Finding Lightness at a Dressage Clinic

Sylvia Loch and Francisco de Braganca team up to teach lightness and the art of dressage at a three-day clinic in New England.
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Sylvia Loch and Francisco de Braganca team up to teach lightness and the art of dressage at a three-day clinic in New England.
Sylvia Loch teaches that

Sylvia Loch teaches that

On a snowy weekend in March 2005, author and classical dressage instructor Sylvia Loch, along with Francisco de Bragan?a, brought all the elements of their lesson programs in Portugal to a three-day clinic in New England. Two days at Casa Lusitana in Tyngsboro, Mass., were followed by a one-day unmounted, weight-aids workshop and classical riding lecture in nearby Nashua, N.H.

Learning from the Ground Up

Loch began teaching unmounted workshops several years ago, and they have become increasingly popular with experienced riders and professional trainers.

The unmounted workshop in New Hampshire began with a simple but effective demonstration of how position alters weight distribution. Sitting back in a straight chair with her feet slightly in front of her (like the familiar "chair seat" of English hunting prints), Loch asked a volunteer to help her up. David Tyler, who rode his Lusitano, Santiago, in the clinic, stepped forward. He took Loch's hands and pulled, but then had to lean back slightly and literally yank the svelte instructor to her feet. She sat down again, feet back and upper body upright and asked for another "lift." David took her hands and braced himself, but Sylvia was already on her feet. "Well, that time, you just stood up!" he said. Point made.

Loch asked everyone to sit on their hands and feel their seat bones, while experimenting with subtle shifts in position. She next instructed the "riders" to think about supporting their upper bodies from the midsection and becoming light as the weight dropped into their legs.

"My seat bones have disappeared," someone immediately called out, and the sounds of similar discoveries went around the room. Loch later said, "This exercise shocks a lot of people. Many have said that they never realized how much lighter it made their backsides in the saddle, when they have their feet under them and let their weight drop into their legs, supporting themselves upward. I wouldn't want them stretching up as much as they would for, say, passage. But just sitting tall, to walk forward or trot forward, they've found that quite incredible. Especially the ones who think you have to push. When they go back and sit on a horse, they are amazed. Instead of pushing, they can sit very centered and just think 'light.'"

Most of the workshop was highly interactive; Loch explained or demonstrated aspects of weight and motion, then invited the group to try it. Participants walked in circles and spirals, observing what was happening in their bodies--which leg was taking the most weight or making a larger step or which hip was forward. This may sound simple or even intuitive, but based on the exclamations during the exercises, apparently not.

Sylvia Loch (between flags) teaches Ellen McGurren on Quieto at Casa Lusitana. | Photo courtesy of Casa Lusitana

Sylvia Loch (between flags) teaches Ellen McGurren on Quieto at Casa Lusitana. | Photo courtesy of Casa Lusitana

A growing understanding made the exercises increasingly informative. Groups alternately observed and acted as "horses" circling, spiraling and changing gaits. Simple transitions revealed balance issues, and the differences were dramatically--and comically--similar to what we experience with good or awkward transitions on horses.

Laughter and applause were frequent as insights were shared. In a counter-canter exercise, when one "horse" was forced to automatically correct herself to stay on her feet, the observers immediately recognized and congratulated her on the unplanned flying change. The experience of feeling what happened to a horse during shifts of weight and balance was remarkably illuminating. One trainer said later, "I'm going to use the exercise of having students trot and canter, with and without lifting from their bellies, to see how their positions influence the horse's body."

It was apparent that people who had ridden in the clinic on the previous two days were making useful discoveries on the ground and sometimes grasping familiar concepts in a new way. One participant gained insight and was particularly impressed by the unmounted cantering exercises. "The feeling of my body position in balance, pushing forward, and the slight weight changes on the ground are going to help immensely. When I get home, I'll practice these exercises just before I get on the horse to experience the feeling on the ground again before reproducing it on the horse's back."

The workshop wasn't all two-legged dressage. When Loch brought out hula hoops of various weights and sizes to demonstrate asymmetrical development, few could resist the challenge. Large potted plants in the meeting room suffered an impromptu pruning before success was achieved. Soon, as hoops began spinning colorfully aloft, the asymmetry factor kicked in.

"I found out how weak the left side of my body is," said Chris Rossi, a riding instructor from the San Francisco Bay area who rides at least six horses daily. "Because of a back surgery two years ago, my left hip is contracted. I could easily go clockwise with the hoop, but at first I couldn't go in both directions. I finally found that it was possible in a riding position with left hip forward."

Like many in the group, Rossi was impressed with the weighted, foam-covered hoops Loch recommends for daily strengthening of core muscles. "All the exercises we've done this morning were really helpful, but particularly this one," said Rossi. "It's really going to help correct asymmetry, and everybody is asymmetrical. So this is one of my big 'finds' at the clinic today. Not only my teenaged students, but also my adult students are going to hula hoop."

Sylvia Loch has been teaching classical riding since 1975 and has traveled to Australia, New Zealand, South America, South Africa, the United States and Europe. She has written six books including The Classical Seat and her latest, Invisible Riding. New this year is her interactive DVD called Sensitive Schooling, The Gaits, Bend and Transitions. Loch's website is classical-dressage.net. Her books and videos are available by calling The Equine Collection at 800-952-5813.

At a horse show in England in 2004, Loch was struggling with staffing difficulties and too many horses to train, when she met an old acquaintance, Francisco de Bragança. He was a student of the late Nuno Oliveira and later worked with David Ribiero Telles. "I've got staff. I've got horses," said de Bragança. "Why don't you come and teach with me in Portugal? You'll have time for your own horses and yourself."

Loch visited Quinta do Archino, the farm north of Lisbon that has been in the Bragança family for 300 years. "The whole family made me welcome, and I went straight back into Portuguese, which I hadn't spoken in 20 years!" The welcome was complete when she rode the Lusitano schoolmasters that de Bragança has been breeding for 30 years. Loch now teaches there about 12 weeks per year between April and November. De Bragança also teaches worldwide. His website is quintadoarchino.com.

Read the complete article in the August 2005 issue of Dressage Today.