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.
Is an accomplished rider, clinician and published author who combines her extensive knowledge in classical dressage, biomechanics, ethology, human anatomy and zen principles to guide riders on their journey to self-improvement. The goal: harmony & lightness in the cooperation between human and horse.