How do I get my horse to move “more forward”, how do I get him to have “better impulsion”, how do I keep my lower legs from swinging forwards/backwards, how do I stop my horse from “falling in or out” through the shoulders and have a better balance – all these questions are some of the most commonly asked ones among many riders and so today I would like to chat about an important element riders might need to work on before being able to solve those issues.
STABILITY – THE MAGIC OF EFFECTIVENESS. How to Improve It…
Our stability in the saddle or in other words being independent of horse’s actions yet harmonious with them, is probably a single most difficult and most important skill to acquire for anyone who wishes to school/train horses. It also determines how effective you will be on a horse that is already well schooled.
When in the summer of 2011 I tried to ride a series of 7 one tempi changes across the long diagonal of the arena for the first time, I felt like I was competing for an Olympic Diving medal. My usually ok stability of the seat proved useless as the physics put the horse more and more downhill with each change, our line reminiscent of slalom giant and the reins going form lightly connected in canter to having stupid amount of weight attached to each. It took me several goes on that day to even complete the task in semi-acceptable manner without hitting the ground with our noses but as soon as I was off the horse I knew I needed to up the strength in my seat if I was to help the horse.
Several weeks of everyday focus on my stability on and off the horse helped me improve both my own and horse’s balance and we could do the changes with the mare staying lighter on the bit, happier and more relaxed. She was a schoolmistress and knew the job, it was up to me to work on myself so she could do the movements better. If I was to teach her those lines of changes, I would have to work much harder on my own skill at the time.
I tend to think that without stability, there is no true relaxation (try standing on a tennis ball on one foot with the other in the air…with practice you can relax the “redundant muscles” and only use the ones you really need to maintain your balance on the ball but at first you will very likely be employing way too much tension and effort. Once you can relax some muscles and only work the ones you need, your balance will feel much more effortless) .
Without relaxation there is no greater balance. Coming from this belief it is no wonder I put a lot of emphasis on seat training in all the riders who come to me wanting to improve their effectiveness.
How stable is stable enough?
You might ask, why do I need this hard earned, fantastic stability if I am not interested in ever riding movements that require high degree of coordination and balance from the horse? You will be right, you don’t need such a degree of it at all. If all you want is a healthy balanced horse doing low level dressage or jumping or hacking, you simply need to acquire enough stability to match requirements and needs of your horse.
Start and Foundation Level
For riders on my Start and Foundation level programmes (beginner to intermediate riders who work primarily on own skills rather than those who learn to school a horse) I focus on developing a thorough basic stability.
I do this by working on:
1) Core muscles: major and minor deep muscles of the torso and pelvis. There is so much about it all over the internet I won’t go into it now (but if you want me to do a post specifically on how I work on rider’s core muscles please let me know and I am happy to do so 🙂
2) Identifying and using rider’s thigh muscles correctly in order to:
a) be able to start using the thigh position and inner strength for maintaining own balance
b) teach the rider the meaning of the “seat” (core + pelvis + thighs)
Here’s my teaching routine:
First of all I ask the rider to sit as relaxed as possible with their legs loosely dropped from their hips. This allows me to asses the natural tendencies in the rider’s body like perching forwards, leaning back, collapsing one way or the other, gripping etc It also gives me a chance to relate the rider’s built (like the length of the thighs, the proportions of their bodies: upper body to lower body etc) to the horse’s conformation, the saddle, the position of stirrup bars etc All those details will influence the rider’s position and later the way they influence the horse.
Once I have an idea about the above I ask them to find neutral pelvic position. I don’t think there is a text book image of this as everybody is different so the rider has to find its own neutral spinal alignment. I use posterior and anterior pelvic tilt to give the rider an idea about the two extremes, then help them find the one in between.
I then ask the rider to sit with what they perceive as a relaxed but toned upper body posture (when possible we practice this off-horse before moving on to the saddle), elongate their spine and maintain slight abdominal muscles engagement.
Then we move onto identifying different muscles around pelvis and thighs….
On photos above from left to right: I put my hand behind rider’s calf asking her to push against it as if she wanted to move my hand backwards. Then I draw her focus to the feel she gets when she pushes my hand back and how it engages her thigh muscles. I then place my hand in front of her toes and ask her to push against my palm again. These muscles are often much stronger than the latter. Finally, I place my forearm against her lower leg lightly and ask her to push against it with her lower leg outwards as if she wanted to take her whole thigh away from the saddle. This gives her feel for yet another set of muscles..
The muscles that I really want the riders to find are those that will almost instantly give them control over thigh position...Here is how I do so in the saddle: I ask the rider to palpate their hip bone and then slide their fingers to the side of it where they can feel a little dip/shallow shape. They are to keep a couple of fingers there. I then press my hand against their lower leg (as on the big photo on the collage above – excuse the quality, it’s taken from a video) and ask them to rotate their thigh bone inwards just a fraction and push against my hand outwards with the whole leg starting at the hip. This action moves whole thigh away from the saddle for a moment. Then I help the rider to achieve the same while keeping their legs gently touching the horse’s sides.
Sometimes it takes a few goes to do it right but when done correctly the rider can feel a tiny muscle belly popping up underneath their fingers. Once they can feel it, there starts the game of using those newly find muscles in motion 🙂 This little change brings huge results when it comes to rider effectiveness…
[I was taught this method by a Centred Riding instructor in 2003 and in 10 years I have been teaching this I am yet to meet a rider who, when corrected this way, did not improve their seat effectiveness and posture dramatically].
From my observations of riders learning to develop their seat as well as from analysing my own riding, no matter how strong the core muscles are, if we don’t use our thighs correctly (both in terms of position and muscle use) and then connect both the core, pelvis position and thigh use, we are going to struggle with seat effectiveness and stability.
Development and Performance level
For riders who school own horses or those who want to test themselves more, I work on dynamic stability more extensively including regular off-horse exercise routines. Even when done once a month by fairly leisure riders, they do bring very visible results!
My off horse workshops on very simple rider bio-mechanics games are designed to awaken rider’s balance skills. Apparently, and I quote a professional physiotherapist here, balance skills are one of those every single one of us can improve. Some of us have it naturally better developed, some less but they are not static in their status!
Below is an older video I took of two riders on Aspire Development Programme during their pre-XC work out on balance and stability. How we position each part of our bodies matters. The riders are playing and experimenting with different angles of their upper bodies and learning to remain in a “kneeling down” or “skiing” position at all times in order to maintain their independence of horse’s problems as well as to absorb the horse’s movement to the best of their abilities.
As you can see, it’s not easy 🙂
More experienced riders will appreciate how connecting their core use to pelvis stability to thigh use expands their feel and control of horse’s movement. How it helps improve throughness in the horse, this elusive big goal many dressage riders strive for.
One rider after she first tried it described it to me as a “feeling of all the insides of the horse” 😉 To me it feels like I could pick a horse up or place it left or right by their ribcage and guide them wherever I need them to be. It’s the feeling of control over impulsion in the horse, over own body parts, over contact…It’s the most incredible feeling as it allows you to be light yet shape the balance of the horse. It comes and goes and it doesn’t appear from nowhere. It takes a lot of work. Independent, supple and stable seat used with empathy is to me what makes a good rider.
How do you work on stability of your seat, core and thigh use? Do you? Do you think it matters?
Until next time 🙂
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