As I set off with determination on my search for understanding, I started where I often start, with the experts on my bookshelf and my good friend Google. I reviewed Sally Swift’s Centered Riding, and Balance in Movement by Susanne Von Dietze. I reread Heather Moffett’s Enlightened Equitation with her wonderful descriptions about how to ride the different gaits, and then reread Anatomy of Dressage, the very technical description of exactly what muscle does what, by Dr’s Heinrich and Volker Schusdziarra. As I pondered these ideas, I turned to Google to find out more about biomechanics and to watch real riders (on youtube) learning to improve their riding with these ideas. This lead me to Mary Wanless, who I was skeptical about due to the varied opinions of her work I had read online, but when I coincidentally stumbled upon her books The Natural Rider and Ride With Your Mind at our local used tack shop, I couldn’t resist. I devoured her ideas in about a week, experimenting with her ideas as I rode. I liked much of what I was finding, but none of it alone was enough, and some parts didn’t work for me. I was taking bits and pieces of each method, but still didn’t feel like I had really figured it out.
My next step was to watch the best riders in the world performing at the highest levels at the most prestigious competitions in the world (courtesy of youtube again), and analyze in slow motion how they sat and how they used their bodies. I watched the way they shifted, the way they followed the motion of the horse, and the way they used their hands, keeping a careful eye on the way their horses responded. Through this, I gained a heightened respect for just how much a saddle designed to help the rider can actually prohibit the rider from sitting in harmony with the horse.
Again, I experimented on my horses. Thanks to the velcro knee blocks on my saddles, I played with different block positions, then removed the blocks completely. I made my stirrups longer and shorter, feeling the effect it had on my whole body and my ability to use different muscles and joints. I tried one saddle, then another, then each one again with different types of padding underneath. It’s amazing how much difference it really makes! Sometimes, balance was effortless, other times it seemed impossible. I started to make sense of the reasons why. I became certain that the first step to achieving harmony with the horse is to find balance, true and complete balance, in the saddle. And my hunch is that many riders, even at the upper levels, ride with more muscle than balance, and this is one of the big reasons that dressage is physically so hard.
I became thoroughly enamored with biomechanics. I was fascinated beyond comprehension. It was amazing to me to realize that the way we are “supposed” to ride is a simple matter of working with physics and gravity. When understood in this light, vague concepts like “inside leg to outside rein” make complete sense, but for the most part we are never clued in to exactly how the inside leg is to be used and exactly what part we are to be using, and exactly how this influences the rest of the way we are sitting to influence the horse in precisely the way we are supposed to know we are trying to influence him. I had opened Pandora’s Box, and there was no going back. I tried so many things, I felt like I didn’t even know how to post the trot. But as I started putting it back together, piece by piece, I came out leagues ahead of where I had started. And I came away with a much deeper understanding, and an understanding that was based not only in feel or in theory, but also in a knowledge I could put into words. This process is very worthwhile for any serious rider, but it doesn’t end here…
(And now you know what I was doing all summer that made me neglect my blog!)