The other day someone called me “old school.” That comment was largely prompted because I use an ancient Passier saddle with no thigh blocks, and I expressed my dissatisfaction with the “modern” saddles that, in my opinion, severely limit the freedom of the leg.
I began my dressage career riding in an old Crosby jumping saddle, trying to do first and second level work on a 15’2” hand Morgan/TB/Quarter cross named Venture. I struggled and struggled to get my leg back under me when riding in that saddle — it never occurred to me that I needed a new saddle — it wasn’t in the budget anyway. One day when watching Elizabeth Madlener it struck me that she always had her leg so beautifully back under her, though her toes were pointed down to reach very long stirrups. I tried lengthening my stirrups so I could hardly reach them, and low and behold, my leg went back!
As a teacher, I’ve seen time-and-time-again that beginning riders can not get their legs back and their heels down at the same time, so I’ve taken to teaching legs back first. There are several reasons a teacher is compelled to do this:
- Many riders are big and heavy in today’s world. Letting them crash down on a school horse’s back is not okay.
- No beginning rider has any muscles to “hold” themselves in a balanced position. It’s the job of a teacher to help them find a way to balance themselves on their stirrups until they develop some muscle (often it takes a year for even a bit of muscle to develop with a once-a-week rider).
Riding is developmental. A rider doesn’t learn everything the first day, week, month, year. They must be taught in a logical progression. First I help them develop their balance, then we work on rein and leg aids and the use of the stomach/diaphragm/back to influence the horse. The phrase “heels down” only enters my vocabulary when I teach jumping and occasionally when the rider has other balance problems that necessitates this change.
Since I believe developing a deep heel is critical (when the time is right), all riders jump a little so they get the idea of the required balance for jumping. Jumping for dressage riders helps me teach so many things. However, putting the heels down causes flexion in the wrong places and ruins the use of the stomach/back for most riders when it’s done with the long dressage stirrups. It causes some of the ugliest pulling on the reins and resulting in some of the worst dressage riding imaginable. Heels down with flexing the backs of their thighs, and/or excessive inner thighs and buttocks tension destroys the harmonious relationship one seeks to develop with the back of the horse, since it translates to harshness on the horse’s back and a chronic driving seat that sends hyper or fragile-backed horses nuts. That’s why, in my developmental progression, it takes about 15 to 30 years before the rider is able to put heels down while riding dressage.
If we weren’t teaching impatient, economy-minded Americans we might keep them on the lunge for a year, but realistically, they are going to be riding in a group very soon.
I’ve always had people I admire, and I’ve taken clinics or regular lessons from some of the best, but often I’ve been outside of the mainstream in my riding. I think that’s because I defer to my horses more than another trainer for the answer to riding questions I have. I listen to the thoroughbred who says “get off my back,” and Arab who says, “Give me confidence,” and the warmblood who says, “Don’t bully me, treat me fairly and explain clearly.” I also have to listen to the lazy horses who say, “I’d rather be eating hay, what can you do to motivate me?”
My answer is, “Use my own brain and intuition to understand what my horse is whispering.” I may be old school, but my horses’ backs are happy, and they are through and they are beautiful. Is this old-fashioned?