Thursday, 31 March 2011

All straight lines are not vertical

In riding it is common to talk about the riders seat and that a well balanced rider is sitting with his/her body oriented around the vertical line, with ear-shoulder-hip and ankle nicely aligned.

Lena and I took some pictures where she is acting rider and I hold the (at times vertical) line. The first image below illustrates the now so common slightly backwards tilted seat - the rider's body differs greatly from the vertical.
The attentive reader can see that Lena is compensating for the backward leaning with advancing both the lower leg and poking her head forward to avoid tilting backwards. Sitting on the wooden horse she can keep herself balanced by tightening her muscles. On a horse in motion, she inevitably will use the reins to keep her balance.

You can get a fairly straight line between shoulder, hip and heel, just as we do here in the picture, but as it meet the surface of earth at an angle less than 90 degrees it may well be a straight but not a vertical line.

In this picture we show what is called a hanging seat (rough translation from Swedish..) Here you can see that the deviation from vertical is less than in the upper image and the angle is greater than 90 degrees to the ground. Even in this seat the rider can become unstable and have a need to balance herself in the bridle, but as long as the horse is checked, riders are able have a light contact in the bridle.

The last picture is our contribution to illustrate the vertical seat and a balanced rider.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Resistance of force and weight

This week I want to write about something that I perceive is a central idea in French classical riding: how force and mass affect the horse's movement and co-operation with me as a rider.

All movements, both in horses and humans, is controlled either by muscular force or the impact of gravity on our bodies, or more likely a combination of both.

When you lose your balance it is suddenly gravity that determines how you move. Movements like this that are initiated and controlled by your weight (and not your muscles) are more or less out of your control. This also applies to horses. There are two clear examples of occasions when the horse allows its weight to control its movement.

One is the racehorse. When the racehorse is going at full speed (and it is insanely fast! I have tried at the local race track) she uses her weight to obtain and maintain momentum. You could say that she throws her weight forward and run to catch it again. So no matter how tired the horse is when passing the finish line, she has first to gain control over her own weight and then she can stop, which might be half a lap later.

The second example is the young or uneducated horse that puts her head to the outside when she turns. When the horse does this, she "loses" her weight in the direction of motion. When turning she will have to run after her own weight, she is out of balance.

When the horse's movement is under a strong influence of her body weight, the movement is thus to a great extent uncontrolled by the horse herself. Looking at movement in this way, it becomes logical to train the horse not to use her weight to bring about movement. A horse that uses her weight to move is often heavy in your hand and you have a hard time controlling speed and direction. What you as a rider need to do is get the horse not to hang on the bit. For this reason you apply the proper half halt where you raise your hand so that when you lower your hand, the horse is rebalanced and is light in hand.

A horse that rebalances herself in this way raises the neck and head, and by doing so transfers more of her weight to her hind legs.

The horse moving mainly due to muscular force is therefore what we strive for. But to not make the challenge of riding too easy horses can also use their muscles in a way that does not make it easy for us to ride. A horse can tense its muscles and, for instance, not bend to the right when you ask her to. The horse can have tense muscles due to stress. Tense muscles may also be because the horse has the habit of moving with tense muscles when riding. For example, if you use your hand backwards to give signals to the horse, the horse will most likely tense in order to protect herself.

What can you do if the horse is calm but still has tension in her muscles? You can lightly vibrate the reins to make the horse yield the jaw, or train the horse to taste the bit as if it were a piece of sugar when you take light contact with the bit. This is what I wrote about last week and what the French call "cession de mâchoir".

These thoughts, to define in what ways the horse can make it difficult for the rider to have a precise influence on its posture is called "resistance of weight" and "resistance of force" in English.

Thanks to Mark Stanton of Natural Horsemanship Magazine for proof reading! Any remaining mistakes are all my own.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Exercise - something we do or just allow?

Our body is made to move, so it is not surprising that exercise has become almost sacred in our part of the world, where so much time is spent sitting. Not so long ago, everyday life was filled with intense physical work, and Sunday was the sacred day of rest and contemplation.

Movement is manifested through our muscles, they consist of three groups of fibres: red, white and mixed (pink) muscle fibres. In short, red fibres performes the ongoing work to keep us upright. The white is quick, swift as that move when we, with precision, sweep away a wasp on the arm.

Muscles are affected by exercise, running slow and for a long time affects the red fibres and strength exercises builds up the white. Weight lifting fairly quickly increased muscle strength in response to exercise. In studies, scientists have seen an effect known as SAID (Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands). This means that people get better on the specific training they perform but the effect on other activities is small. It may be that the strength is associated with a set of particular machines in a gym, change machines or gym and you feel weak!

Fitness training focused on strength increases the amount of white fibres at the expense of the resilient red, increased strength leads to reduced endurance. It is therefore a fit person can still find it cumbersome and tiring to sit at the computer.

The force that trains us more than any other is gravity, you stand and you train! Balance is a measure of how well we deal with gravity. A good posture and gravity strengthens our red fibrous postural muscles, we become stronger and more capable to keep our balance.

Once you know how to place yourself with regard to the vertical line when in the saddle, you no longer keep your balance through the reins, or squeeze with your legs. You can rest in your red muscle fibres and allow the whites to act quickly and with precision when required. That increases the possibility that it will be riding with quality!

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Perception of the position of the horse's neck – too high, too low or just right?

The horse reveals his mood through his eyes, ears and posture of the neck. The neck also allows the horse to graze from the ground, reach apples high up in trees and scratch his stomach. The horse can also use his neck to influence his own movements, using the neck as a rudder and balancing pole. From this it is obvious that the horse himself can place his neck in a variety of positions. But what positions of the neck do I have the right to ask of the horse when I ride?

Experiments were conducted as early as the 19th century to investigate how different positions of the head and neck affect weight distribution on a stationary horse. Similar experiments have been carried out even today. The results were the same then as now.

A horse that is in the normal position of rest (A in the picture) carries about 60% of its bodyweight on the front legs. Note that the horse's ears are at the hight of the withers. When the rider mounts, two thirds of the rider's weight is carried by the front legs, the rest by the rear legs. To compensate for this the horse needs to rebalance itself, which it does by raising the neck and head (B). To me, the horse at B looks as if it is looking across a field. This position is not what I would call extremely raised, but rather a normal position and a must if the horse should not overload its shoulders and front legs.

With further education of the horse with collection as the goal, the hind legs of the horse are brought under the horse so that they carry even more weight. In classical riding the highest form of collection is the levade (E). Here the horse carries all his bodyweight and even the rider's weight on his hind legs. Since the hind legs in this picture are quite angled the rear is lowered. This may then be called a relative raising of the front end, that is not a raising of the neck and the head compared to the ground, but a raising of the neck's position compared to the rear.

What is it that we interpret as normal? How high a neck position is extremely high, and what is extremely low? The series of images above are taken from the former Swedish horsemaster Day Nätterqvist's website.

A similar sequence is also available in "Riding Logic" by Wilhelm Müseler. Müseler who wrote his book in the early 20th century. For much of the 20th century this was seen as normal. Also note that none of these horses have the nose behind the vertical line (an imaginary vertical line passing through the horse's eye), but rather in front of it.

Today in competitive riding, dressage as well as jumping, you can see horses being ridden in so-called “rollkur” (also since 2010 known as LDP, which stands for ”Low-and-Deep-and-Round”).

For me this is an extreme position that is not in any way helpful for the horse. I believe that even just a little behind the vertical is a position that should be avoided, for in this position too much of both the horse and rider's weight are loaded on the horse's front legs.

The trend in western riding and Scandinavian “academic riding” also seems to move towards a low position of the horse's neck, where the ideal is that the horse has his ears quite a bit lower than the withers. For me this is a position that my horse takes when I walk on a long rein. This is not a position in which I work the horse, but rather the position the horse will assume when the muscles in the neck are tired. These muscles can become fatigued when the horse is asked to carry his head by himself for a prolonged time, as in BE in the series.

It's been proven time and again how the horse's balance is affected by neck and head position. A horse with its neck straight out and the ears at the height of the withers carries more of his weight towards the front than the rear. More weight will be transferred to the front legs when the horse carries his neck lower and / or has its nose behind the vertical. When the horse raises the neck and head more of the weight is carried on his hind legs.

For me it is common sense to respect this when riding. Watch how your horse chooses to use the neck in order to affect his balance when he is, for instance, loose in the pasture, when jumping or being longed (without sidereins of course!).

What do you perceive as extreme or normal? What position does your horse choose on its own?

Thanks to Mark Stanton of Natural Horsemanship Magazine for proof reading! Any remaining errors are all my own / Lena

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Games educate

Being a student is to take part in teaching during lessons when a teacher teaches and conveys the knowledge she or he possesses to the student.

A good lesson is a lesson that contains a good proportion of knowledge conveyed in a playful manner. The playful manner is anything but recless drivel, it has a purpose, a goal and that is to raise students to become future teachers - that is how knowledge is passed on.

During my training as an Alexander teacher we had a session each afternoon called games. During the game session we played with the body, we experimented with movements, explored the muscle spirals found in the body through well-designed games for example. These games might just as well have be called exercises, I know. But the interesting thing is that the words game and exercise provokes totally different associations within us.

Play is free, unrestrained, and curious - exercise often causes us to search for right and wrong. When I have students, I encourage them to play. Since it may be long time between lessons it is important that those who come to me dares to play on their own, to explore and experiment with what we have done during the lesson together.

It is their own play that really educates them, it provides them with opportunities to analyse if one attempt went better or worse than the other. And since the games in AT often are things we do several times each day; sitting, standing, walking among other things, it can be used to educate us as often as we want.

Playing games is liberating and brings us closer to a laughter than exercises, play is refreshing - exercises can get a taste of must/should/would or bad conscience. When we play, we can allow ourselves to be focused on perception rather than perfection. We become confident in what we really can and what we have left to play with. Play is fundamental for life-long learning.