Absorbing the Movement, Part 1
What is the most important thing that an instructor can teach a beginner? ‘How to stay on' is probably the subject uppermost in the mind of a new rider!! But, how often to you hear instructors advising pupils to 'sit deeper', 'relax your back', 'try to sit still, or 'go with the movement', in their efforts to assist the pupil to adhere to the saddle? For the novice rider, such statements are about as clear as mud, because they are not specific instructions as to how to absorb the horse's movement under the rider.
The most common thing that impedes movement is the rider pushing with the seat. You will often see riders on 'lazy' horses, trying to urge the horse forward by pushing their pelvis forward strongly, rather like a child operating a swing. This actually has the opposite effect on nearly every horse - stopping the movement from being able to happen. The horse's back works in two halves, and so should the rider's seat. Thankfully, the Almighty saw fit to design the human rear end in two halves, making it not only easier to walk, but also easier to synchronise with the horse!
By pushing both seatbones forward and back together, the rider depresses one side of the horse's back as it rises and blocks the travel forward of the hind leg on that side. This causes the horse to get slower and slower, and in the case of sensitive trained horses, will stop them dead in their tracks. The usual response from the rider is to think that the horse is being lazy and therefore give them a kick and a wallop or two with the whip to get going again, whereas in fact the poor horse is trying to tell them 'I can't move , you are stopping me'! - and the horse gets another kick as his reward.
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 to mirror the undulations of the horse's back. Sitting on a stool, flex your back in, so that you emphasise the natural slight hollow in your lower back. Feel how your pelvis rocks forward onto the front edge of your seatbones, which are shaped like the rockers of a rocking chair. Make sure that your upper body stays still, and that it is not also rocking back and forth, it is just the pelvis that should move. Now, return the pelvis to upright, so that the back is flattened again, taking care not to go past the point where it is just flat, and not rounded out the other way so that the ribcage is collapsed. Practise this a few times, flexing the back in, then flattening, feeling your seatbones acting as a pivot point on the stool.
This is the main movement used in 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, there is no noticeable up and down movement, only the side to side undulation, which is why even a total beginner can sit on the horse without feeling unsafe. It is in trot and canter that the difficulty arises.
The movement of the back and seatbones in walk is the same as we make on foot when walking, and the movement in sitting trot, is the same as we make on foot when running; in canter the movement is the same as if we were skipping, not on the spot with a rope, but as a child would when skipping along, leading with one leg just as a horse would in canter.
'Driving with the seat' is a common instruction when sitting trot is being taught and also in canter. The action of pushing both seatbones forward at the same time also causes the thighs and knees to drop down together, and the lower legs to slip back. As the seatbones slide forward, the thighs and knees rise, and the lower legs slip forward again, hence the lower legs waggle back and forth involuntarily at every stride.
Watch any really good rider - and when I say really good rider, one whose movements appear to blend imperceptibly with those of the horse and who appears to be doing nothing- and you will notice that the thighs and knees rise and fall only once at every stride in sitting trot. Watch from the front of the horse if possible and you will clearly see that the thigh and knee drop and the lower leg then follows the swing of the belly, as the horse's back lowers on that side. Then as the other side lowers, the thigh and knee on that side also lower, and the leg just closes lightly with the belly as it swings away. The legs then remain quiet and still and the rider can clearly feel every movement of the legs of the horse underneath.
This driving seat is also the cause of the rider's hands chopping up and down. Try this just sitting on a chair. Sit as you would on a horse with your hands in front of you, as if holding the reins. Now push both seatbones forward and back together, and note how your hands rise and fall as you do so. Now, imagine you are walking on your seatbones, and push one hip forward then the other, and you will find that your hands stay still. It is almost impossible to drive with the seat and have hands that are independent of the reins.
To be continued… Part 2 - 'The Paces and Seat Aids' will appear in next issue.
Copyright © Enlightened Equitation 2004 Heather Moffett
Enlightened Equitation, East Leigh Farm
Harberton, Totnes, Devon, TQ9 7SS, UK
UK fax 01803 863676
Int'l fax 00 44 1803 863676