in the right moment. If I hit the pendulum in the wrong moment with my seat or legs, I block the movement of the pendulum. I restrict the three-dimensional swinging of my horse’s spine. If I catch the pendulum in the right moment, I can positively influence the energy and swing of the pendulum. I can change the three-dimensional swinging of my horses back from walk to trot.
I could do this by changing the rhythm in my seat: moving my seat bones and hips faster. A well responding horse would follow my movement almost immediately and pick up his own rhythm to match it with mine. However, as there is always a delay between my increase in rhythm and the horse’s response, there would always be a brief moment where we are working against each other and my seat bones and hips are not moving together with the horse. This is unpleasant for the both of us. And I don’t like to teach this to students because it takes time to train the horse to respond properly. So the ‘moving against each other’ moment is too long. So instead, I let my hips follow the movement that is there. I stay in the ‘now’, together with my horse, in my hips always. I start the increase in rhythm somewhere else. My preference is my nose, but it could also be in the ankles. When that part of my body starts to increase rhythm, my sensitive horse that is tuned into my seat and rhythm, will automatically pick up his own rhythm, match it with mine and start trotting. It is the same with transitions within the (sitting) trot. The amount and speed of the movement of my nose determines the length and rhythm of the horse’s steps.
When we follow the movement of the horse’s back, our hips lift and drop in the rhythm of the horse’s hind legs. When the horse’s ribcage gets lifted, so is our upper leg. On the other side, the rib cage swings down and our leg drops. Because the belly of the horse is swinging left and right, we have a lift and drop in the horse’s spine and the horse is taking us forward, the movement in our seat becomes a three-dimensional movement. This movement gets into all parts of your body, so when I ride a walk or sitting trot and my head is relaxed balancing on my neck, even the tip of my nose follows this movement. By nose, almost invisible, moves up and down and left and right, drawing a little horizontal figure eight in the air in front of me, Also my legs swing in the horse’s rhythm down, which is especially easy to feel on a bareback pad on a well moving horse. When we release our ankles without stirrups, we can feel how even our feet swing in little figure eights. When we follow the movement of the horse, we swing in his rhythm. When we want to change the movement, we need to change our movement. But my butt is always the last thing to change, as that is the part that is physically connected with my horse. I don’t want to do something the horse is not doing, as that means going agains the movement. Instead, with the rest of my body I guide the movement to what I like it to be and my hips follow when my horse responds. My hips continue to follow the horse. They stay in the ‘now’ and ride what is there.
The difference can be very subtle in a good rider with a sensitive horse. Your change and the horse’s change will happen practically instantaneous. So it is hard to decide where the change started. In your hips or elsewhere? But in a not so advanced rider and/or horse it is very clear. When we start with changing in the rhythm in the seat and the horse does not follow, we see riders pushing into their horses back. Or we see people pushing with the lower leg instead. But any time we feel we have to push a non-responding horse forward, we will find ourselves tensing somewhere in our body. We block the swing of the pendulum, because we catch it in the wrong rhythm. That does not help to get a horse forward. So instead, see if it benefits you to release your head and ankles and increase the movement from there. Feel how the pendulum in the spine of your horse makes your entire body swing. Increase this swing with your nose and/or ankles. Almost like ‘bobbing’ your horse from walk into trot. If your horse does not respond, kiss with the lower legs but stay in the rhythm. This means, NOT with 2 legs at the same time, but left/right in the swing of the horses stomach. Is it not enough? Apply a small tap with the stick just behind your leg to explain what you mean. But even the tap with the whip needs to be in the correct swing of the pendulum. And.. it should never stop the movement in your body. Your neck and ankles stay released. Your nose continues to swing. Stop your body and you stop the back of the horse from swinging. Keep your body released and in rhythm with your horse, and then see if you can guide the rhythm into a trot rhythm. Picking up the walk into a trot. And let it start in your nose. See what happens!
Pushing hands is a training routine in the Chinese martial arts as a way to teach students, among other things, the concepts of sensitivity, timing, coordination and energy. Pushing hands teaches a student to allow her body to yield to- and redirect force rather than resisting it with strength. Our natural instinct is to resist force with force. When somebody pushes against us, we often stiffen to resist the force. When we stiffen, we loose balance. When we are centered and relaxed, we can yield while remaining stable and grounded. The metaphor of bamboo in the wind is often used to describe this concept. The bamboo is strong yet flexible. It moves with the wind instead of resisting the wind, and because of these qualities, it doesn’t break.
The pushing hands training from tai chi can teach us some valuable lessons which we can apply to horse riding.
We all know horses that fall on the shoulders, ‘grab the bit’, and put weight on the reins. It feels like the horse is pulling on the riders hands. The rider’s reflex can be to hold or even pull back. This tenses up the rider and requires a lot of strength in the arms. There are even some ‘rider fitness’ training programs that recommend riders to work out their arms just to be able to ‘hold’ this pull on the reins. With a rider pulling on the reins in a response to an out-of-balance horse, the horse stiffens also, and puts even more weight on the bit. This results in an even more out of balanced horse, which requires even more strength in the riders arms, and so on.
With a rider who simply lets the reins slide through the hands when the horse pulls on the bit, taking no contact, the end result could be a horse getting more and more out of balance also. I have seen horses who are so unbalanced that they would just continue to go faster and faster. Like an object that rolls down a flight of stairs. Once it starts to fall, it will continue to do so and accelerate on its way down.
Biomechanically, we can very simple explain the tendency of some horses to put weight on the bit. It starts with a backwards push in the hind legs, which unbalances the horse and pushes the horse’s weight forward. Before a horse puts weight in the rider’s hands, he has already put his weight on his shoulders. And it is already there that the horizontal balance of the horse is lost. The solution is not to hold against with the reins, or to take no contact at all. The solution is rebalancing the horse and rider together.
Rather than having a horse and rider pull on each other on both ends of a rein or a rider dropping the rein and losing all contact, we can use the basics of pushing hands to increase both horse and rider’s sensitivity and improve the rider’s timing and coordination in giving half-halts through the reins in order to rebalance the horse and move his weight from the shoulders to the hind quarter. This brings the horse back into horizontal balance. And a horizontally balanced horse is light in the contact on the rein.
The basic idea is simple: just like in the tai chi version of pushing hands, it is all about the connection of your arms and hands to your center. The energy from your center flows through your arms and out of your hands through the reins towards your horse’s head. This constant flow of energy is what lengthens his neck and helps him come over his back. The principle only works when your seat is correct: when your pelvis is vertical, your psoas muscles engaged and your spine aligned. In other words, without a balanced center, there is no energetic push in the arms.
When the horse has a tendency to ‘dive down’ and put weight in the hands of the rider, the rider should think of bringing her pubic bone slightly up towards her nose and at the same time send her energetic push of her arms forward and up towards her horses ears. This is a subtle thing, the elbows do not even come away from the body, it is just a slight bending in the elbows coming from the center. So instead of resisting the pull of the horse by pulling back, the rider changes the direction of energy and uses the unbalance of the horse as an opportunity to rebalance the both of them. It is a short, quick movement, and when done in the exact timing, this is the half-halt that will rebalance the horse. When the breath is used correctly, this works even better (see: Breathe into your Half-Halt).
In the pushing hands training in the martial arts, it is all about learning to find your opponents opening. That small moment where your training partner is out of balance. In that moment, you can strike and with a push or a quick pull, you make the other loose his footing. Horses know how to play this game too. In a moment that you are somewhere else in your mind, where you stiffen up or have no rein-connection, they have the opening to do something unexpected. The connection from your center through your arms and through the reins to the horses head is the best way for the horse to feel if you are ‘there’ or not. By pushing energy from your center to his head, you leave him no openings he can take advantage of. By pulling, because it unbalances and tenses you, you basically give him an opening all the time, and instead of a game of sensitivity, it becomes a war in which force is met with force. And what is reached by force will always be less elegant, less pleasant and less harmonious for both.
By pushing, you maintain an energetic connection. You feel the other and the other feels you. You can extend the horse’s upper line allowing the hind legs to come forward. Just imagine lengthening your own ‘upper line’, which is your spine. With your tail dropping down and your head flowing forward and up, your pushing hands energy will be easy to find.
Want to practice it by yourself? Use a wall or a partner. Place your feet on hip-with with one foot in front of the other. Knees slightly bend, upper body relaxed. Center en ground yourself. Make loose fists as if you are holding reins and place them agains the wall or against your partners palms. Let the energy from your center come through your arms and out your fists. Can you push into the wall or partner from your center? When you increase the energy flow, can you feel how this grounds and centers you even more? Can you maintain breathing and relaxation? Then you have find your pushing hands!
Many students may have sighed one lesson or another, thinking within themselves “oh, basic work again!”. Yes, our work educating ourselves and our horses is always about refining basic. It is in the basic work, which for me consists of circles, lateral work and transitions, that I refine my posture, breath, awareness and movement more and more. And then, when I continue into the more schooled exercises, I test if I can bring this refinement into collection.
In martial arts, it is very normal to study the same forms during the entire course of training. Masters and beginners study the same movements, although they may look completely different. In Japanese, these detailed choreographed patterns of movements are called Kata. By practicing in a repetitive manner the student develops the ability to execute those techniques and movements in a natural manner, without thinking or analyzing. The student practices to internalize the movements and techniques of these kata so they can be executed without thought or hesitation. A beginners movements will look uneven and difficult, while a master’s appear simple and flowing. Not all forms are very complicated, but there are layers to them. In the beginning, you have to remember the sequence and the movements. At a certain point, you can remember and focus on how smooth one movement flows into the next one. These can be practiced and perfected your entire life!
Horse riding is no different. By practicing the same circles, lateral movements and transitions again and again, both horse and rider will acquire a more natural, flowing quality in the movements. The movements become reflex-like and soft. The better educated horse and rider are, the more subtle, nuanced and refined the rider’s aids become. And this quality can be taken up to a higher and higher level. But the foundation remains the quality of the basic work. The more fluent that is, the better the advanced movements will be. So, practicing basics again and again is not a wast of time. It is not even boring. Because you can perfect your movements and discover new layers in them every time. So, instead of thinking that you should really be practicing flying changes by now, appreciate all the time you spend in the basic work because this is where the real quality is found and refined.
In order to position your pelvis and spine in the correct position and to allow your body to move with the movement of your horse, we use muscles. The final result is of course different for each rider because we are all shaped differently, but we all have the same bones and the same muscles. In order to reach the correct posture, riding instructors often use verbal instructions and/or visualizations, such as “sit on your tail”, “pull your miniskirt down”, sit on your pants pockets” and “sit deeper in the saddle”.
What we as riding instructors are looking for, is to find the instruction that helps you, the rider, to find the right feeling and experience. For me, I get the right result in my pelvis and spine when I think of a little weight hanging down on my tail bone. For some of my students however, that means nothing to them. When we try to reach the result without having the right experience or feeling behind it (imagine your instructor positioning you in the saddle in the ‘correct’ position and then telling you to keep this posture), we often end up trying to hold the posture with our ‘outside’ muscles. The results are stiff, not moving and it gets hard to breath. As soon as we stop trying, our body wants to move back to its old position.
But which muscles should we use, and which should we keep relaxed while we ride? And, when we know which muscles we want to use; how do we get our brain to signal to these specific muscles and not to others? The task at hand for riding instructors is as difficult as it is for someone to explain to another person how to wiggle your ears.
My seat-teacher Tom Nagel has helped me tremendously to understand the concept of tone versus tension, and describes in his books and clinics how riders can learn to engage their psoas muscles to stabilize their seat while keeping flexibility. When we learn to engage our psoas, we are stable in our seat without any tension in our abdominal muscles. This is true core stability and allows riders to still breathe deep into their center. Tense your stomach muscles while you read this sentence, and at the same time try to breathe deeply into your belly.
It doesn’t work, does it?
Experienced riders use their psoas to stabilize and to move on their horses, often without knowing what they are doing. With instructions such as “sit deep into the saddle”, “center yourself” and “Sit on your pants pockets” they try to describe their experience when they engage their true core. However, if their students follow these instructions without realizing what they are after, some students may use their outside muscles to create the same picture: tensing their abdominals to put their pelvis in the right position. It may look the same, but is does not feel the same and it does not give you the same stable flexibility. I agree with Tom Nagel that the understanding and awareness of the psoas is the missing link for many riders. I am happy to see that the knowledge about the psoas is spreading among the horse riding community in these days. (continue reading below..)
(picture: Tom Nagel testing a rider's stability in the saddle)
Tom honored us with a visit again last week, which included a 3-day Riders Seat clinic exploring the psoas muscles and finding a stable yet flexible seat. His 3day clinics cover the topics of posture, breathing and awareness and are a valuable addition for all riders of all disciplines and backgrounds and for riding instructors. All participants gained new experiences they can take home to work with on their own. The specialty of Tom Nagel, as he calls it himself, is to offer a translation service between what riding instructors are telling their students to do and the experience that riders should link to these instructions. It is a 'HOW TO' clinic, in the sense that riders learn how to use their inner core and their breath to ride. It is also a 'HOW TO' clinic in the sense that riding instructors learn new ways to give their students the experience in their own body and new words to describe this experience.
Want to know more? In Toms book Zen and Horsebackriding he explains the psoas and gives helpful exercises to learn how to engage your psoas. (ORDER HERE). In April 2018, Tom will be in the Netherlands again for another 3day clinic. You can contact Ylvie for pre-booking information.
The inside rein can have two functions: The first is that through the use of the riders inside hand, the rein can have a direct influence on the head of the horse, which we call direct rein. The second possibility is that by touching the horse on the neck, by moving the rein sideways, we move the horses shoulders out. This we call indirect rein and is the same as the neck reining concept in western riding.
Of course, also the outside rein can be an indirect rein by moving the shoulders of the horse in. This we use in turns and lateral work, such as in shoulder-in. In my article “What to do with that outside rein?”, I describe the concept of the indirect outside rein more. (read here) Also the outside rein can be a direct rein. It has the effect of reducing the bending of the neck when the horse brings it head and neck too much in.
In this article, I will focus on the inside hand of the rider, and the distinction between the direct inside rein and the indirect inside rein.
Of course, a rider’s hand never functions by itself. Or better said, it CAN function by itself (and often it does lead a mysterious life of its own in riders), but it SHOULD never function by itself. A hand, a rein, it is the extension from the rider’s core. Each rein aid given, should come from the rider’s body and travel through the rein to influence the horse. A hand used without seat comes in without notice. It comes in too sudden, too abrupt and disrupts the flow of energy through the horse. The hand as extension from the rider’s body, will allow a forward energy to flow through the rein towards the horse’s head. This encourages the horse to search forward down towards the hand and come over its back. This allows the hind legs to come forward in under his point of weight and actively carry the rider.
Often, when I ask people to use the direct inside rein to ask for ‘stelling’ in the horse (the bending at the poll that enables the horse to turn his head in and move its lower jaw to the outside), I see riders who ask this from the horse by bringing their inside hand closer to their belly button. They bring the inside rein closer to the horses neck or even touch the horses neck with it. The effect in the rider is, that their spiraling spine can no longer spiral in but rather spirals out. Their inside hand no longer flows energy forward towards the head of the horse, but rather becomes a pulling hand, blocking energy and blocking the horses inside hind leg to step forward in under his point of weight. The effect in the horse is that they take the rein as an indirect inside rein rather then a direct inside rein. They do bring their head in, but also (over)bend in their neck where the rein is touching the neck. They fall over the outside shoulder and push their inside hind leg backwards out instead of swinging it forward under. They bend their neck, but their body does not join in this bending and their back does not come up. The rein has lost its function of a direct rein asking for stelling, and has become an indirect rein that makes the horse collapse in his neck and fall over the shoulder.
The correct way of using the direct inside rein to ask for stelling is to have your inside arm and hand follow the spiraling of your spine. Your spine spirals in, your arms follow, your inside hand comes away from the neck. My Centered Riding teacher Karen Irland described it as holding a tea pot in the inside hand, actively pouring a cup of tea towards the inside your your horse’s head. I like to describe it as holding a watering can, pouring water on some nice flowers that grow in front of your horse’s inside shoulder. You can also think of simply allowing energy to flow from your pelvis, through your elbow and underarm towards the inside bit ring.
The direct inside rein should always be an OPENING rein. As if you are opening the door for your horse on the inside, allowing him to come in with his nose. If you need more asking, you can slightly lift the inside hand for a very short moment. You lift the hand by bending the elbow so that your inside shoulder stays down and relaxed. You lift in the spiraling in-moment of your movement. This aks the horse to bring his nose in, which gives you the needed stelling (bending at the poll) and bending in his neck. Combined with your spiraling spine and your inside leg, this allows for the entire horse to bend. This brings his inside hip and hind leg forward so your horse can engage his psoas muscle and lift his back.
When you use your inside hand to create an opening rein and your horse falls in on his inside shoulder, it is not the job of the inside rein to correct this. The failure of asking for stelling by bringing the hand closer to the rider’s belly button often arises from this difficulty. The rider opens the rein and the horse, not used to carry himself, falls into the opening. To prevent this, the rider keeps the rein close against the neck. The rein is then supposed to prevent the horse from falling in. As I mentioned before, this may bend the horses neck and create a lookalike, but it also brings the horse out of balance and shortens his stride. If the horse falls in when you open the hand and rein, it should be the inside leg that yields the horse back out and helps him to find a new balance with his inside hind leg under the point of weight. This can be a long process to teach a horse, but it is worth it because it improves his balance and shape. The wrong use of the inside hand is a quick fix, but also a dead-end. It results in riders who are riding 'with the hand brake on' with their inside rein all the time. Holding the inside hand close to their body and close to their outside hand. Not only does this do all the things I mentioned above, but also, riding with both hands so close together blocks the possibility of the horse lifting his withers. It literally blocks the energy flow over the horses upper line.
I recommend riders to practice in exercises such as making the circle bigger and by doing shoulder in. Catch yourself: when you feel the horse falling in on the inside shoulder, what do you do? Do you use the inside rein agains the neck? Or do you yield your horse out from your inside leg? If you do the latter, you will be able to maintain a much nicer flow, relaxation and balance in your horse.
In the Academic Art of Riding, we take the training of horse and rider very serious. In order to develop to a higher and higher level, reach more collection and ride the advanced exercises, we need to train regularly with a well thought through program and a decent training schedule. In this elegant dance between man and horse that we strive for, we require the utmost concentration, openness and connection of horse and rider. We work with small nuances. We play with balance, rhythm, tempo, the position of the shoulders and the hind legs, the shape and suppleness of the horse. And ultimately we want this all to flow effortlessly from one exercise into the next. For this to be the most harmonious and elegant dance, we need a certain lightness, a certain playfulness. But in our daily training, while working diligently on mastering the techniques and developing our horses bodies in strength and suppleness and overcoming our own physical limitations, we can get stuck in a rather hard focus. Our daily training is not effortless. It is blood, sweat and tears. And that is how everyone starts when learning something new. But getting stuck in practicing the same things over and over until they are perfect, or getting stuck in a focus on what is still not OK in your training, will make you and your horse loose the fun and will sometimes block you from further improvement. It can give you hard focus. Hard focus means that the mind may be focussed, but is not relaxed. You may have energy, but no grounding. You may have technique, but no balance. The opposite from hard focus is complete relaxation without any focus. Then, you will be stuck in the same snug comfort zone forever. It feels great, but there is no progress there.
Progression comes when you can combine your focus with relaxation and energy. In a relaxed, open mindset, you can focus without getting hard. For this relaxed, open mindset you need to get out of your comfort zone but in a way that you and your horse build up positive experiences. That is why I alternate my training days. I have days in which I train within our comfort zone, in which I do not make any attempt to make a next step. I have days in which I push the boundaries. There days in which we just relax, and days in which we play. And.. you can combine these things too! Play and moving boundaries go very well together. And it is the best combination to work on the balance between focus and relaxation in a higher level of energy!
Finding a balance between serious training and play is important. It helps to put things in perspective and brings a smile in your day and that of your horse. It helps to overcome things that are difficult, by approaching them from a completely different perspective.
I like to add playful elements in my trainings and in my lessons. Quite often, when I see one of my students getting too serious, I soften them up by using materials. I give them a certain task, something to focus on outside their own bodies and the body of their horse. I use it for myself too. I find myself quite often in my comfort zone repeating the things that are going quite nice. To get myself out of my comfort zone and to give myself a clear focus, I use materials to set out a certain task for myself and my horse. A task that is just one step up, outside my comfort zone. When successfully completed, it has helped me to make my comfort zone bigger. It has expanded our boundaries. Then, I can continue to ride the same exercises in this expanded comfort zone until my horse or myself gets a bit bored and unfocussed again. And then I think about the next step up and how to reach that next level. And then I usually get creative with materials again..
Lately, my goal has been to ride my appaloosa Fitzer in a relaxed canter to the left and right. Canter has never been his ‘thing’ and the right canter was actually non-existent. When we started to introduce the right canter again, he was physically able to do it, but mentally he got very stressed. So the first goal was to reach mental relaxation in the right canter. Simply by doing it a lot, and after each canter do some basic exercises that are inside his comfort zone to find his relaxation back. The next step, when this worked, was transitions. Riding all transitions, while keeping the relaxed mindset. Picking up the energy and bringing it down. It helped tremendously to improve his relaxed focus on me. He got attentive, quick on the aids, while keeping his cool. When we could also include canter in this work, I got a bit stuck in this part of our comfort zone again. We could do nice forward canter, nice transitions, keep our cool and ride bigger and smaller circles in canter, with some collection and extension. But what’s next? Any idea of continuing more collection or riding more exercises in the canter led to some lack of motivation on my part and some inner stress on his part. So I came back to using materials.
The exercise was very simple. Inside my 20mx40m arena, I created a rectangle, of about 25mx12m. On one of the long sides of this rectangle, I put some soft poles in 2 parallel lines, thus creating a straight line, like a tunnel, between the poles. The other long side was the wall of my arena. Then, I made the 4 corners with cones. Corners with inside and outside cones, to make clear ninety degree corners.
First in walk and trot and then in canter, the goal was to ride in this smaller ‘arena’. To make clear turns in each corner and ride a straight line on a longer rein between the soft poles on one long side and ride the shoulders a bit away from the wall and back again towards the wall on the other long side next to the wall.
The result? Left canter? Piece of cake!
Right canter? We missed some turns to begin with but managed to do the same as on the left rein in the end.
It resulted in super relaxed and confident horse that started to think for himself, looking for the openings between the cones and the soft poles, that straightened up between the poles and that collected beautifully in each turn. And a focussed yet playful rider who was not cramped in her body to do everything right, but simply focussed on the next turn or straight line and let her horse and her body do the job.
Materials give us focus. Both the rider and the horse can see where they need to go. The material helps to frame the horse, so that the rider can do less with her aids and relax in her body. For exercises that are new for the horse and/or the rider and that ask something from the horse that is still physically difficult, the rider can sometimes get a bit stuck and cramped from trying to frame the horse with her legs and reins. Materials can take over part of the job and make life easier for horse and rider. Then, when the exercise is understood and the horse knows what to do with his body, we can take the material away and let the rider guide the horse.
Materials also give us a very easy way to measure success. You either stayed between your cones, soft poles or whatever you used, or you did not. Also our horses understand this success and often become quite motivated to find the right way through the materials. Any failure should not be taken too serious. Oopsie, is usually what comes out of my mouth. Simply try again, give the horse time to discover what is expected and go slower if it turns out to be too difficult. Any success is usually followed by a huge shout of joy from the rider anyways. Believe me, that happens naturally :-)
The playfulness the material can bring to any serious rider is fantastic to watch. We all love to play sometimes, and in play we do things we would not have imagined doing without the material. The material gives our mind another goal. “Simply make that 90 degree turn in canter” instead of “Lets try a quarter canter pirouette now”. In the second phrase, I start to think “Oh my god, I am not sure if I can collect my horse so much without him stiffening up.” I want to do it perfectly. It makes my mind block my body. It cramps me up. But simply taking the turn, not micromanaging the horse, gives me a feeling of that perfect quarter canter pirouette that I can take with me on the day that I train it without material.
The ultimate effect? The material takes our focus off the details in our body and the horse. It brings fun in the work. And it gives us the relaxed focus we want in ourselves and our horses in a higher degree of energy and collection than we could have ridden without the material. Thus it helps us pave the road to that next level in our riding. It gives us a taste of the next step. Of more straight, more collection or more energy, whatever you are working on at that point. This taste of the next step, this experience of the horse straightening more, lifting his back more, collection more, this feeling is what we can then remember the next time we ride without material. It also gives us the confidence that yes, our horses and we ourselves can actually ride that exercise! The confidence it brings in horses and riders is fantastic to experience.
Have you ever heard of the term “Comparable Parts”? It means that we can take a look at our horse’s body and our own, and see the similarities. We have the same muscles and the same bones. Therefore in most cases the rule applies that what is a good biomechanics for a human to function, the same biomechanics apply to our horses.
So then what is the main difference between how a human uses her body and how a horse uses his? We once got up on our hind legs and started to walk upright. Our horses remained on all four feet. This means that our spine has a vertical alignment whereas our horses spine has a horizontal alignment. But still the same rules of biomechanics apply!
For a healthy use of the body, we want our horses to step under with their hind legs, forward under their point of weight. Because this makes their pelvis tilt, bringing their tail down and their back up. For us, the same rule applies; you want your knees to come forwards while at the same time ‘dropping your tail’, which brings your waistline back and flattens your lower back. We want to walk a collected walk. Look around you in a busy street or at an airport. Most people walk with ‘pushing hind legs’; pushing their bodies forward which makes them move with their heads stuck out and their lower back hollow. Just like we do NOT want our horses to move!
If you want to help your horse move correct, you have to sit correct on your horse. But is goes further then that. You help your horse the most by changing how you use your body in your entire daily life. Horses mirror us and we mirror our horses. Even from the ground. Even when we take them out of the field or brush them in the barn. Just like we subconsciously copy the posture of our parents, our teachers and our riding instructors. You are the biggest change when you can change yourself. It will influence the people and the horses around you when you carry yourself with poise. Your upright posture will give you more energy and more confidence.
Also when you ride, your horse will notice the difference. Sitting on his back with a hollow back yourself, your hips will be blocked and your upper legs will push the horses back down, causing him to move with a dropped back himself. Flattening your lower back will free your hip joints and will enable the horse to move his spine and bring his back up.
You want your horse to be 'round', to lengthen his upper line. By lengthening your own, you help reach this in your horse. In Alexander Technique they speak about letting your head go "forward and up" while your tail drops down. You think your head away from your tail and your tail away from your head. This lengthens your own 'upper line'.
Any tension anywhere in your body will be picked up by your horse and will give a response in your horse. Some horses are more sensitive to it then others, but as your sensitivity and postural awareness develops, so does the sensitivity of your horse.
We call it comparable parts because really, that is what it is. Your back and the horses back are one in this horse-and-rider equilibrium. Your shoulders should move with his. Your legs should move with his hind legs. Your tension is his tension and your suppleness becomes the suppleness of the horse.
In turns and side movements, this means that you will put your own body in the same position as you want your horse's body to be positioned. Your head is placed parallel to your horse's head, your shoulders turn in the direction of the movement of your horse's front legs and your legs follow the movement of your horse's hind legs.
You put yourself in the shape and position you want your horse to move in.
We communicate with our horses using signals, both while riding as in working our horses from the ground. In the horse world these signals are also known as ‘aids’. The word aid implies, correctly, that it is a signal that is supposed to help your horse. That it is there to improve something, whether it is his posture, balance, speed, shape or balance. The most common known aids are the seat, legs and reins while riding. But also the whip and voice can be used as an aid. While working from the ground, the longe line or lead rope and your body language can be used as an aid. So we have a whole scala of signals that can help us communicate with our horses in order to help them perform better.
But how can our aids be most effective? In this blog article I will identify the 6 key elements for a successful communication with your horse.
If an aid does not help, because the aids you applied made your horse get out of balance, on the forehand, out of rhythm or make him stiff, the aid obviously did not ‘aid’ your horse. It did not help him get better but made him worse. Or, if your horse does not respond to your aids and ignores them, so nothing changes after you have applied your signal, your communication doesn’t get through and you can’t aid him. You have no communication. In these both cases, basically, your aids were not aids, but merely signals that did not have any effect or not the effect you intended.
The more advanced you get into dressage exercises, the more advanced and nuanced your language with your horse will be. Subtle weight changes in your body will invite the horse to collect and extend, a gentle increase of the rhythm in your body becomes a transition.. The dance becomes ever more subtle and complex.
When you start with basic training, you don’t need to already understand the subtle weight changes that can become a piaffe. But you need to understand the what, how and why from the signals you are applying on the level you are at. Everything you want to ask your horse, you ask with a signal. Can you specify each separate signal you use? Do you understand for every signal what it is exactly you want your horse to give you in response? Do you have a good reason why you want your horse to respond to you that way? For me the why should give me an answer that explains also how I can build the next exercise out of the one I am doing right now. So how can moving the shoulders bring me a step closer to a half-pass? How can backing up bring me closer to collection? Know what you are working with and why. And, most importantly, do you know how exactly to apply your signal in the clearest way for your horse? Elements 2, 3, 4 and 5 will help you with just that.
2. Educate your horse
When we start to apply aids, we create a language between ourselves and the horse. This language is new to both of us. The horse must learn the language. He must understand what we mean by the aid we give. We need to teach the horse the appropriate response to our signals. The horse needs to have had his basic education, explaining him the signals, before we can use these signals to do exercises. Which signals you choose to teach your horse, and what exercises you want out of it in the end, that is depending on the choice of your path with your horse and what discipline you are in. Important is to realize that the horse must learn your signals and see them as aids. That means you have to treat your horse as a student and educate him. Education means explanation, motivation and feedback. You can teach a horse signals in many different ways. There are many methods about how to teach a horse anything. I am not intending to write in favor or against any of them. Whether you apply your traditional pressure and release, clicker training or other ways of positive reinforcement, whether you teach them your legs and reins while sitting on a youngster or by introducing them to him from the ground, it all boils down to your skills as a trainer to be able to educate the horse in responding to your signals. And that is exactly what many horse owners and trainers overlook: that it is not only the reward in case of an appropriate response or the increased pressure applied when a horse is not responding. The core of the matter is: How clear can you pose your question to the horse? How good of a teacher are you? How well did you manage to explain to him what answer you were looking for?
It will be easier for the horse to respond to your signal or question when it is not only understood, but also in the right timing for the horse to actually DO something in response to your aid.
It happens often that riders ask something from their horses to do in a moment it is impossible for the horse to do it. The only choice the horse then has is to ignore the aid. If this happens often enough, the horse will learn to disregard the aid altogether. The classic example from the Academic Art of Riding being this one: if you ask the horse to step further forward under his body with a hind leg, the horse can only respond to this question when his leg is being lifted, free from his body weight. The weight needs to be on the other hind leg. If you ask a horse to step under with a hind leg in the moment of his stride where he has his leg on the ground and his weight on that hind leg, will make it physically impossible for the horse to respond to you in that particular moment. This may teach the horse to ignore your question and disregard your aid.
The next thing to consider is: what if you know what you want, your horse is educated, your aid is clear, your timing is right, and nothing happens? Then, you may have to consider repeating the aid with a higher intensity. I work in a build up of 1, 2, 3. In groundwork for example, I would (1) point with the stick to the body part I want my horse to move, (2) gently tap it and (3) tap it in the intensity needed for the horse to respond. This is, considering my horse already understands the aids and is just a bit slow in his reactions. In the phase where I explain to the horse what my aids mean (the education phase), I may choose another approach, based on the character of my horse. But considering he knows it, the 1,2,3 method is what I usually apply to get a quicker or bigger response. If you apply the same aid 10 times with an intensity or energy that is to low to make the horse respond, you end up ‘pushing him every step, just getting slower and slower’. The horse will disregard your aid. If you approach it with the build up of 1,2,3 you may have to ‘wake up’ the horse with a 3 maybe once or twice, and from there on only need 1.
5. Visualize the result
Now, all of this makes no sense, if you have no clear intent in the back of your head. You should know and visualize and even feel in your body what it is you want to have happen. Then, your mind and body work as one. You will send out a consistent, clear message to your horse. Being unsure, doubting yourself, changing tactics ten times in 1 minute, all this leads to confusion and to most horses sort of ‘blocking their trainer out’. It also means that once you ask a question, you should be sure you know that the horse can answer (he understands what you mean and your timing is right) and that you know you can follow through (you can go up in intensity). You already see what you want to happen. Anything else is out of the question. This puts your entire body and soul behind your signal. Your body will change even if you don’t think about consciously doing anything in your body. It will make your question crystal clear.
6. Stop in time
Maybe the most difficult of it all is to see when to stop or reward. Especially when the horse is stil learning the language and has not fully grasped the meaning of your aids yet. We often ask for too much and don’t see the little responses of the horse ‘thinking in the right direction’. Therefore we do not release pressure, or we reward or otherwise reinforce too late. We continue to ask something bigger, instead of rewarding the horse for being on the right track. Then, the horse may stop trying his best, because we have overlooked his attempts. He will loose his motivation to try hard for you. To have the developed eye and feel to know when to stop, even of it may not look like anything has changed in the horse yet, and to allow those tiny responses of the horse to grow bigger over time, as the horses confidence in his answers grows, is the true skill of the good trainer.
When a trainer is aware of these key factors his communication becomes clearer, he is truly able to ‘aid’ his horse to a higher level of performance. The horse’s understanding of the aids can develop rapidly and save us not only time, but many moments of misunderstanding that can be frustrating for us and our horses and can even lead to dangerous situations sometimes. So, know what you want, be clear, educate your horse, improve your timing and intensity and make sure you stop and reward in time.
Have a happy training!
Photo's by Maybel van der Linden
It may seem obvious to you, but you can only ride NOW. That is: in the present moment. “You can not ride yesterday and you can not ride tomorrow” Bent Branderup, Grandmaster of the Academic Art of Riding, always says. He sees a lot of riders who try to ride the way they would like to ride in the future; over-asking their horses with exercises that are still to complicated for the rider, the horse or both. Instead, they should be aware of what they can ask of their horses in this moment, and of what they are capable of themselves, and slowly build up communication, coordination and muscles. You can only ride with what you’ve got. Meaning that you can only ask exercises on the level that the weakest link (rider or horse) can execute them with ease. From that level, things can be developed step by step, bringing horse-rider combinations to a higher and higher level over time.
My teacher Tom Nagel asks this question when he is teaching his Rider’s Seat clinics: “Can there be thoughts in the present moment?” This question often leads to a lot of confusion among the participants. First of all, what does a question about thoughts in the present moment have to do with horse riding? Then, people start to ponder the question until Tom helps them find the answer to this Zen-riddle: All thoughts are in the present moment, you can only think NOW. Every thought is born in the present moment. However, no thought is ABOUT the present moment, as while you formulate your thought, the present moment has already passed… Follow me one step further: if thoughts are never about the present moment, then they must aways be about something in the past, or about something yet to come. And that is exactly what thoughts are! In Zen, past and future are seen as concepts that exist only in our brain.
Now back to riding: Riding with thoughts about what happened before or what you want to happen in the future is taking you away from what is going on right NOW. Of course, after your ride or after an exercise, you can take time to reflect on what happened, what went well and how you want to change things for the next time. This is sensible and is called learning. Also, you are allowed to think ahead, as you must have some kind of a plan of when and where you will make your next transition. This is also sensible and is called “Clear Intent” in Centered Riding. However, you should limit your thoughts to these very practical, short thoughts that are appropriate for your riding in this present moment. Thinking about your upcoming competition, feeling disappointed or extremely proud about your last trot-halt transition half a long side ago, or fantasizing about what wonderful things you and your horse may do in the future is taking you out of the present moment. And the present moment is exactly where your horse is, always. The less you are in the now, the less you can be there for your horse and connect with him. The more you think over what just happened or what you would like in the future, the less your body and mind are receptive to what is going on right now. Your horse will feel it, respond to it and may seem less focussed or disconnected. And, you may not register some of the great things your horse is offering you!
The best way for me to get into the now is to apply Zen-meditation methods to my riding. An awareness on my breathing and posture quiets down all unnecessary thoughts and brings me in the NOW. My breathing and posture are always in the present moment. I can not use the breath I took a minute ago, and I can not ride with a posture that I may or may not have in the future. So being aware of my current breath and posture always brings me into the now. You can start with this awareness before you go and make contact with your horse, take a few breaths to clear your head. After you have mounted and start your warm up walk, take this time to check your body alignment, your movement and your breathing. Then take this with you into your ride.
Observe rather than judge. Things will be more in flow, your senses will heighten and your riding will improve. Leave each step that has been made behind you, don’t look back. Ride every stride as it comes, with your awareness on your body and the body of the horse and your minds connected. Don’t anticipate what may or may not happen, take everything as it comes, without judgment. It doesn’t matter if that exercise was good or bad, it is already in the past. Take what you need to learn from it and carry on. Don’t let judgment or anticipation get in the way. Your responsibility is to keep up with your horse, and he is in the now every step of his way. So don’t linger in the past and don’t get ahead of yourself thinking about the future.
Be in the now, so you can meet your horse where he is and you can move together from there.
If we want to improve our riding, it will all start with awareness. Awareness of what you are thinking, feeling and doing while being up there on your horse and awareness of what your horse is doing, thinking, feeling underneath you. Are you aware of your one hip moving different then the other? Can you feel your breathing change when you transition up or down? How do you feel when your approach that jump, do you believe you will make it over or are you afraid your horse will take a bar down? Can you feel the tension or relaxation in your horses back?
It is important to observe your body and your thoughts while you ride. Quite often, rider’s are so busy doing things to their horses and giving aids, that they pay little to no attention to themselves. And if the attention gets turned towards themselves a little, it often focusses on what their body is doing wrong. Instead, I recommend to start feeling what your body is doing right and where you can feel movement in your body. Start by allowing each body part to be moved by your horse. Then observe your thoughts: what do you think about while riding? Are you distracted, thinking about your grocery shopping list or the incident you just had at work, or can you fully be in the ‘now’, together with your horse? Do you think more negative or more positive thoughts? Are these thoughts about your horse or about you?
Stop thinking anything negative about yourself or about your horse. Instead, focus on what goes right and what you and your horse are able to do together. Maybe you have to adjust your goals and be happy with smaller things.
A good way to start to feel what is happening and to connect with your horse is to do this very simple exercise: Ask someone to take your horse by the rein and walk it around the riding arena. Get out of your stirrups, let your legs just hang down and if you are comfortable; close your eyes. Don’t judge what you feel, and don’t do anything. Just be soft and passive and allow the horse to move you and allow your body to be moved. Feel what is there: can you feel your hips moving? Can you feel your legs swinging? Can you feel the movement travel up your spine and get out the top of your head? Can you feel your head moving? Can you feel your own and your horses breathing?
Can you feel your own body and the horses body move together?
Then open your eyes. Does that change anything? How does the visual part of your brain influence your feeling?
Our ultimate goal is to have this feeling of togetherness all the time. To have body and mind become one, and to have horse and rider become one. In the end, two minds and two bodies becoming as one. The ultimate Centaur.
The key to this togetherness is not technique. It is not about doing. It is about being in the here and now and allowing your body and mind and the body and mind of your horse to flow. Technique helps to direct that flow, body awareness and training will help refine it. The education and physical development of your horse and yourself will allow this togetherness to remain there on higher and higher levels. But without this awareness, without allowing, training of horse and rider can get on a high level in terms of exercises, but remain mechanical. The true harmony comes out of togetherness. This togetherness comes from a state of non-doing. Of simply allowing your body and your horse to move as one, directed from your intent, with your previously learned techniques as a background program to steer things in the right direction.
I like to share my thoughts on the Art of Riding with you here. Topics related to training and keeping horses and reports of my own experiences you can find here. Enjoy!