Yesterday I worked with Patrick and Solo, his Kladruber gelding. It was a lesson about developing the horse’s body awareness and connecting the horse’s feet to the ground and to the weight. Over the years I noticed that many horses don’t have good body awareness. They don’t seem to know exactly how many legs they have, or where they are. It always reminds me of quantum physics. If you know where a particle is, you don’t know where or how fast it is moving, and if you know where and how fast it is moving, you don’t know where it is. Horse’s legs are sometimes a little like that, too.
Where are we and what are we doing today?
We are visiting Noor Tanger and Patrick Molenaar in the Netherlands for a few days.
I worked with Noor Tanger and her PRE Stallion Oclajoma on developing power in the hindquarters, especially pushing power. We explained to him that he can put more energy into the walk, trot, or canter, without getting faster, and that he can slow down the tempo without going to sleep. These are not intuitively logical concepts for most horses, but they have to learn that a driving aid does not mean “go faster”, and a half halt doesn’t mean “take a break”. Tempo, stride length, and energy level are different parameters of the gait that can be adjusted separately.
The circle of aids is an important concept in the rider’s training. It refers to the flow of energy within the horse and to the way the rider’s aids stimulate and channel this flow.
The circle of aids typically begins with a driving calf aid that brings the horse’s hind legs closer to the center of gravity and into the sphere of influence of the seat. If the hind legs are too far out behind, they are out of reach for the seat and the horse’s back drops. Trying to apply any seat aid at that moment will make the situation worse. It will cause the back to drop - and hurt - even more, and the hind legs will then actually be prevented from stepping under by the weight aid.
So what IS Feldenkrais? And how can YOU use it in YOUR riding? Very simply Feldenkrais lessons refine your ability to ‘listen’ to the information from your senses that lets you know the quality of your balance, breathing, posture and movement. It is this ability to pay attention to the subtle nuances of your sensory feedback mechanism that makes the difference between the effortless co-ordination of great riders and expending too much energy for the job in hand.
As a rider, it can help you to recognise and inhibit the unhelpful muscular efforts that interfere with your performance. You will become more discerning and improve your sensitivity, so you can respond quickly and easily to your horse. You will become quicker at identifying how to adjust any part of your body so you can ride how you’ve always wanted to. If you want to experience this now try this short Feldenkrais lesson…
Recently I was out on a hack with a friend. She was asking about Feldenkrais and how it applied to riding. She had observed me having lessons with my trainer and was struck by my ability to easily move my body in a particular direction or with a certain quality.
I explained that Feldenkrais lessons improve the quality of our action and that we can apply the experience of moving better to our riding. She looked puzzled.
In my last blog I described how I got to a pretty low point in my horse-owning journey. Before Shana’s email dropped into my inbox, I had felt compelled to have lessons with one of the yard staff because it seemed easier to fall in line with their wishes rather than to be on the receiving end of their sniping or criticisms whenever the classical trainer that I wanted to work with came onto the yard. I had also surreptitiously signed up to a couple of online trainings with people who seemed to have a similar philosophy to my own, but I was not having any success in translating their teachings into my riding. I was at the point where I would sail down the school on the right rein, trying to apply what I’d learnt online about steering, but with no positive result whatsoever. I was frequently to be spotted stuck in the corner of the school while my horse ate the hedge. Amusing though this was - and I do have the capacity to laugh at myself - this only served to contribute further to my feelings of inadequacy and embarrassment.
There’s nothing like the feeling when everything comes together and you are totally at one with your mind and body. When I’m in that state, where the lightest of intentions turns into effortless action, it’s the most exhilarating feeling imaginable. Some people call it being in a state of flow, but I think of it as being ‘in the zone’. When I’m in the zone, I feel completely in balance, I feel strong yet light and, most importantly, I have this immense sense of freedom that allows me to be totally spontaneous.
Training horses is pretty difficult, if you want to do it the right way. There’s so much you have to keep in mind at the same time to get optimal results. You are literally your horse’s fitness trainer and mental coach!
The most important thing in training should always be the well-being of your horse. Training a horse with integrity is different from forcing him into performance ‘tricks’.
The training should always lead to an improved balance in order to prevent injuries. Tendon injuries for instance, are often a result of the horse being crooked (even a tiny bit crooked) which leads to one leg consistently carrying more weight than the others, which will increase the stress and the wear and tear on the tendons until the horse is lame.
The same goes for problems in the back or pelvis, caused by the horse being ridden with a hollow back. That is why it is so important to do things correctly. Because I know how much time and effort it takes to train a horse well, I am happy to provide you with some tips to train more effectively.
A member asked a question about core stability on the Artistic Dressage page. I was struck by the huge variety in understanding of what the core is, which got me thinking about how you might access your core in a way that could be effective in riding, as well as in daily life. So in my ride today I decided to pay very close attention to how I keep myself in balance and report my findings back here. I’m not the greatest or most experienced rider, however many years of teaching Feldenkrais, movement and sport has given me a relatively refined sense of how I’m moving at any point in time.
Balance, Straightness, and Suppleness. These three concepts are very closely connected, as I described in the first part of this two part series. Balance consists of the two aspects of longitudinal balance and lateral balance. Longitudinal balance (i.e. an even weight distribution between front legs and hind legs) develops out of a regular tempo that is neither too fast nor too slow.
Lateral balance is the ability to distribute the weight evenly between the left pair of legs and the right pair of legs, or to transfer it more to one lateral pair or the other.
Balance is not rigid or static, as in a statue. It’s dynamic. This means that the horse is able to shift his weight from one lateral pair of legs to the other, from the front legs to the hind legs, or from one diagonal pair of legs to the other.
Horses were not designed to carry somebody on their back. The presence of the rider’s weight therefore compromises the horse’s balance, at least at first. It changes the center of gravity, and it may inhibit the freedom of motion of the spine and the legs. If the horse feels impeded and out of balance because of the rider’s presence on his back, he will contract certain muscles and brace against the rider’s weight and the ground, which leads to unhealthy movement patterns. Muscular contractions diminish the range of motion of the affected joints, and they lead to a hard, jarring impact of the legs on the ground, which is not only uncomfortable for the rider as well as the horse, it also creates unnecessary wear and tear on the horse’s joints and tendons.
If we want to keep the horse sound we therefore have to counteract the negative effects of our weight. We need to enable the horse to move with the same freedom of motion, the same ease, the same balance, the same suppleness under the weight of the rider with which he moves at liberty.
As riders and teachers our particular approach, our techniques and methodology, our focus is very much a result of our own personal journey. It is shaped by the difficulties that we had to overcome, our own weaknesses, our discoveries, our teachers, the horses we have ridden, the books we have read, the other riders we have interacted with, and also by the students we have taught.
Occasionally, our personal journey leads us to discoveries that are real game changers for us. To others, they may be insignificant, but to us the world will never be the same afterwards. We can almost divide our riding career in pre-discovery and post-discovery. That’s how much these discoveries helped us improve our own riding. These game-changing discoveries will be different for everyone. In this blog post, I want to share some of my lightbulb moments that have helped me move to a higher level of understanding and practical skill. Perhaps they will be helpful for you as well, and maybe you can think of your own momentous discoveries and share them with us.
The old masters considered the horse’s natural crookedness to be a major obstacle in developing balance, suppleness, collection, impulsion, and “obedience” (i.e. positive responsiveness to the aids). Put positively, functional straightness is the foundation of balance, suppleness, collection, impulsion, and “obedience”. Without straightness, the horse won’t get very far in his training. Unfortunately, overcoming crookedness is not a trivial matter. It requires constant attention, and if the rider doesn’t work on straightening her horse every day, his innate crookedness will gradually increase again.
Looking at the development of equestrian art over longer periods of time, you will detect pendulum-like swings of opinions in many areas. There are fashion trends that are taken to a certain extreme. Then, opinions change, and the pendulum swings in the opposite direction until it reaches the other extreme. Although these developments are often based on correct observations in some areas, extremes are usually counter productive and often damage the horse’s soundness and overall health. It is always dangerous when an observation of one training aspect is made the only criterion for evaluating training progress and then taken to an extreme, following the motto: more is better.
One example of such extremes are two diametrically opposed opinions on riding long and low. On one end of the spectrum are those riders for whom stretching forward-downward is the highest goal of dressage training and the solution to all problems. Many of them believe that you are not allowed to do anything else in the training of your horse until the horse is able to stretch forward-downward. On the opposite end of the spectrum are those who categorically reject any and all forward-downward stretching because they believe that it puts the horse onto the forehand and ruins the horse’s legs.