My students tease me about being an evil trainer because occasionally I do things like have them drop their stirrups. Well, Sue’s last two lessons have given her an extra helping of evil trainer, first when I took her saddle and had her ride bareback a week ago, and then last night when I had her ride without reins! But I didn’t do it just to be mean, I did it to show her something.
In her efforts to learn to bend the horse through turns, she was having a hard time isolating muscles. As she would go to apply her left leg, for example, she would squeeze it so hard that her entire upper body would end up leaning off the left side of the horse. Diamond, being the good boy that he is, would then move to the left to try to get her back in the center. So she couldn’t get him to move off her inside leg, or bend into the outside rein, because he was confused by the aids she was unintentionally giving. She could feel this happening last week when I had her ride bareback, because if she leaned too far she knew she would slide off! But it didn’t help her in the saddle the way I had hoped it would.
I started last night by trying to make small corrections, suggesting she sit tall with her shoulders, and gently weight her outside seatbone and outside stirrup, thinking this would help her stay sitting straight over the saddle. I had her use her inside leg like “bump, release, bump, release” instead of a squeeze so that she wouldn’t try to use it so strongly. I reminded her to be conscious to support on the outside rein, even as she gently opened her inside rein. Then as she tried to put it all together she finally says, “And I have to remember to breathe too!”
It’s a little joke between us, when she concentrates too hard, she holds her breath. Many people do it, and it tenses up your seat and gives your horse even more unintentional aids. Sue felt the effects of breath holding when I gave her a lesson on Liam a few weeks back, and he wouldn’t even walk until she relaxed. So when she said that, I knew I needed a different approach. Some riders like to know what to do with each body part formula-style to get a certain response out of a horse, but for Sue it clearly wasn’t working.
“Ok,” I said, “Let’s try something different.” And so I took her reins away! They were alone in the arena, and Diamond is as trustworthy as horses come. I had her put her reins over the pommel of her saddle and around the knee blocks, so they made a sort of side reins.
We started again from the top, and I wanted to try to align her body so that all the pieces moved together and she didn’t have to work so hard to move each part separately. As Diamond walked around, I asked her to ride him to the mounting block. She thought I was nuts. I had her put her hands out to the sides, palms up. This made her sit up straight and open her shoulders, activating her core and putting her seat in the saddle with a relaxed back. Then I had her turn and look at the mounting block. As she struggled to look at it, I noticed that even as she looked to the left, her shoulders and body wanted to twist to the right. So I asked her to turn her shoulders with her head. She did, and immediately Diamond turned. It had aligned her whole body. Then I asked her to look the other way, at the “A” at the end of the arena. She did, but again her shoulders and body twisted the opposite directions. I asked her to bring her shoulders with her head, and as she did, again Diamond turned.
I realized the missing link for her. Her “middle” was disconnected from the rest of her body. I asked her to point her shoulders where she wanted to go, and she turned circles and figure 8’s and serpentines all around the arena, all without reins. After she experimented with this, I asked her to feel how turning her shoulders to face where she wanted to go shifted her weight onto her inside seatbone, without causing her upper body to lean in, and it pressed her outside thigh against the saddle without any real muscular effort. She could feel these things.
She picked up her reins, but continued to steer by pointing her shoulders where she wanted to go. She sat beautifully in the saddle, and without her even trying, Diamond was reaching into the bit and bending for her. Then I had her try the same thing trotting, and she did with the same result. Success!!