For the Rider
Absorbing the Movement, Part 2 - The Paces and Seat Aids
This continues on from last issue's Part 1, in which Heather discussed the seat, the horse's back, and synchronisation with the horse's movement.
If the rider is to sit easily in the saddle, as if softly glued to it, then the only way that this can happen is if the rider is totally synchronising his own lower back and pelvis, mirroring and absorbing all of the upwards and downward undulations of the horse's back. In essence, by flexing and straightening the spine, you are lengthening and shortening your spine by the same amount as the horse's back is rising and falling - in this way, the seat remains softly on the saddle, neither bouncing, nor gripping. The horse's back does not only move up and down, but also from side to side.
In walk, it is necessary to synchronise your movements with those of the horse. Allow your seatbones to rise and fall in turn as the horse's back lowers on one side, simultaneously rising on the other.
In trot, this allowing of the seatbones to rise and fall individually must be maintained, together with flexing and flattening the spine in the manner described above, in the one, two, one, two rhythm of the trot. This will keep the seat adhering easily to the saddle, because you will be moving as one unit with the horse, not against him. It is important not to try to achieve too many strides at first. Most riders find it difficult to co-ordinate for more than half a dozen or so strides to start with, so be satisfied with that.
Do lots of transitions between walk and trot, which will also greatly benefit your horse, ensuring that the quality of the gait is maintained, therefore making it easier for you to sit to as well. Gradually build up until you can maintain ten or twelve strides, then fifteen or sixteen, and so on, until, before you know it, you will be able to sit comfortably to the trot for as long as you need to when schooling or in a lesson.
Likewise in canter, the back needs only to flex and flatten in the one, two, three, one, two, three rhythm of the stride. It is the lower back that must absorb the movement, not the upper body by rocking back and forth. Not only does the latter look ugly, the seatbones are pushed down concavely against the horse's back, which is trying to come up convexly under the rider, if the canter is not to be flat and lifeless. 'Rowing' with the shoulders makes the seat heavy, and 'squashes' the canter, making it very much more difficult for the horse to lift and round his back under the rider. I have another simulator that is purely rider powered, i.e. it acts on springs. If the rider pushes down against the canter, rowing with the shoulders, the machine reacts by 'bottoming' on it's springs and nearly bucking the rider off! The sobering thought is that if it does this to a machine, how much worse must it feel to the horse?
Allowing the lower back to absorb the movement in this way does not prevent the horse from raising his back. The seatbones acting as a pivot and merely mirror the rise and fall of the horse's back, allowing the canter to rise up under the rider's seat, and not restricting the back of the horse. The rider also appears to remain very still in the saddle, which is so much more pleasing to the eye, than all of this obtrusive upper body movement that is so often seen in canter.
It is important not to move, at any time, more than the horse. It is common to see riders over flexing the back so that there is a very pronounced wobble in the middle. This is made even more obvious if the rider is not absorbing the movement through a unilateral rising and falling of the seatbones. If the rider pivots on both seatbones at the same time, then the middle section of the back will wobble excessively, the ripple going as far as the neck and shoulders. This produces the 'nodding head syndrome' so often seen in sitting trot. The more collected the trot or canter, the less the lower back will have to flex. Another common instruction to the rider is to 'tuck the tail under', and because the movement can then not go through the lower back, it also causes a pronounced head nod, as the movement cannot go through the lower back and comes out in the next available flexible place - again, the neck and shoulders.
This is where I run up against some of my colleagues, who teach that the pelvis and lower back should remain as still as in the collected paces, at all times. I disagree - if the rider does not move as much as the horse the horse will, nine times out of ten, retard his own movement accordingly.
The Aid of the Seat
This response from the horse, however, becomes a valuable tool in its own right - the retarding aid of the seat. In all downward transitions, whether from canter to halt, trot to walk, or whatever, if you close your seat by tightening your buttock muscles, and closing together the upper part of the thigh, the horse feels the difference between you moving with him, and deliberately arresting that movement. His reaction is to slow or stop, according to the strength of the aid used. This must still be used in conjunction with the lower leg lightly closed around the horse to keep the hindquarters stepping through into the transition. All horses will react to this, whether they have been trained to or not. It is a biomechanical reaction, not a conditioned response, although the more that it is practised the more sensitive the horse will become to the varying strengths of the aid used. For instance, my own stallion will go canter-halt, with a strong squeeze of the seat, canter-walk with slightly less squeeze, and canter-trot with a lighter squeeze still.
This is the secret of smooth transitions, whereby the hand does not predominate, and so the neck is not shortened and compressed. How many times do you see on dressage test sheets 'Horse short in the neck'? This is because the hand is pulling back to slow the horse or attempt to collect him. When the seat is used as a slowing, (or collecting aid, an advanced and subtle use of the seat aid which differs from the slowing version, which we have not space to explain here), the horse can step forward into transitions, not be pulled into them.
You will be surprised at how much your 'feel' and timing of the aids develops as you become more aware of what is going on under you. It can add a new dimension to your riding, and increase your ability to be able to school your horse without producing the resistance and evasion that 'unfeeling' riding causes. Always remember, that if you do not have a clear understanding of what you are asking your horse to perform, how can he be expected to understand? Above all, listen to your horse, because he is the best teacher of all.
Copyright © Enlightened Equitation 2004 Heather Moffett
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