I consider riding to be the most difficult sport in which to achieve above average skills. The process of becoming proficient involves physical skill, balance, and control. It can and should become a very intellectual process, as a new language has to be taught to the rider — the language of adjusting the rider’s body so that the horse recognizes kinesthetic and tactile signals that he has already been taught.
Depth of theory needs to be included in this. Indeed good riding is a science and skill, which should be improved throughout a rider’s career. I think that this is one of the facets that fascinates riders and makes riding a lifelong avocation…that no one can ever learn all it entails.
There are two main tenets in my philosophy. The first is that it is the instructor’s responsibility to find a way to explain to the student how to do something. The student needs to listen and to do the best that she can. Her teacher has to have the experience, interest, and skill to find a way to make that student successful.
The second part of my rule in teaching is to help the students make the horse a bit better than he was when they first got on. This could mean more supple, better balanced, or, with a beginner, just calm and not stressed. This is again my responsibility-to allow the student know when they and/or the horse gets better.
I think that images work for most people because riding is such a kinesthetic activity, and tact and feeling are a huge part of it. The same images do not work for each person, and that is part of the fascination of finding the correct one. When I teach in Northern Alabama I am often teaching engineers who are quite often involved in the space program. Obviously my images to them often have to be quite technical.
Now follows some examples of the use of images:
1. A rider has the habit of slouching. She could do this in several ways — by allowing her shoulders to slump forward, collapsing her rib cage, letting her neck relax too much, or by allowing her abdominal muscles to collapse. I have heard instructors attempt to correct this by shouting “Sit up! Sit up straight now!” This seldom fixes the problem. Try this right now as you are sitting. Usually the student jerks himself rigidly upward. They compress their upper body, shoulders become tight and rigid, and they start breathing shallowly. This in no way solves the problem. The rider cannot maintain this rigid posture, they will feel uncomfortable, and the stiffness will interfere with their communication with the horse.
Now try correcting the problem with an image. Simply pretend that there is a string attached to the top of your riding helmet. Put one hand on top of your head and pretend to pull the string upward. You will feel your entire upper body elongating and growing taller without stiffness. Once you feel this, all you have to do is mentally imagine “pulling your string”, and your body will follow suit.
2. To make certain that you are sitting in correct alignment — example, a straight line from your head, shoulders, hip and heel. Find your seat bones and make certain that you can feel that they are pointing straight down to the ground. Now “teeter totter” your upper body. Point your seat bones a bit toward the back, pointing to your horse’s stifle (as if you were in jumping position) and recognize that feeling. Then point them toward your horse’s shoulder and determine how that feels. Now “teeter totter” back and forth and you will find your neutral position. I find that quite a few of my new students are either riding in front or behind the neutral position.
3. Losing the horse’s outside shoulder when learning to leg-yield. This is one of the more common difficulties encountered by riders either learning to leg yield, or teaching the leg yield to a horse. When they half halt and require the horse to cross over, the horse either misunderstands or succeeds in reducing the difficulty of the movement by escaping through the rider’s outside rein and leg.
Often I ask my riders to imagine that their horses are standing in a straight line, with a wall on each side that runs parallel to the horse. The wall to the outside of the leg yield is mobile; it moves to the outside as the horse crosses his legs and moves in that direction. The important part of this image is that it stays straight. The outside shoulder cannot go in front of the haunches as it would crash into the wall. The rider must perform a half halt, apply aids similar to a step of turn on the haunches, and straighten the horse again. I find without this image the riders do not realize that the horse is drifting crookedly and they do not recognize it.
4. I use hundreds of images. The “swivel”, the act of guiding their horse from their seat, legs, and then hands all working together at the same time but originating from their center, is a necessary image for all riders. I have them imagine that they are wearing a big western belt buckle. To ask the horse to go in a certain direction, to circle, to do a shoulder-in, etc., should all originate from their seats first. The seat is actually from your waist to the top of your knees.
I invariably find that riders are thrilled and very excited to find that the necessary aids that they need to use to circle a horse, inside leg at the girth, outside hip joint softening to allow the outside leg to follow the elongation of the horse’s body, inside guiding rein, and outside supporting rein, all happen automatically if you originate the movements from your center and “swivel”.
Experiment with the use of images. It will simplify your riding, and make it easier for you and your horse to become partners.