What prevents dressage riders from going beyond Training or First Level? Why are so many backyard riders not able to get their horse off the forehand? Why is it that so many performance horses have poor walks and why are there so many cases of bridle lameness? All of these limitations have something in common that was lost early on in the training process.
The traditional ‘training scale’ is focused on the horse’s performance: relaxation, rhythm, contact, impulsion, and collection. From my perspective, there are three missing components in the scale:
- Rider biomechanics: the ability to use efficient, non-compressive aids;
- Horse biomechanics: the ability to carry weight efficiently without bracing;
- Combined biomechanics of horse and rider: synchronized movement that creates fluidity.
If riders clearly understood and applied the principles of biomechanics, fewer horses would be ridden in a ‘false frame’ and there would be much more “through-ness,” fluidity and connection to be seen and enjoyed!
While these aspects of riding are often implied, they are rarely addressed in ways that most riders can understand. Riders are required not only to develop riding skills, but to also ‘develop the eye’ to see free movement and “through-ness.” More importantly, riders need to learn the sensation of “feel”, of free movement, in their own bodies as well in their horses’ bodies. This involves observation of self, (what you are thinking, sensing and how you are moving) and observation of the horse (his mental–emotional state and how he is moving).
For a horse to achieve freedom of movement with minimum wear and tear on the body, he has to be able to free the poll and neck, lift his base and back and push from his hindquarters. This means that his head and neck are released during movement instead of retracted. This allows the base of his neck to move up and down with every stride, his back to lift and the two longissimus muscles to work independently, the abdominal muscles to activate and the hindquarters to engage. This is half of the equation for movement ‘basics!”
The other half of the equation is the rider’s body use and movement patterns. This is the missing link, which is mostly overlooked or miss-translated in all of the disciplines. Dressage is supposed to be the preparation and proper training of two athletes, a rider and a horse working in synergy, reciprocity and cooperation. The primary responsibility of the rider is to learn to use his/her body in the best possible way, that is, without bracing and compression against the movement of the horse – thus, allowing “through-ness.” “Through-ness” cannot happen with the horse unless it is happening in the rider. The rider must learn to release tension and override bracing to let the core muscles in the body work automatically to maintain stability and move with the energy of the horse’s motion. This allows the limbs and hips to maintain independent motion through which the movement of the horse can “come through.”
Telling most riders to ‘use their seat’ or work on a deep seat does not provide information about how to use their body effectively. There is too much room for misinterpretation. Riders must be able to physically discern how their body parts move when the horse moves them. They also need to know what the internal sensation of freedom of movement actually feels like throughout their body. Riders can then learn to recognize the contrast of when they are tight and bracing versus moving without restriction in their bones and joints. For the horse to be free, the rider needs to release her head and neck, remain free in the back (the longissimus muscles), be able to engage the core muscles and maintain independent use of the hips and limbs. This is only possible when the rider is in Neutral Pelvis and is in a Neutral Posture. The concept is simple and yet most riders do not know it. It requires a minute change in thinking and behavior, which takes a lot of focus and practice. It is about learning the difference between what letting go into motion feels like, versus “sitting still” when the horse begins movement. It is an inner readiness, an in the moment presence, and taking responsibility for your movement more often than not. Practicing this gives you freedom and it must be done throughout your waking day and with the horse when you lead him and work with him on the ground. Just thinking about these concepts when you ride will not effect the change you are looking for.
Neutral pelvis (see Figure 2) is the only posture where you are live weight, and where your arms and legs have independent movement which allows your dominant and non-dominant sides to equalize. While riding or working on the ground, the horse will feel an oscillating rhythm from your hands through your legs and seat bones which invites him to reciprocate. This oscillating rhythm is a key for freedom of movement, through-ness and soundness. The oscillating rhythm overrides bracing and compression in both human and horse. This is a simple yet powerful biomechanical truth: Neutral pelvis is the only source of creating this oscillating rhythm and an independent seat on the horse. It is the only posture where your body can release and expand during motion and have the best ability to recover during sudden movement. This allows you to be a ‘through and true’ dance partner for your horse, providing support, rhythm and influence through rhythm and motion without pulling, squeezing, pushing or bracing.
To change your riding posture requires you to practice the new postural habits in your daily life, to change a habit of how you use your body, not just when you are riding. If your tendency is to arch, slump or be hyper-mobile on the horse, he feels you as “dead weight.” Dead weight has no oscillation; it has bracing and compression, which, in motion, becomes a gravitational drag, which leads to even more bracing in your body and counter-bracing in the horse. As dead weight or a drag, the contact on reins, lead ropes or lunge lines is heavy and does not invite reciprocity. Since the horse already has some bracing patterns in his own body, reciprocal bracing and stress patterns between the two bodies maintains or escalates. Once you can return to neutral posture in motion, it allows the horse the opportunity to do the same as long as your body provides elastic, rhythmical support.
When the rider has the awareness and skill to maintain elasticity and free movement in her own body on and off the horse, she becomes an asset to the horse by conveying the sensation of unrestricted movement to the horse’s body. By working the horse from the ground in this light, unrestricted and neutral (human) posture, it prepares the horse’s body to do the same.
The goal of the “new” basics, then, is to create postural habits in the horse and rider that allow them to synchronize in motion. The horse is taught to carry the weight of the rider in the posture that enhances his ability to rebalance while moving. This must be accomplished consistently on the ground before the horse is started. His body must automatically be strong and able enough to “assume the posture” of releasing the poll, lift the thoracic sling and back, and push through his back from his hindquarters before a rider sits on his back. This is another significant missing link in traditional basic schooling.
The concepts of the traditional training scale do not specify the basic education of the biomechanical development of both equine and human movement. There is huge talk about the biomechanics of the horse and sometimes the human is included and yet there is a serious lack of knowledge about Neutral Pelvis and how to maintain it while riding.
Riding is truly a dance of two bodies, and we must understand how to move in order to dance with a partner, equine or otherwise. I encourage riders to be more invested in knowing how their body-use affects the horse’s motion. Many riders achieve the euphoric feeling of lightness and softness. What I wish to emphasize is that you can find out how to get this feeling more often, more consistently and how to have it at least 90 % of the time, even though you or the horse may have physical issues. The whole cycle has to begin with YOU!
READ MORE ABOUT AUTHOR PEGGY CUMMINGS