On the Longe Line- Light in the Saddle

‘If your horse does not canter correctly,
You won’t improve it by cantering tirelessly.
For one, how could he understand?
There is no such thing as
A ‘bad’ or a ‘good’ canter,
For the horse’s mind;
He just gives you the ONLY canter he can produce
Given his condition of balance of the moment.

BALANCE

Is the master word.
Establish the balance first,
Then ask for the canter.
As soon as the canter deteriorates,

Stop and ask again.

In the beginning you’ll get
Two or three strides of good canter,
Then four or five,
Then half the perimeter of the arena, etc.
This seems to be slow
But as a matter of fact,
Will give you much faster results…

Page 6, Another Horsemanship
Jean-Claude Racinet

When I started teaching riding, I assumed that I should teach humans the same way I taught my horses:

• Teach one thing at a time
• Make sure that the student UNDERSTANDS the request
• Make sure the student is physically CAPABLE of performing the request
• Recognize successful attempts IMMEDIATELY
• Demand correct movement, however brief
• Make learning a pleasant and enjoyable experience

I was quite startled to learn that that was not how riding was taught in the mainstream. When I found that my students managed to maintain their seats over the long-term, even those that resisted any intellectual understanding of their own learning process; that confirmed that I was on the right track. I decided to:

• Teach the body regardless of whether or not the mind catches up, or on.

Horses have a reaction time so much quicker than us humans, we don’t have the luxury to think out what the next step should be anyway, our kinesthetic response on horseback has to be an entrained and automatic reaction that bypasses our oh-so-busy monkey-mind. So instead of sending inexperienced riders off to bounce around bruising their horse’s back until they figure out how not to fall off; I give the new rider the same consideration I give a young horse. Each lesson is focused on achieving a few correct steps at a time that can give the body an understanding of what it needs to do.

Those of you who have hit a wall, unable to progress with your horse, are faced with the fact that if you do not have a secure, resilient, supple, balanced seat,you will  never have educated independent hands and legs, and there are things you will never be able to do on horseback. Sometimes the fastest progress long-term is made by taking the smallest steps short-term. Sometimes making sure every single small step is correct is the only way to progress, at all, ever.  Which is why I focus on feeling the movement of the horse’s back through your seat in these lessons.

Substituting the word body for the word horse in the opening quote gives you an idea of what I am trying to get across:

‘If your (body) does not canter correctly,
You won’t improve it by cantering tirelessly.
For one, how could (the body) understand?
There is no such thing as
A ‘bad’ or a ‘good’ canter,
For the (body)’s mind;
(The body) just gives you the ONLY canter (it) can produce
Given (its) condition of balance of the moment.

I’ll address the issue of longing, longing gear, and training the horse In another post. For now, I will assume that you have a cooperative handler, reasonable equipment, and a willing horse. I will also assume that you have practiced mounting (click here) and dismounting (click here) as well. Having done your stretching and balancing exercises (click here), and gotten you up on your trusty steed with your friendly handler in the center role, you are now ready to sit a moving horse. A surprising amount of the work of keeping you in the saddle and on the horse is accomplished by:

• the adductors, small muscles on the insides of your legs and hips that pull them towards your mid-line

and of course
• the core muscles of your lower back and belly get a major work out.

The goal is to develop your awareness and their endurance, so do bear with me. I expect these exercises to be a challenge, regardless of how long you have been riding. Keep in mind that it is better to do a couple of short successful sessions a day than one long exhausting fruitless one. That just burns your muscles out exactly the way it burns your horse’s out.

The Walk

As the handler asks the horse to step out into a walk the horse pulls themselves forward and then pushes off the ground with one hind leg, their pelvis lifts and that side of their back stiffens ever so slightly. So you, the rider, need to:

  • lengthen your upper body,
  • relax your shoulders and neck,
  • and settle into your lower abdomen, your dan tein,
  • allow the rocking movement of the horse’s back to rock your pelvis:
  • And BREATH

Then you can allow that slight push against your seat bone to lift just your one hip, stretching and lengthening your entire leg on that same side as the horse.The goal is to keep your lower leg still, staying quietly against the horse’s side until you decide to move it.

• As the horse folds and carries their other hind leg forward, their back on that side will soften and drop ever so slightly.

Let your hip follow the horse’s drop, and wrap that leg around the horse to hold yourself close to the saddle so that your leg and seat maintain in the same contact. If the horse drops out from under you at a walk, you will be left in mid air at the trot and canter. If your lower leg is bouncing about, your horse will quickly learn to ignore leg aids. Chalking the inside of your boots will give you an idea of how quiet your legs are. If there is a clear boot-shaped chalk mark on the horse’s sides after your ride, your leg is quiet. If there is a broad blur, you have some serious work ahead of you. Pick a color that contrasts with your horses coat to make the chalk dust easy to see.

Essentially, you are walking with the horse, allowing your pelvis to rock and your legs to stretch and contract in harmony with the movement of the horse’s back and legs, so you can draw on your circle walking exercises to secure your seat and free your hands:

The rooting of bau gau zhang
Circle walking
Draws the energy up
The rear weighted leg
Across the hips
And down the light forward leg.
As your weight shifts forward
This energy travels underground
and back up your (horse’s) rear leg
to complete a circle.

Most horses ridden this way are so relieved not to have to brace themselves against their rider that they heave a great sigh of relief, relax their back, and lengthen their stride. As soon as you achieve this feeling, for even a single stride:

• STOP and/or
• Get off the horse immediately

If you keep riding until you wear your muscles out,

what your body will remember is

weakness,

imbalance, and

exhaustion,

no matter what your conscious mind might be thinking.

Stopping can be challenging as you must cling to the saddle closely enough to stay with the horse as they drop down under you WITHOUT actually squeezing with your legs and relax your torso without falling forward or behind.So breath out and relax, settling down into the saddle as though you hadn’t a care in the world. To start with you can imagine yourself slumping onto the horse back like a wet noodle. To stop or slow down:
• Release your breath
• Relaxing your chest
• And belly
• Sinking down into the saddle
• Absorbing the movement of the horse’s back
• Stretching and lengthening your legs
• Keeping them quiet but wrapped closely around the horse

The horse will only believe you and come to a stop if you are genuinely relaxed, so if you are feeling nervous, anxious or excited, the flying dismount is a better choice. Either way you are training your body to respond to unforeseen challenges by either relaxing or dismounting, which will save both horse and rider in times of trouble (click here).

• If you stop at the precise peak moment, that peak moment of activity is what BOTH your body and your brain will remember, and therefore what you will be able to repeat.
• If you train your body to stop and/or get off when you start losing your balance, your body will stop or get off the horse when you lose your balance even in sudden or extreme circumstances, regardless of what your conscious mind might be up to.
• If you cannot get your own brain and body coordinated, you will not be able to harmonize with yourself, never mind with your horse.

Once you can:

• recognize the feeling of harmonious balance consistently AND
• can achieve it on command

you can start lengthening the amount of time you spend on horseback and/or at each gait. Practice makes perfectly wrong as well as perfectly right, so it is well worth taking the time to start out making sure that you are doing it right. This is even more important if you are relearning how to sit your horse. You have a whole lot of erasing to do, and it is much more efficient with a clean brush than one that is worn down and full of crud. Your goal is for your body and your horse to look forward to riding with enthusiasm, not dread, so treasure the pleasure and minimize the misery. if you ever start to feel that these exercises are too basic and not challenging you enough, try them with without stirrups and/or with your eyes closed.

The Trot

The unfortunate mental image that all too easily arises from telling people to post the trot is of standing up in the stirrups and popping out of the saddle. That is actually the last thing you want to do, as it opens the door to the rider stiffening up and popping right off the horse, which people experience all too often any way. Instead you must learn to sit DOWN, following the rocking movement of the horse’s back that is so much more pronounced at the trot. The horse must push itself clear off the ground at each stride, so focus on:

• Absorbing the energy of the up and forward movement of each hind leg through that one seat bone into your lower abdomen, your dan tein, as the horse touches down and pushes off the ground by:
• allowing that same hip to lift,
• stretching and lengthening your entire leg on that side
• keeping the lower leg still,
• lying quietly along the horse’s side

Following the simultaneous and equally emphatic drop of the other side as the horse folds that hind leg and brings it forward by:
• letting your own hip drop
• wrapping that leg around the horse,
• and holding your seat-bone to the surface of the saddle,

You will be glad you worked on loosening up your hips (click here) as your pelvic area and lower back will really be a rockin’ and a rollin’. Once again, most horses ridden this way are so relieved not to have to brace themselves against their rider that they heave a great sigh of relief, relax their own back, and lengthen their stride. Not only will your seat improve, so will your horse’s gait. However, it may take both you and the horse some time to trust one another enough to rock on together this way. Rely on your circle walking practice yet again as:

Externally
Circle walking (and longeing)
exercises
All of the body’s
Muscles and connective tissues.
It increases coordination
Helps develop speed
And has an aerobic effect
Which helps develop stamina

Internally the postures help
relax the mind
release the tension in the inner organs
open the energy channels
and sharpen your focus

Page 78-79, The Whirling Circles of Ba Gua Zhang
by Frank Allen and Tina Chunna Zhang

Once again, as soon as you achieve this feeling, for even a single stride:

• STOP and/or
• Get off the horse immediately

Overworking yourself and leaving your horse with a bruised back from bouncing on him is counterproductive all around. You want your horse to remember trotting as an enjoyable experience and your adductors, the small muscles inside your legs and hips that hold you on the horse are primarily used for fine-tuning while we are walking and standing. Asking them to take the brunt of the job of holding us up and on the horse is a big change, and they need time to develop the strength to meet these new demands.

The Canter

The canter, especially on the circle, has an exaggerated front to back rocking movement. As always:

• Allow the horse to pick you up and carry you forward as they push off with their inside hind leg
• By pushing your belly button forward,
• Allowing your pelvis to rock back and forth
• Letting your hips follow the distinct tilt of horse’s pelvis in the 3-beat canter on a circle (click here)
• sinking into the saddle so your lower back can absorb the pelvic movement
• and relaxing your upper back
• and be sure to BREATH

Stiffness in the hips and thighs will only confuse the horse. It is the fundamental issue underlying problems people have with transitions to and within the canter. The horse will respond to your stiffness by becoming stiffer themselves which will wear you out at best and can pop you right out of the saddle and off the horse in no time flat. All the movement begins and ends in the hips and pelvis on horseback, so make absolutely sure that your lower legs stay in place no matter how strong your hip movement may be as you:

• allow your inside hip to be pushed emphatically forward
• As the horse strikes off into the canter from behind,
• so the inside thigh feels like it hangs straight down from the hip.
• your hip can be briefly positioned directly over your knee so you cannot see it if you look down,
• While the outside hip follows the push of outside hind leg a beat later,
• And your outside thigh responds to the increased curve of the horse’s ribcage,
• letting itself be pushed ever so slightly outward
• Let your hips and thighs rock back into their usual positions as the horse lands on their leading fore leg, and shoots their hind legs up underneath themselves
• As the hind legs land and push off, let your hips rock in the skipping motion once more

Once you have some degree of confidence, focus on feeling the distinct tilt the horse’s pelvis has at the canter especially on a circle. The closest humans come to this kind of movement is skipping. The thigh and hip joint must be flexible and resilient enough to accommodate the hip movement while keeping the lower leg quiet. You can practice this skipping hip move on the ground or trampoline while standing in the horse stance.

As your hip movements become subtle, clear, and timely, your horse’s canter will become more defined and expressive, giving you less of a diagonal collapse onto the forehand and more of a joyful bound from behind. As an added incentive, if you ride this way, the moment you feel most stable and secure in the saddle will be the moment you are sitting square; which happens to be the moment the horse is:

• vaulting over their leading foreleg,
• soon to have all four legs in the air,
• bringing their hind legs up under themselves
• in preparation for the next stride.

This is also the moment where the horse is most capable of responding to any requests you might have. Being able to ask your horse for changes at the instant they can comply is the secret to success and enjoyment of all the fancy maneuvers possible at the canter, so keep at it until it feels automatic and effortless going both directions. A flying transition, where the horse swaps leads or gaits in the air, and lands completely balanced in the new order is one of the great gifts of a horse offers to a rider with a balanced seat and one of the immeasurable secret joys of riding with your horse, not just on it.

The faster the gait the more important it is to notice when it all works, so when it feels the best is when it is time to:

• STOP and/or
• Get off the horse immediately

The faster the gait becomes the more important it is for your moves, whether to regain your balance, stop, or hop off,  to become automatic instinctive reactions thoroughly entrained into your body. If you have to stop and think what to do next, you are hopelessly behind the horse and headed for trouble, if not a fall.

Your horse will also be much happier if you hop off and give them a treat on purpose than if you bounce uncontrollably off their back. Remember that a horse that is willing to teach new riders new tricks is a rare pearl and a true treasure, so make sure that yours is sound, happy, and knows how much you appreciate them.

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