Game Changers: Some Important Discoveries In My Own Journey

Introduction

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.

Some Important Discoveries In My Own Journey

Pipe System

One day as I was experimenting with various weight distributions and weight shifts through my seat and through stirrup stepping, I suddenly started visualising myself and the horse as a system of connected hollow pipes, and the weight as water that flows through these pipes. The horse’s body and mine were one single network, not one separate entity stuck on top of another.

The water can flow through these pipes from one area to another and into the ground. In the same way, the weight can flow from my body through the horse’s body and through the horse’s legs into the ground. It can be stagnant in one area, or it can swirl around and remain in motion. 
Just as in a real network of pipes, the water can only flow freely if there is no clog or other obstruction, and if there is no leak anywhere in the system, the weight of the horse and rider can only flow freely if there is no muscle blockage and no false bend anywhere in the rider’s body or in the horse’s body.

Later, I realised that the same image of a network of connected pipes can also be applied to the energy that flows through the horse’s and rider’s body: the impulses of the hind legs and the rider’s aids. In a way, even the weight and the weight aids are a kind of energy that flows through the rider’s and horse’s body. So, everything is connected with everything else.

This mental image of the horse’s and rider’s bodies as a network of pipes has consequences for the approach to riding because you start exploring the different pathways and connections between the individual body parts of horse and rider, as well as the connections between the aids and their destinations in the horse’s body. You start using the aids as probes to detect muscle blockages and energy leaks. This changes the way you think about riding and the purpose of the aids.

Torso as joystick

In traditional riding lessons, weight aids are typically addressed only in a very rudimentary fashion by telling the student to weight one seat bone or the other. In reality, weight aids are much more complex, and there are many different ways of distributing and shifting the weight from one area of the body to another. 
In this context, it helped me to think of the horse’s body having four corners. At each corner of the body, there is a leg that serves as a support post for the body mass. In motion, there are 1, 2, or sometimes 3 legs on the ground supporting the weight. You can influence the weight distribution among the supporting legs in a number of ways.

One day I was struggling with obtaining a good canter depart. The horse either cantered on the wrong lead or in poor balance. I realised that I needed to shift more weight into the outside hind to get a well balanced canter depart on the correct lead. After several less than successful attempts in which I probably collapsed in my waist, I started to visualise my torso as a joystick in the center of a square pad that is formed by the horse’s legs. Then I tried to picture moving my own “withers” onto the outside hind leg, i.e. the outside rear corner of the joystick pad. - And the canter departs promptly improved.

This visualisation should help anyone who tends to lean forward and inward in the canter depart or who lacks the stability in the lumbar spine to effectively apply specific weight aids.

Engaging or releasing individual muscles
Another important discovery for me came when I thought I was giving the correct aid by engaging certain muscles or releasing certain muscles, but the horse reacted negatively, anyway. In one case, I tried to engage my abdominal muscles because I had read or heard that that is supposed to help. But to my surprise the horse didn’t get better, but worse. He inverted more. When I investigated what I was doing exactly, I realised that I wasn’t engaging only my abdominal muscles, but at the same time I clenched my butt cheeks, which was uncomfortable for the horse, so he dropped his back. When I had discovered this unwanted connection, I worked on separating my abdominal muscles from my gluteal muscles, and when I succeeded in engaging my abs without simultaneously tightening my glutes, the horse responded positively and became better.
Another eye-opening discovery came when I tried to release the reins after the horse seemed to offer to yield his poll, but instead of becoming rounder and softer, the horse fell apart. I was surprised because I thought that you had to release the reins and that the horse was supposed to respond by getting rounder. When I investigated what I was doing exactly, as opposed to what I thought I was doing, I realised that I had released not only with my hands, but I had gone soft in the muscles around my lumbar spine. In other words, I had dropped the horse from my seat, instead of keeping a connection from the reins, through my core to the horse’s hind legs. As soon as I understood what I was doing and was able to maintain a sufficient level of engagement in my core muscles, while simultaneously relaxing the muscles in my forearm, wrists, and hands, the horse responded exactly like the books say by softening and becoming rounder.
These discoveries taught me an awareness of the importance of being able to engage or release individual muscles without simultaneously tightening or loosening other muscles. Practicing this differentiated use of individual muscles enabled me to develop a much more nuanced way of communicating with the horse.

Questioning everything

I don’t remember exactly when or how it started. It was probably an act of desperation, when the traditional inside leg to outside rein - spiral seat - ride more forward type of instructions weren’t working for me and the horse I was riding, and I realised that I kept hoping to get a different outcome while endlessly repeating the same aids. As far as I was concerned, I had nothing to lose. Things couldn’t really get much worse, so I changed what I was doing, violating some hard and fast rule I had learned in the process. But one of these changes I made to my seat or my aids finally brought the desired result. And this opened the door to a whole new mindset and a whole new journey of discovery - because if one hard and fast rule I had learned turned out to be incorrect in certain situations, what about all the other things I had learned and believed in?
This led me to question all rules and to explore alternatives. It was quite an eye-opening discovery that the world of riding is not made of binary oppositions, black and white, correct and incorrect, good and bad, but lots of shades of gray. Almost every aid or exercise or strategy can be good or bad, helpful or counter productive, depending on the horse, the rider, the situation, the root of the problem you are dealing with, and the training goal you are pursuing.

Summary

These were some discoveries that shaped my riding, my teaching, and my approach to training. Some of them may seem trivial to others, but for me they were very significant at the time. I’m sure you all have your own game changing discoveries that changed your world.

I would be interested in hearing which realisations and lightbulb moments stand out in your own memory.