In a natural position, the horse carries 60% of its weight on the forehand and 40% on its hind legs. Because the muscles over the hind quarters are big and strong, we need to educate the horse to be able to carry more weight on these muscles. This will result in the horse carrying 40% on the forehand and 60% on the hind quarters.
The nerves through which we communicate with the horse are situated in the skin. These send messages to the brain via the spinal cord and back to the muscles, causing contraction of the relevant muscles. This nervous impulse is called a reflex, which causes a quicker reaction in the muscle. There are two types of reflex – natural reflex (fright, flight and moving away), and conditioned reflex (trained reflex). We use the natural reflexes to bring about reactions that enable us to teach the horse to respond in a certain way, becoming a conditioned reflex.
The elevation of the neck causes a reflex reaction to the positioning of the hind leg, while the flexion at the poll causes a parallel reflex reaction to the flexion of the hock and stifle. The back muscles are also involved in the active role of the hind legs. A tight back leads to a stiff hind leg and high croup so the hind leg doesn’t come as far forward under the horses centre of gravity. The flexor muscles in the hind quarters are weaker than the extensors, which provide the propulsion and control the flexion of the hind limb when the leg is loaded. The hind quarters, assisted by the abdominal muscles, cause the loin to round, allowing the hind leg to come further forward under the body.
There are 4 types of reflex relationships between the head, neck and hind quarters :
The ‘effect of the aids’ is the result of a positive response, brought about through education and training. The ‘engagement of the hind leg’ is the effect of a positive response to the riders leg aid, causing the hind leg to step forward and under the body. This is also the reason why dressage test sheets include marks for the rider on ‘effectiveness of the aids’, ‘position and seat of the rider’ and ‘correct application of the aids’.
Timing is everything!
Here are a few M.I.N.D.F.U.L. strategies for riding, (click on the diagram below).
M– Manage Your Emotions. Fear, a crisis of confidence, performance tension, frustration, anger, to name just a few, are all emotions horse riders experience at some point or another.
Our internal dialogue has a big impact on the outcome of a situation. If someone commands us to “Don’t do….”, our attention is immediately focussed on the thing we are not supposed to do.
Repeating a ‘mantra’ or ‘affirmation’ in time with the horse’s stride can help to alter our state of mind and emotions. Saying ‘Calm and Confident’, or ‘Relaxed and Focussed’ – or whatever state of mind you want to achieve – out loud and with purpose, will create a more positive attitude in both the rider and their horse.
Warm up exercise, such as going for a walk or run before riding, has helped clients to reduce anxiety and to release ‘feel good’ endorphins.
Negative memories of a bad experiences can be transformed into a positive in a short space of time by changing the meaning of the stress inducing memories. Seeing things in a different way means fear, lack of confidence or frustration no longer need to be part of our riding.
I– Intention, Attention, Attitude. At the start of a ride or training session we need to set an intention. Whether it is going for a quiet hack around the block or teaching our horse a new movement we can visualise our intention after asking the question, “What would I like to achieve today?”
As James Baker reminds us with his 5 ‘P’ principle:
‘Prior preparation prevents poor performance’
Then we need to give attention to the equipment you will need, planning a route, deciding what pace to use and whatever needs to be done to carry out the intention.
Then we need to engage our attitude. A positive, happy attitude gives a different feel to you and your horse, than one that is forceful and agitated. Enjoy what you are doing and…smile!
N– ‘Notice What Happens When…’ The book: Inner Game of Tennis by Timothy Galway uses the technique of focus to improve ability.
When riding, it is useful to pick something to channel your focus on to. Feel is developed by noticing what happens when we ride and how little shifts can affect the horses way of going. We can scan our bodies for areas of tension and consciously relax those areas.
How does doing that affect the horse or your position? (Horses tend to mirror us so by relaxing ourselves, the horse will relax too).
“What happens if I lift my focus up and in front of me instead of on the horse’s head or neck?”
By experimenting with different things, we can decide what feels more comfortable and right. Also, learning to develop our focus and block out things in the environment that could interfere with our performance, is great preparation for competitions.
D– Divide the task into manageable chunks. A good way of learning something or teaching your horse a new movement is to divide it up into smaller chunks to learn, then build them up together as confidence grows. Like when learning to jump and understanding the 5 elements of a jump – approach, take off, flight, landing and get away. Working on each element separately, then joining them together at the end teaches us to jump better. Similarly, if there is a lack of confidence in something, breaking it down into smaller parts and giving time for the confidence to grow before moving on to the next part.
F– Focus on excellence not perfection. The saying: ‘Competitions are won at home’ is true. Aiming for a higher standard in our practice than we intend to compete at, sets us up for a better outcome when the pressure is on. Treat everything as feedback, if something isn’t working then try another way. The person who is most adaptable enjoys more success because they keep taking small steps on the path towards excellence.
U– Unify your breathing. Focussing on your breathing, as is done in meditation, will naturally calm you. This also aids relaxation in your horse. Breathing in sync with your horse creates a ‘spiritual’ connection with each knowing what the other is thinking and feeling. Letting go of expectations and being in the present moment, will help build a deeply rewarding relationship with your horse.
L– Loving Kindness. Have compassion and respect for yourself and your horse when mistakes are made. Remember life is a journey so don’t get into the blame game. Accept the situation, move forward and leave the past where it is.
Show loving kindness to your horse. If they don’t understand, don’t punish them. He will get things wrong sometimes but it’s okay. You didn’t learn everything on your first day at school either so be patient. Horses tolerate a lot from us humans. Most of the time in a different language we expect them to understand.
Be mindful and respectful of your horses feelings as well as being a leader for them and you will be shown what true loving kindness is…by your horse.
Riding mindfully can have different meanings for different people. These are just a few of my own. I hope that in the future these too will evolve to give horses and riders a greater connection, communication and understanding with each other.
‘Horses are the mirror of your soul, of who you really are. It is your reflection that you see through their eyes. Through them, you can more easily come to know yourself. Through you, they can more easily come to fulfill themselves. ~ Dominique Barbier – Meditation for Two.
In my last blog I went over what the 6 training scales are. In this one I want to delve a little deeper and look at the three groups – PRELIMINARY TRAINING, DEVELOPMENT OF PUSHING POWER and DEVELOPMENT OF CARRYING CAPACITY.
Preliminary training consists of familiarisation, natural balance, confidence, basic understanding of the aids and basis of communication. When horses are first broken in to ride, they are taught to go when the legs are applied and stop/turn with the use of the reins. Once the horse is familiar with these aids, we then need to look at how the horse is going. The first three scales are – Relaxation, Rhythm, and Contact.These three go hand in hand and you cannot have one without the other two. When a horse is moving freely forward in a relaxed state, it will find its natural balance (not rushing or behind the leg). With a natural balance, rhythm is created. The forward rhythm along with relaxation means the horse will be more into a light seeking contact. By contact I do not mean outline, and at this stage I wouldn’t be too concerned about getting a correct outline, that will come in time. Once the horse has found his relaxed rhythm and contact, his confidence will grow.
Using voice commands as you would on the lunge can help to reassure the horse and encourage concentration. Change direction frequently and lots of transitions will all help to build the basis of communication, and rest breaks on a long rein to encourage relaxation. As the horse gains strength, the use of smaller circles, serpentines and loops can be used. This is also a good time to introduce leg yield and steps of turn on the forehand.
The second group, Development of Pushing Power consists of 4 scales – Rhythm, Contact, Straightness, and Impulsion. These again cannot happen without the others being correct. Once rhythm and contact are achieved it will be easier to get the horse straighter (all horses are crooked to a certain degree and mostly to the left). When the horse is going straighter, more impulsion is achieved as the horse can step under and push from the hindquarters in an economical way. Exercises to help with this is shoulder fore and shoulder in, travers, renvers, moving on to half pass. The use of half halts to help balance and prepare the horse for a movement, encourages the hindlegs under more. Counter canter can help to strengthen and relax, with an introduction of walk to canter encouraging impulsion. Using trot poles or cavalletti help the horse to shorten and lengthen the stride as well as elevation.
Then we come to the third group, Development of Carrying Capacity. This is where we start to get to the pinnacle of training, and not all horses will achieve it to a high level. The scales in this group are – Impulsion and Collection. Provided the training done in the lower scales has been carried out correctly in a relaxed way, impulsion (not speed) should be readily available and the horse strong enough to introduce more collection. Although some degree of collection will have been achieved throughout the scales, this is where the horse really learns to sit on its haunches.
Exercises like turn on the haunches then straight into canter is great for freeing up the forehand and transferring more weight onto the hindlegs. (We aim for the horse to carry 60% of weight on the hindquarters and 40% on the forehand) Canter-to-walk transitions will also help this providing the horse is straight. This is also where spring and suspension come into play in the higher movements like pirouettes, piaffe, passage, flying changes and tempi changes are taught, and self carriage is achieved. It is also where true extension can be established as the horse needs the strength in his hindquarters to be able to push through to extend.
The final creation of all the scales is THROUGHNESS. This is the transference of the created power from the hindquarters over the back and into a soft contact and back to the hindlegs in a constant flow.