Old Fashioned Rider

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?

Open House was a Blast!

Thanks to every student, boarder, parent, and friend who helped out at the Sunborn Stables Open House. It was a great time! People got lots of hands-on opportunities, but also got a bit of education as they watched beginner to advanced riders do what they do. They also watched some exciting jumping! Thanks to all the helpers and attendees!

Horse Show Blues – What if Your Ribbon isn’t and You Are?

OK, day after the horse show and you feel rotten. Your horse and you didn’t get the scores you hoped for and you feel, “Why do I bother? I’m not any good at this! This is not a good enough horse, etc.” Remember that dressage test scores are extremely fluid. I’ve been at shows where I got 73% and 56% with the same horse on the same day. That’s because if your horse is half-a-bubble off his game, just won’t go forward, or he’s fearful, or not feeling his soundest, etc., it totally alters all your scores. Then, it affects the collectives at the bottom of the test, of course, and that ride just doesn’t score well. Plus, if you have trouble with your walk, particularly the free walk, you’re in trouble because, the judge looks at that score when determining her score for your horse’s gaits. The walk, particularly at the lowest levels of dressage, determines a lot of scores — and some are multiplied by a coefficient of 2!

If you have a depressing show, learn from your mistakes. Study what the judge said, figure out what she said that you agree with. Talk to your teacher/s. Analyze and then figure out a plan for proceeding that may help you improve. You may want to try going on the lunge line or riding some different horses. You may benefit from some massages yourself to help reduce your tension. Meditation may help you get over the horse show stress! But in the final analysis, riding is a lifelong pursuit, and most of us just pray we can keep our bodies together long enough to learn enough to do one, just one, really good test in our lives! So, don’t despair, riding is put on this earth to challenge our mettle and make sure we always stay humble!!

Finding Core Muscles

The current rage is “core muscles.” I remember years ago when I was coaching students at a show and saying, “use your core,” I was the only one saying it! Now, everyone is. So that’s good, except for one thing, . . “What the heck are the core muscles?” I’ve discovered that when I say, “Use the core,” students flex a variety of muscles, most often not the right ones! So, they become stiff all over instead of becoming effective at supporting and holding their horse or their own body with their core.

First of all, why use these muscles? The core mainly stabilizes the rider so she can “float” on the horse and not let gravity or the horse’s motion drag her down into a hollow back. Without using core muscles for self support, the rider has no way to stay out of what Mary WAnless calls the “man trap,” and what I call the soggy back. So, the horse leaves his hind legs out behind and sways down in the middle under the force of our, often clumsy, weight. The core also helps a horse engage his core as he mirrors your body. THis is useful in lateral work an all efforts to engage the hind legs and lift the belly of the horse.

Using the core to lift yourself up — all the way from abdomen through the stomach area — while pushing lengthening the neck and lowering the shoulders will give you a good system of support. The muscles used, however, are not really the ones you can readily feel when you do a situp or otherwise flex your gut. These are often the superficial muscles. The ones you really want are the deep ones. A good Pilates teacher can help you find them and find how to keep your ribs in and down at the same time. Without these pieces in place a rider “pops” her ribs, flexes but sags, and no positive result comes from all her efforts.

To isolate and find the “low core” muscles, lay on your back with knees up, try to lift your legs, one at a time without moving any body parts (other than the leg). Just lift it slightly. See if you can engage the deep muscles at the back of your abdomen — these are the psoas muscles. Learning to isolate them so you can use them on one side at a time is a great boon to your riding. The canter depart, for example, is best done with a tiny flex of the deep psoas muscle on the side of the lead you want. Very magical! Try to feel them by pressing far into your abdomen while lifting that leg. If you feel a bulge or your stomach pops up, your using superficial muscles. Keep trying. Good luck!

How to Stop Your Horse

Well, that’s obvious, pull on the reins! Not so fast! I suggest you find a few more refined aids.

In dressage, pushing the heels down is a commonly taught method for half-halting, or halting/stopping your horse. Instructors often say, “sink into your heels.” They also say, “sit deeper.” Actually, these things are useful when applied at the right time, in the right way. But, I’ve noticed that these instructions can be more harmful than helpful. When the rider pushes in the feet, in a dressage saddle (and stirrup length) she comes AWAY from the horse, into the back of the saddle, and most often tips her pelvis, so she’s a bit more on the back of her seat. This often chases the horse in front of her — the horse runs out from under the extra pressure on his back. Then the rider has to pull on the reins. So, how really did the rider stop? by pulling.

If you want to avoid pulling, get in sync with your horse by allowing him to go forward much more of the time, and celebrating the wind in your hair. This is hard for a fearful rider, but it pays off handsomely when the horse no longer wants to go fast because it’s no longer an evasion; now it’s your desire! He has a whole different attitude now. “OH” he things, “she wants me to go forward. Well, I think I’ll just slow down now.” Remember, horses are against pressure animals — as was so deftly explained by Monty Roberts in his book the Horse Whisperer. Learn to balance yourself with your core muscles. This alone helps your horse stay in balance so he doesn’t fall forward out of balance, and then run off.

When we lean back, push our heels and pull, the horse runs against our pressure. So, I advise, in a dressage saddle, pull your calves back! Lighten your heels. Put NO weight in your stirrups. Use your tummy muscles and your intention to stop at the same time, and you’ll be surprised how well this will work. If not, see my blog on turn on the forehand.

If you are in a jumping saddle, you get to put your heels down and use your calves, but you don’t get to sit down. This prevents the seatbones from chasing the horse forward and you still get your halt. When you have the heels down and calves on, lean forward a bit. Experiment, don’t just automatically lean back. Try leaning forward and see what happens, you might be surprised! Expecially with thoroughbreds, who hate pressure on their back, leaning forward often slows them down.

Learn the pully rein, and use it smoothly and invisibly in your regular work so you get convinced that your lower leg squeezing will push the horse into the bit and stop him. To do the pully rein, shorten the reins and plant one hand, driving the knuckles into the neck. Then, take the other hand a bit up and a bit back while squeezing with your calves hard. The harder you squeeze, the more prompt the stop. If he doesn’t stop, tap with the whip. Now, you’ll be thinking correctly: “ride the horse from back to front!”