Thursday, 28 April 2011

Place your bones carefully

In conjunction with a lecture on seat and saddle, I had the opportunity to make an interesting experiment - I put a skeleton in the saddle.

When I work with riders on the wooden horse, I usually talk about the desirable directions that should be in the rider's legs. The thigh should have a slightly inward rotation and rest on the saddle so that the inside of the thighs and knees rests on the saddle flap. Just above the knee the thighbone connects to the saddle flap and it means that the movement of the horse's chest directly affects the bone and thus the hip joint.

The lower leg, on the other hand, will have a slight outward rotation. That brings the calf muscle to drop in towards the horse's belly and the knee have a direction out over the big toe.

There are drawings of skeletons in the saddle, but it adds to the experience to see how well the pelvis connects to the shape of the saddle. As you can see the hip joint and the upper part of the thigh bone is free from any contact with the saddle.

There are of course individual variations in the shape of the pelvis and that is why it is important to try different saddle brands and models. This skeleton had a shape that fitted well in a Top Reiter saddle.

A saddle seat that follows the shape of the pelvis gives the muscle suit that keeps the skeleton upright a possibility to become a body with a relaxed balance, allowing for a smooth riding with precision in the giving of aids.

"Dear riders - don't just look - please observe! C. Harris

Thursday, 21 April 2011

The horse's walk

It's almost a year ago since I wrote about the walk here on the blog.

Since there seems to be a lot of confusion as to how the horse should move in walk I will address this topic today.

The walk has a four-beat rhythm. In walk the horse moves its feet in the following order if we start with the lifting of the left front (A in the picture), then the right hind (B), right front (D) and left hind (F). When you look at a lateral pair, for instance the right hind and right front, you will see that these form a “V” during one moment of the step sequence (D).

(I have borrowed the picture from this web site. Here you can for instance read about how the use of photography in 1877 for the first time revealed how horses move their legs in canter.)

And here is a short animated film about how horses walk:

Pacing is when horses no longer walk with the correct rhythm, or sequence of steps. In pacing the horse moves both lateral legs at the same time. The ”V” shape in picture “D” above is never created. It is, I'm sad to say, fairly common to see horses pacing in dressage competition even at the highest levels. For some breeds pacing is a natural gait so the gait in itself is not incorrect, but it should not be seen in a dressage competition.

Tempo is another way of describing the horse's gaits and refers to the frequency of hoofbeats per minute. Just as we want the rhythm (the sequence of steps) to remain the same, we also look for the tempo to be the same whether of not each stride is longer (as in extended walk) or shorter (as in collected walk). In whatever tempo the horse walks, each leg should cover as much or as little ground as the others, and the standing phase (when the foot is on the ground) should be equally long for each individual foot. In a relaxed horse the standing phase tends to be longer than in a tense horse. The horse's speed, that is how quickly or slowly the horse will travel a certain distance, will depend on the length of the stride: longer strides make a faster speed, shorter stride a slower speed. If the tempo remains the same that is.

The object of correct dressage is not to teach the horse to perform the exercises of the High School in the collected paces at the expense of the elementary paces. The classical school, on the contrary, demands that as well as teaching the difficult exercises, the natural paces of the horse not only should be preserved but should also be improved by the fact that the horse has been strengthened by gymnastics. Therefore, if during the course of training the natural paces are not improved, it would be proof that the training was incorrect.”

Alois Podhajsky (1967) “The complete training of horse and rider”, page 96.

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

Thursday, 14 April 2011

The hand is dominating

We are coming towards the end of our first year writing postings in english. It is amazing how time flies and how fun this really is. The greatest advantage of this process is that my way of looking at riding and horse handling in large has been affected - I notice more.

The challenge is to work for a broader approach to riding, rider, horse handling and horse-rider relationship. There is so many short cuts and there are so many established "truths" that influence horse owners even though new research shows that it is high time to let go of some of the so called knowledge. "It is what you think you know that hinders you from learning."

It is interesting that the question if we should use bit, bridle and hand or if the riders aid should be given by the seat is such a hot topic. There seems to be a division between "seat riders" and "hand riders".

A comment in our swedish blog said that "The bridle and the hand is a force that is often misused because the horse is very sensitve in his mouth and by making use of a bit we can force the horse into submission." I agree that the horse's mouth is very sensitive and an untrained hand (consciously or unconsciously coarse) can definitely force the horse into submission.

The catch is just that an uneducated (or insensitive) hand can dominate a horse, even if you ride without bit. Interference with the head carriage of the horse in the mouth or on the nasal bridge, affects the horse's balance. It is possible to put the horse out of balance even if you ride bitless!

The picture (taken from The World of Science, 1985) illustrates the body based on how much of cortex that control different parts of the body. The figure with purple hand illustrates the "motoric homunculus" and with the yellow hand the sensoric. As the nerve crosses over the brain the right side of the brain controls the left side of your body so you have the color codes on the opposite side above the drawing. The sensory nerves send signals from the body to the brain and the motoric nerves takes care of the traffic in the other direction.

The picture speaks for itself, the hand is dominant. The hand has access to a large part of the brain's motoric and sensory capabilities. It has all the potential in the world to be receptive, sensitive, subtle and well-coordinated, all we as riders need to do is to train it.

With a educated hand, we can, with or without a bit, have an impact on the horse in such a way that we give the horse the opportunity, while maintaining balance, do the job we ask of it.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

The rider's hand the primary aid?

I have previously written about the rider's hand as the primary aid in classical riding. Here I have quoted the master horseman de la Guérinière .

But is the hand the primary aid? Is not my mind the primary aid to communicate with my horse? Riding and handling horses works so much better when I'm present in the moment and use visualisation to present myself to my horse. Body language, and my seat when I'm sitting on my horse, are also very useful tools.

But there are two prerequisites needed for the horse to be able to respond to light and subtle aids from my seat when I ride.

1) I need the horse's attention.
2) The horse needs to be in self-carriage

I have time and again witnessed riders who claim they don't ride with the hand. They say they use their seat to communicate with the horse instead. Interestingly enough, these riders very often also use either cranked nose bands pulled tight so the horse cannot open its mouth when the rider pulls, or they use sharp curb bits. If the hand is not the primary aid, why do they use a bridle at all?

There are of course some who ride their horses without anything on their heads, for instance Pignon from France. I saw him in a performance in Sweden a few years ago. Very impressive.

What I find really interesting is that he trains all his horses with bridle and saddle. But always with the goal of removing them. According to Pignon, the most difficult piece of equipment to remove is the bridle.

So what is so special about the bit, bridle and the horse's mouth and head?

First of all, the horse's head is attached to its neck. Obviously. But think about this for a minute. The horse's neck is like a rudder, or a balancing pole. By influencing the horse’s neck I can control the horse even when I don't have its attention. This is why western riders use what they call a “one-rein-stop”, or if I elevate the neck I cause the horse to stop.

This is my first argument for why the hand is the primary aid.

That the hand is the primary aid does not mean that the horse or the rider should hang on to or pull on the other. The contact between the rider's hand and the horse's mouth should be only the weight of the rein, that is approximately 400 g.

My other argument for why the hand is the primary aid is that the bit placed in the horse's mouth will give the educated rider a very effective tool to influence the horse's posture. I don't think this can be replaced with either body language or visualisation.

According to Philippe Karl the hand is a very important part of classical riding:

Anthropologists accept that during his evolution, man had developed his brain in synergy with the morphological evolution of his hand (all of this related to standing upright). Without this intelligent hand he would not have invented, written, drawn, painted, sculpted, produced music... or developed equestrian art. Any training approach that only gives the hand a subordinate role will be forced to use coercive and vulgar solutions. It becomes sidetracked and leads to cultural regression.” (Twisted Truths of Modern Dressage, 2008, page 73)

What do you think?

Thanks to Mark Stanton of Natural Horsemanship Magazine for proof reading!