Heather Sansom is the author of rider fitness ebooks Complete Core Workout for Riders, and a regular columnist in several equestrian publications including Dressage Today. Equifitt.com offers personalized coaching through clinics and convenient online coaching available anywhere. Clinics available include fitness, yoga and fitness, and sport-psychology and fitness. You can get a free subscription to monthly rider fit tips, or download the ebooks at Equifitt.com.
"A self-going horse is only possible when the rider is quiet." --Reiner Klimke
I was recently reviewing some old Reiner Klimke videos. When he said this sentence it jumped right out at me: What an excellent way to summarize so much.
In last month's piece we discussed how to get more flexibility along your spine in order to be able to follow the wave of the horse's motion in your back. Quietness as a rider is often misinterpreted as stillness--absolute lack of motion. Now that we have tools like YouTube, we have many more opportunities to watch top-level riders and they do indeed look motionless much of the time.
Apparent motionlessness is achieved in your back by the ability to absorb and carry the motion of the horse up through every joint between every vertebra in your spine, and not by stiffness or rigidity. Flexibility and softness in your back is critical if you do not want to block this wave of energy from your horse. Flexibility and softness become suppleness when they are combined with adequate strength for you to support your body in alignment. On its own, flexibility results in either a floppy body or a physically 'busy' one that is too pushed here and there. We want to follow the motion of the horse, but always with the ability to also lead.
When we watch high-level riders and they appear to our eye as motionless, it is common mimic that in our own riding. However, as with many aspects of correct riding, there is an outside and an inside. For example, on the outside, a rider who's size is well matched to their horse will carry their hands slightly above and slightly ahead of the pommel with nice bend in their elbow to achieve that straight line from elbow to bit.
However, when a rider who's proportion to their horse does not work out so neatly sees this and tries to put their hands in that exact spot in relation to the pommel, they may end up with long arms and locked elbows. They have achieved the outer guideline, but not the functional requirement for riding which is to have soft elbows and a nice line from elbow to bit.
The functional requirement is based on biomechanics. If the rider is short on a long horse, or long on a short horse, their posture when functionally correct, will not match the visual expectation for hand position. The same would apply for a rider with a structural limitation such as different limb length. A rider with different physical leg lengths may be tempted to ride with one stirrup shorter to achieve visual symmetry, at great cost to their seat position due to very different femur and hip angles. The important aspect for the horse is not the leg length, but balance and straightness in the seat bones. The seat bones are the base for a rider. The way your middle, shoulders and head stack on top of your seat bones in a balanced way is what the late Sally Swift referred to as the "building blocks" in her famous book Centered Riding.
"You can't have control over your horse's balance until you have control over your own balance. To be balanced.you need to be sitting equally on both seat bones and strong in your middle section so that your horse can't displace you." --Kyra Kyrklund, Dressage Today article "Smaller Steps for Greater Balance"
Turning flexibility into real quietness requires two more components: strength in your core, and balance. This month, we look at balance because the strength you need depends on your balance. For example, if you are not well balanced (you shift to the side, tip forward, lean your shoulders back, or your feet creep forward), you will find yourself trying to use strength to fight your own body in order to achieve alignment or apply aids. The result of the biomechanical argument going on in your body will be tension. Tension blocks motion.
Flexibility and softness in your spine are only a part of the equation for quiet riding. Your back will not stay supple if your body is tilted forward or backward and not correctly vertical. Try standing on your feet, tipping forward as far as you can and holding the position without stepping forward for as long as you can. Observe the strain beginning to build up in your back. If you rock forward in the saddle, your back muscles and facial tissue will tighten up to support you.