Bio-Mechanics and Finesse in the Saddle

Even I have to admit the study looking at the difference between novice and and advanced riders with muscles sensors chose their advanced riders well. Nine advanced riders from the Spanish School of Classical Riding, home base for Lipizzaner horses performing airs above the ground, were not only able to move muscles in their limbs individually, they were able to moderate how each muscle moved in each limb. They were also able to coordinate the activation and relaxation of the same muscles in different limbs in different ways at the same time.

I saw very clearly firsthand that people do not use the same muscles to walk as to ride when I put teenage soccer playing track stars on the lunge line. I could turn the muscles that fine-tuned their movement on the ground to jelly with about fifteen minutes of work at the walk and trot. Eventually, they developed the coordination to both ride and walk.

But when I first let them off the horse, they wobbled drunkenly in one spot. When they tried to maintain their dignity by striding off, they could have won prizes in any competition offered by the Ministry of Silly Walks. Each leg abruptly flew up into the air and waved aimlessly about before thunking suddenly to the ground.

At the time, I just tried to subdue my laughter. Afterwards, and for a rather long time, I wished I had recorded those first steps. Now I finally have access to Kineman and I can show off those bones!

Our human hip joints can move in three ways. We have muscles that can move our thighbone from side to side. The muscles that pull the muscles to the inside are called ‘adducters’. They are the ones that work the hardest to keep us in the saddle.

We have muscles that can rotate our thighbone. These are the muscles that keep our knees close to our horse’s sides. More importantly, they help keep our feet parallel to the horse’s spine. That base helps us humans keep our pelvis, spine, shoulders and head aligned with our horse’s movement.

We have muscles that can move our thighbone back and forth, with the quads and hamstrings flexing and extending the hip joint. These muscles are primary movers when we are on our feet. But once in the saddle they must become masters of finesse.

Below is a skeleton in the Horse Stance most advanced riders maintain. See that fine blue line that drops down from the figure’s pelvis? That line points to the ground if you are standing and to the horse’s center of gravity if you are on horseback. Notice that the line points towards the arch of the figure’s foot where we humans balance our weight.

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Advanced Rider in Horse Stance

An advanced rider can ask their horse to either stroll along on a loose rein or leap into the air from a standstill. But a novice on the very same horse may barely be able to persuade them to go forward. The difference lies in a person’s ability to moderate and coordinate their independent consistent aids.

Advanced riders whose horses respond to ‘the wind of the boot’ use what I term a ‘Heel Flick’. They briefly brush one heel down along their horses side without tensing up anywhere else or moving their leg away from the horse’s side. Spurs can allow advanced riders to be even more precise and subtle in their movements, IF, and it is a big IF, they have sufficient finesse in their leg aids.

Heel Flick by an Advanced Rider

Look at what happens with a Heel Flick. Most of the bones in this Kineman do not appear to change position at all. More important, the direction of that fine blue vertical line doesn’t change. Neither does the fine yellow horizontal line.

The advanced rider does not loose their balance, look down or otherwise confuse their horse with incoherent or contradictory movements. In both images, the horizontal line is tilted slightly upward in front. When your body position is congruent with your aids, that gives your horse the green light to move forward.

When you look closely at the skeleton’s feet you can see that the one heel is slightly lower than the other but the rest of both feet are still the same. The heel and only the heel got that way by the rider briefly extending their hip and knee joints and flexing their ankle exactly as far as they could go without shifting the position of the foot.

Nothing else moves. And that is a independent aid and a truly elegant way of communicating what you want to your horse. It is elegant because your movement makes sense to your horse.

Horse brains are built differently than human brains. They have no neo-cortex. They do not think in words.

Horses read bodies, not minds. So they are not going to think ‘Oh yeah, the human on top of me said now they want me to extend my hip and stifle joint while I flex my fetlock on my right rear leg’. They are not even going to think ‘When that monkey on my back flails about in the saddle, that means they want me to walk towards to end of the schooling ring’.

Horses are herd animals whose lives depend on their ability to read and react to the other horses in their herd. IF your movements are precise enough and consistent enough for them to recognize them, most horses are willing to try and mirror your movements. Since their gaits are controlled by neural reflex chains, once they extend their hip and stifle in response to your Heel Flick, the whole rest of the stride follows.

In the study, advanced riders alternated activating muscles that flex their torso and muscles that extend their torso. They were able to maximize the activity of the muscles in their upper trunk because they fully engaged their core muscles at all times. In layman’s terms, the advanced riders were supple in the saddle, riding with their horse, not just on them.

Extending your own hip and knee sinks your behind into the saddle and stretches your leg down along your horse’s side. When you relax your muscles after the Heel Flick, you are in position to absorb the horse’s movement. If you are able to stay quiet and supple, moving with your horse when they do respond, they are rewarded with your cooperation.

When you and your horse are moving together, you may earn a place as a somewhat peculiar but reliable member of the herd.

Then your horse might decide that your movements in the saddle are worth paying attention to.

Once they start paying attention to your movements, you are on the way to communicating with your horse in a way they can comprehend.

And yeah, it took me a few tries before I got the exact degree of movement of the right bones in the right place in the image. It takes even more tries to get the precise movement right in the saddle on the back of a moving horse. And coming to an agreement with your horse on what changing the speed, intensity, duration and placement of the Heel Flick means takes even more time and a whole lot of it.

So it should not be a surprise that I am still working on ‘In the Wind of the Boot’, the volume in my series ‘Light in the Saddle’ that offers exercises for riders as well as horses to develop their neuro-muscular finesse to the degree demanded by those who wish to ride the fantastical airs of the High School horse.

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