Following your horse's motion
Posted by Irina Yastrebova on Wednesday, April 15, 2015 08:14 PM
The title of this blog is very familiar phrase every equestrian heard learning to ride a horse. The goal behind it is to encourage beginner riders to move with the horse. The problem with this is this phrase is too complicated for beginner riders to understand correctly. They cannot follow the horse not because they do not know they should but because they do not know how. They try very hard to "follow the horse" having very vague if not plain wrong idea what that supposed to mean.
The other problem with this statement is: more experienced riders having learned already to move with the horse end up following the horse's motion rather than matching it and influencing it. They end up being too easy to manipulate by their horse. This allows the horse to "shape" the rider rather than a rider shaping a horse. Through their time in the saddle from the very beginning they were bombarded with an idea of "following the horse". This idea got so ingrained in their view of correct riding that it doesn't bother them when their horse pushes their seatbones up or out, drops them to one side, etc
It would be much better if this concept was not even brought into view until an instructor had a chance to lunge the beginner rider and have an idea how that rider balances himself/herself. Then the instructor can come up with a plan on teaching a student what to do in very specific terms not vague phrases like "follow the horse" or "relax". Later on when a rider starts to get comfortable sitting on a very big animal that feels very strange and scary he/she is introduced to the concepts of matching horse's motion or sitting into horse's motion. Yes, at first a beginner must learn to match and not change or influence the horse. This skill is important to be able to become quiet and feel the horse, recognize problems, and learn the ability to not interfere. This skill is also important when starting a young horse. In my opinion, until beginner riders master this stage they must ride on the lunge line and not allowed to ride on their own. An instructor will tell the horse
what to do, transitions between gaits and transitions inside the gaits and the rider has to learn to adjust the seat without disturbing a horse. Later on a rider starts learning how to influence the horse and correct his balance, ask for transitions and also learn to steer by doing spirals in and out on a lunge line. Only then a rider has earn the right to ride on his/her own.
The few things riders must know in order to stop following their horses:
- Riders need to realize that rein and leg aids are axillary aids that support and amplify seat aids. If rider's seat pushed out of balance by the horse no amount of rein or leg aid will fix it
- The horse "pushes" rider's seat out of balance not because it is malicious, or want to be bad, or not in a mood. It does it automatically as a reaction to forces of motion and gravity. He is trying to balance himself the best he knows how. It is the rider's job to be organized enough to help the horse. When I make riders aware of how their horses push one of their seatbone up or drop them down on one side the riders very quickly start to "feel' this happening even if they are not able to fix it right away. That is the first step!
- All riders are crooked to more or less extend. It is our responsibility to our horses to learn about our weaknesses, work on developing more balanced seat and symmetrical aids. A horse will push a rider more out of balance on a weak side because it is easy to do.
- The rider's seatbones must be level and centered at all times. Rider's upper body must be vertical in left/right plane at all times during arena work on the flat. Loading one seatbone does not mean leaning to that side and lifting other seatbone up. Loading one seatbone more than other means bearing down on it more, becoming denser on that side, feeling the strength and connection starting from the shoulder all the way down to the seatbone.
- The horse must travel with his shoulders and hips level at ALL TIMES, the rest of the body is more or less vertical: head, neck and ribcage (there are slight rotations happening during bending in poll/upper neck area and in ribcage which drops slightly down and shifts to the outside), the hind legs following the front legs on single track and moving on precise lines in lateral exercises.
- The bend is a luxury. It must be developed after a horse learns to go forward, level and balanced (means easy steering with light, even contact, no falling in/out, speeding or/and stiffening). Otherwise, the horse will fold on a soft side in front of the withers and will be hard and leaning in on a stiff side. Most of the time horses start bending correctly by themselves because rider's body in order to balance properly in the turns organizes itself in such a way that it invites the horse to bend. At first circles should be octagons!
- The longer the horse was allowed to go crooked and push rider around the harder it is to fix it. Young horses are supple, adjustable and naive, they learn quickly and avoid developing bad habits if ridden correctly from the beginning. Allowing a young horse to go through his paces without offering him much guidance and showing him a better way is creating problems down the road when training becomes more focused and demands rise.
Taking on a responsibility to guide a horse in balance and lightness is a very rewarding journey. It is never boring to ride a horse, no need for extra stimulus to stay motivated. And any horse as long as it is healthy enough to work can be improved.
I have a case of a Morgan gelding who changed his career from Gymkhana and barrel racing to dressage at 24. He is now 27. With proper management he is a joy to ride. He has a talent for collection and his canter has changed from being quick, rough and hard to balance to engaged, slow and easy to ride. He is now learning counter canter, working pirouettes and half-passes.