I’m feeling thoughtful and analytical today, and for whatever reason I am thinking about horse/rider connection. I work on this a lot for my own riding and with my students and for some reason today it came burbling up and demanded to be written down. Not wanting to wake up to boisterous, demanding thoughts at two in the morning, I submit to their overbearing will and write them here:
Riders’ hands have to be still relative to the horse. In order to do so, riders’ hands have to be moving relative to the riders’ body. Because, in walk for instance, the horse moves his neck horizontally, but the rider sits largely still in a horizontal sense on his back. That means that, in order to stay connected seamlessly, there has to be a spring between the two bodies, which is the elbow.
(Think of a ship moored to a dock in high seas. This idea of a stable object and a moving object tied together represents a horse and rider. In walk and canter, the horse’s neck moves forward and back and the rider stays largely still. In trot, the rider moves horizontally and vertically while posting, while the horse’s neck does not have a significant movement relative to the rider in any direction. Therefore, the horse/rider system is like the ship and the dock. When one is moving, the other is still. Sometimes you’re the ship, sometimes you’re the dock. Now back to the ship. If there is a rope between the ship and the dock and the seas are high, the ship rises and falls with the waves and hits the end of the rope with a jar and things get jerked around – tough on ropes, ships and docks. If there is a sufficiently strong elastic band or spring between the ship and the dock that stretches and relaxes as the ship moves relative to the dock, things are much easier on the ship and the dock. The elastic band does most of the work and the communication between the ship and dock through the connection is fluid. Your elbow is the connection between the horse and you like the rope or the spring is the connection between the ship and the dock.)
The first thing I have people do is get on a lunge or bridge the reins in one hand and walk while holding on to the end of the mane at the base of the neck with the other. Try to get a long piece so that you can sit relatively normally. If you keep your hands there, they are still relative to the horse. Now walk around and see what your elbows have to do to maintain that. If you are bridging, mimic the movement of the hand holding the mane with the bridged hand. I like riders to do that for an entire ride – to just experience it and feel it. On a quiet horse in a controlled setting, it can be done at all gaits. It can be an eye opener.
Next, pick up the reins traditionally. In walk and canter, the horse makes a forward and backward bid with his neck in each step. In trot, the horse’s head is largely still, but the rider (if posting) moves forward and back. So the elbow has work to do in all gaits. I ask riders to literally look down at their reins to notice the slack and taut that might be happening. If it is, that means that the spring is stuck – the elbow is not as elastic as it needs to be. I ask riders to ride around in walk and simply look at their reins to see what they have to do to make an elastic connection all the time. (Maybe here they would wind a pinky in the mane to remind themselves what they have to do to have their hands still relative to the horse). When they have it (and sometimes it is lightning bolt miraculous and sometimes it takes a few lessons where the student unnecessarily self-flagellates. I wish we were as kind to our learning selves as we are to our learning horses!), then I ask them to focus on the feel while looking at the reins. When that works, I ask them to look up, keep the required movement in their elbows and focus on the feel. This simple exercise has surprised me in its effectiveness. I do canter next, (first watch the reins and experiment, get it right or reasonably close, then look up and feel). The movement in walk and canter is very similar (but slower in canter). Then we tackle trot, which is more a vertical movement correction than the horizontal correction required in walk and canter. Walk and canter are forward and back with the elbow. Trot is open and close the elbow (if posting).
In my own riding, I visualize a shoebox in front of the saddle; long-side parallel to the horse’s neck. My hands should always be in that shoebox, and more toward the front of it than the back. I ride around dressage warmup thinking, among other things, “elastic” and “shoebox”.
There, now maybe the connection thoughts will leave me alone tonight! 🙂