Try This At Home!
This article first appeared on the articles page of my website. I'm rearranging things and decided to post it to the blog for those of you who haven't seen it yet. Give it a try and post a comment or drop me a line!
Below are three 'lessons' you can do on your own or with the help of a friend. After doing all three, you should have a better sense of how to create good movement and attitude in your horse by working together with him, instead of against him, when giving your aids. Please feel free to email me about your experience!
All of these concepts are a combination of Connected Riding, created by Peggy Cummings; TTeam, created by Linda Tellington-Jones; and things I've learned from the horses and students I've worked with over the years.
Day 1: Have someone lead you around the arena or field, or down a fairly level trail, at a brisk walk. If you don't have someone who can lead you, walk your horse on a long rein with minimal aids.
Feel your seatbones underneath you. Try to sit with your whole body stacked over your seatbones, without arching your back or slouching.
Close your eyes. Every time your horse takes a step, allow your whole upper body to rock forward gently on your seatbones. Instead of allowing your body to bend at the waist to absorb the shock, let your upper body be one unit. Buoy* forward gently with each step.
If buoying takes effort, try relaxing your lower back and allowing your seatbones to sink just a little bit deeper underneath you.You may also need to float your sternum forward just slightly so you are not behind the motion. For those of you who are accustomed to an equitation position, this may feel slightly slouched. Allow yourself to find the position in which it is easy to buoy, even if it's not what you're used to.
Now allow your thighs to completely relax and roll away from the horse. Take a few deep breaths and melt any tension or muscle engagement in your hips, your inner thighs, and the backs of your legs. You will feel your knee come away from the saddle slightly. (This is a good thing!)
Feel how every time the horse takes a step, he rolls one of your thighs up and out, and then the other. Allow this motion. Encourage it with your mind, but don't use your muscles to 'do' it; let the horse do it for you.
Now go back to feeling the buoy in your upper body. If you feel unsteady, exhale firmly and feel your core strengthen. These are your stabilizing muscles. Any time you feel unsteady, repeat this breath to engage your core, but don't forget to inhale! Next release your back and hips again to allow you to keep buoying forward with every step.
Go back and forth between feeling the upper body buoying forward effortlessly with each step of the horse, and feeling your thigh roll and your knee swing outwards on one side and then the other. Notice your horse's response. Has his walk changed? What about his attitude?
Keep going for about ten minutes with this exercise, closing your eyes periodically, then continue on with the rest of your ride as normal.
Day 2: Begin by walking your horse on a long rein. Find your buoy and allow your legs to follow the rolling of your horse's barrel, just like Day 1.
After you've found the rhythm, experiment with turning up the volume in your buoy just slightly for a maximum of three seconds, then relax back into following mode. If you feel yourself start to become loose in your middle, use your exhaling muscles to stabilize. What happens to your horse's walk when you turn up the volume in your buoy?
Next try quieting your buoy. Don't resist the forward motion or get behind the rhythm, but imagine your horse is buoying you forward with less energy than he actually is. Feel this for only a few seconds, then release it. How does your horse respond?
Next try turning up the volume in the rolling motion in your legs. Be aware of not using your muscles to create the motion; just imagine your horse was flexing your hip, knee and ankle joints more exuberantly than he is, for a maximum of three seconds. Relax completely, then try it a few more times. What is your horse's response?
If you feel your lower leg start to swing forward and back when you do this, take a deep breath and release through your hip and thigh, allowing your knee to fall away from the saddle again. Be aware of allowing the back of your thigh (your hamstring) to stay soft, even when you're turning up the volume in your leg.
Now try quieting the motion in your legs. Allow your lower leg to continue resting gently against your horse's barrel, and continue following his motion with your joints, but imagine your legs are full of molasses. How does this affect your horse's walk?
Continue these experiments for the first ten minutes of your ride, and note any changes in your horse's demeanor. Then continue on with your ride as normal.
Day 3: By now you're probably starting to feel how subtly you can influence your horse's motion, especially when you first take a moment to become part of it. On this final day, you'll use this ability to start helping your horse make a greater connection from his front end to his hind end.
Begin by finding your buoy and allowing your leg to follow the rolling motion of the horse. Remember that your seatbones need to be on the bottom, your lower back and hips need to be relaxed, and your knee should be slightly away from the saddle, or at least not gripping onto it.
Pick up your contact gently. Allow your elbows to rest at your sides, and allow your wrists to be at the same height as your elbows, or slightly higher. Quietly follow the motion of the horse's head and neck, so your elbows 'swish' back and forth at your sides, but don't allow your elbow to go further forward than the front of your belly. Take a deep breath into your back.
Experiment with thinking 'up' through the wrists for a couple of seconds, then relaxing. Don't 'drop' the contact when you relax, just melt any tension in your arms. Allow your elbows and shoulder blades to stay down as you think up only through the contact. Be sure to continue participating in the walk with the rest of your body as you invisibly connect with your horse through the reins. Try this a few times; if your horse wants to stretch his neck down afterwards, allow him to. After thinking 'up' through the contact while continuing to buoy through the body and roll through the legs, then releasing, a few times, does the walk feel different?
The next time you ride a corner or a bend, try combining the elements you've been practicing: turn up the volume in your leg, turn up the volume in your buoy, and think gently 'up' in your wrists as you look around the corner. Be sure to release all of these sensations after a maximum of three seconds, and take a moment to soften your hips and lower back again.
Try this again in the next corner. Look around the corner with your upper body, slightly increase the energy in the walk, and think 'up' through your wrists while staying grounded in your seat and elbows. Release, and feel your horse soften as you come out of the turn. Did you feel him bend in the corner? What is the quality of his walk now?
If you feel comfortable, try doing this exercise while looking to the outside of the ring or circle for a few seconds, to get a counter-bend.
After each moment of looking around the bend, asking for more walk, and thinking 'up,' your horse may want to stretch his neck. This is a really good thing! It means that he is responding correctly to your aids, and is feeling inspired to lengthen his topline. Be sure to let him slide the reins through your fingers at this moment. You can gather them up again when he's done.
Spend about ten minutes on this exercise at the walk, then continue with your ride. Throughout the workout, when you give your aids, think about using as little effort as possible. Give each aid for a maximum of three seconds, then release.
After the ride, think about how your horse responded. Was he lighter? More supple? More responsive? Take note of your experience, and feel free to share it here!
*"buoy" forward in the saddle is a Connected Riding trademark concept, created by Peggy Cummings. Find out more at http://www.connectedriding.com!