Break it down
April 4, 2011 Leave a comment
A few posts ago, as I bade Mads farewell, I mused out loud about how doors open when others close. At that moment, my time with Maddie was ending, and I wasn’t seeing very many other doors to walk through. Happily, a new and unexpected door has swung open. With no horse, and no real agenda at the moment, we’re using this time to make me a more well rounded rider, adding new skills to my toolbox and instilling confidence as I build competence.
Through the kindness of friends (and their busy schedules at work) I’ve been given the golden opportunity to ride a variety of horses. I’ve handed myself over to Christy, and we’re rebuilding my seat, borrowing some theory and practice from the hunter barns in Christy’s past, where riders rode all manner of horses – fresh off the track OTTBs, sour and crafty schoolies, hotrods and dead heads. This is common practice – and it’s good practice. You ride what you have, and you ride over poles, grids and courses. The riders are all adept at riding in a balanced half seats, and rely on their balance – not the tack – to stay aboard when things get hairy.
Christy and I talked about this in the aisle a few days ago. She had me stand with my legs apart and knees bent, with my back flat, hips behind me and shoulders forward – in “two point”. Then, from there, she had me move my upper body around, to see how far I really had to move before I started to throw myself off balance. It turns out I have quite a large range of motion when crouching in two-point in the aisle.
Then, she had me straighten up, adopting the posture of a dressage rider – knees slightly bent, standing erect. She challenged me again to move my top half around, to the point were I started to become unbalanced. My range of comfortable motion was much less. When you’re upright, your body acts as a lever. The only way you can hope to save yourself and rebalance is maximally engage your core muscles, and they better be super strong if this is going to save you from going ker-splat.
This was an illuminating little exercise. We moved it to the saddle over the weekend, as I described yesterday. Tonight, I took a lesson on Oliver, and we went another couple steps. I rode with my stirrups shorter, which really does feel like hell, and in an illuminating exercise, Christy had me work on bending and steering him with my legs, while standing.
It worked surprisingly well! First and foremost, standing forces you to keep you leg under you. I need to build muscle memory and break my bad habit of tucking my leg back and curling my heel up when I want to put leg on the horse. I have to keep that leg at. the. girth. while I apply leg. And Oliver really responded to what had to be a much clearer and more distinct aid. He surprised me by neatly stepping under himself and giving nicely as I asked him to bend. We were starting out going to the right, the direction in which I find Oliver to be resistant to correct bending – he wants to lean inward and I usually have to work hard to move him out when going that direction. But during this exercise, I got the nicest bend and response from Oliver I’ve had to date. I was thrilled!
We picked up the trot, and here’s where things always get interesting with Oliver. He’s a newbie to dressage and hasn’t established a nice rhythm yet. He goes fast, he goes slow, he strides out, he almost drops to a walk, he hops forward again. His speed setting is locked on “wildly variable.” I posted, but kept out of the saddle, going no further than a half-seat on the downward beat. The variable speeds of Oliver’s trot were are a real challenge to stay with, but it’s great practice for me. I hopped up into two point, trying to keep my weight out of the stirrups. Oliver sped up. Oliver slowed down. I adjusted and didn’t fall off.
When I had about had it, I sat on a down beat, sat up straight, and asked Oliver to walk, principally from my seat. He’s getting better at listening to this, and the response came quickly.
Christy pointed out that because I had my legs correctly under me when I posted, when I sat, I was able to sit deep and be effective. She made the link for me between that balanced seat I had at that moment, and the balanced seat that saw me safely through spooks and equine naughtiness. The foundation of this important tool is correct leg position. This was a great illustration of this principle.
We worked in the trot in both directions. In addition to staying with the uneven rhythm, I also worked on gently bending Oliver and steering correctly from my outside rein. I swear, if there’s one thing I hope I can help contribute to Oliver’s education, it’s better steering! But he actually did really well tonight, and he’s a quick study. I got a couple little leg-yield steps here and there – he was stepping out from my leg correctly and giving me some nice bending. We then did some figure 8’s and by the end, I was able to ask nicely and receive a reasonable response from the horse. I was very proud of Oliver – he’s a smart one and learns quickly.
This was an illuminating lesson, because I was able to practice what Christy and I discussed in the aisle this weekend, as we crouched in a semblance of two-point and discussed balance, velocity and physics. Set’s face it. The tackiest leather, the stickiest full seats, the biggest blocks – all are of little use when hell really breaks loose. Your ability to stay balanced is what will save your bacon.
Case in point: Seconds before I rode that crazy thunder-induced bolting spook a few weeks ago, I quite literally said to myself “green horse, weight your heels,” and had just stretched down into my stirrups when he spooked. It must have been Divine intervention, because know the fact that I started from a balanced seat contributed mightily to my success in riding that spook long enough to dictate my dismount.
So the next month or two will be interesting. It’s going to be a real challenge for me but I’m excited about becoming more well-rounded and an overall better rider. There is one problem, though. And it’s Christy. I don’t like the way she looks at me when she’s thinking – it’s how a lion sizes up a baby gazelle – and I can see her wheels turning. Like tonight, when I was watching Atlanta’s owner Cathy finishing a fun ride by cooling out bareback. Atlanta, a nice round Hano, doesn’t have razor withers or a protruding spine. One could imagine riding her bareback with a degree of comfort. I said as much out loud, within Christy’s ear shot. Her eyes narrowed as she thought. She looked at me. She looked at Cathy and Atlanta. She looked back at me.
I am so dead.