Wednesday, 25 May 2011


In working my young horse I have been working with different versions of calmness.

At first I was scared, insecure in regard to both the technique and the horse. I appeared calm because at times my body was completely passive, frozen, but at the same time the inside of me was a complete chaos.

Now that I'm really confident my body works all the time, it moves constantly to position itself in the best possible manner in relation to the horse. I say "it moves" because in this calm mind set I can let it proceed its work undisturbed. It is a kind of calm that allows me to be present in what is happening without feeling a need to act, but still be ready to do so if and when I feel the need. So when I want something actively with the horse; stop it or turn it or anything else, I go in and control the body or in the AT-language give myself directions.

A horse also needs to come to peace. Being calm is a prerequisite for it to be able to benefit from the training. A stressed nervous system is busy dealing with internal signals that is really about its survival. The horse is a flight animal whose first defense is to get away from the thing that scares them. As a horseowner/trainer you should really make an effort to avoid giving the horse bad experiences, because it will affect the training ahead.

But that's where it gets interesting. How do we avoid bad experiences ... what is a bad experience? Which road should we choose, do we choose not to expose the horse to anything or expose the horse to "everything"?

It is not unusual for riders to ride with their lower legs lifted away from the horse's torso with the explanation that the horse is afraid of the legs. Spectators in the riding hall is being asked to be silent and still to avoid frightening the horse (read: so the horse remains calm). The pram is removed, the dustbin is moved, the hoses should be removed - all in order to keep the horse calm.

But the calmness that the horse gets in arranged surroundings is not the calmness that we seek. The on the outside seemingly calm horse may be a horse with an a huge internal uncertainty. What we want is a horse with an internal ease that allows the horse to react to the environment but without having its flight reflexes activated.

It is a kind of calm that allows the horse to be present in what is happening without feeling a need to act, but still be ready to do so if and when it seems necessary. So when the horse wants something actively, stop, turn or something else, it controls the body or in the AT-language gives himself direction.

"All human errors are impatience, a premature breaking off of methodical procedure." Franz Kafka

Thursday, 19 May 2011

”LDR”: necessary gymnastic or unnecessary abuse?

When I was a little kid it was said that if the horse was behind the bit it was a serious fault. Later, in the nineties I think, it became a training method that some of the top competition riders in the world used but more often than not behind closed doors. The training practice got the name of roll-kur, then hyperflexion and now it is called ”LDR” which stands for ”low, deep and round” and it is still something some of the top competition riders do. Today it is performed not behind closed doors since the FEI says it is not abusive, at least not when professional riders do it. If you wonder what LDR is all about I have included a short video. In this video several times world dressage champion Anky von Grunsven, shows how she trains her horses. She starts out with the horse in a typical modern dressage outline (which according to the old standards is behind the bit!), and about 6 minutes into the clip she puts the horse in ”LDR”.

It is clear that the horse is very well tamed and attentive to its rider. It can even be argued that the horse is supple. If the horse enjoys being ridden like this or not I leave up to you to decide for yourself. But why do I think this is unnecessary abuse? Why do I think it is not OK to have the horse behind the vertical in LDR?

This is what happens when the horse is asked to perform LDR:

*) The cervical ligaments are subjected to extreme and prolonged stretching, causing tearing of fibres (picture from ”Sustainable Dressage”).

*) The parotid glands are subjected to extreme compression which can cause inflammation.

*) The horse's field of vision becomes very limited. In LDR the horse can only see where it puts its feet, not what is in front of it.

*) The horse perceives gravity by the inner ear. There horses have a similar structure to humans with three semi circular canals that allow horses and humans to orient themselves in three dimensional space. It has been shown when humans are displaced from our natural reference positions for long periods of time balance disorders like sea sickness may occur. For horses in extreme situations like jumping or racing the natural reference positions corresponds to the head being 30o in front of the vertical.

*) The brachio-cephalic muscles that connect the head to the foreleg becomes shortened and contracted. This blocks the movement of the shoulders, which are also overloaded.

From ”Twisted truths of modern dressage” by Philippe Karl (2008)

FEI have not dared to forbid ”LDR” but stated that this training method should only be practised by professional riders. I leave it up to you to decide what you think of this training method. I know where I stand and I will not pay tribute to riders who ride like this, nor practice or teach this kind of riding. I think it is unnecessary abuse of the horse.

What do you think?

As usual, thanks to Mark Stanton of Natural Horsemanship Magazine for proof reading! Any remaining errors are all my own.

Thursday, 12 May 2011

position + direction + balance + suppleness = the ability to follow

What exactly is balance and suppleness?

Balance is, as I see it, the body's response to the question asked by gravity. Can I stay on my two feet or motion be it standing still or being in motion? Or if I sit in the saddle, am I able balance myself on my seat bones? How much muscular effort do I need to keep me in balance? Do I have to use the support of something outside of me to keep balanced?

Suppleness is, in my opinion, my ability to maintain self-balance allowing the body to keep up with a movement that is generated by someone (or something) else outside my own body. The movement can be generated by me skiing, cycling, riding or dancing.

The basis for a good seat is when we are positioning the bones in such a way that the postural muscles are given a chance to keep us up-right with least possible tension. That kind of basic attitude gives the prerequisite for good balance and ability to follow the motion.

But the concept of position brings about a possible conflict with both balance and suppleness and that possibility arises if we think of the position as something static, something we take and then hold ("strike a pose").

The Alexander Technique way to make a position relative and alive is to emphasise the directions that you want to be possible at every moment the position is in motion.

The picture above is from the book Riding - a tutorial by Percy Hamilton from 1923 and shows a rider good balance and with good ability to follow a movement follows the extended trot the horse offers. The horse carries his head high, but note that the rider does not sit on a sway-backed horse, on the contrary! That is a well connected back, it is particularly noticeable on the horse's legs - it is a snapshot of strenght!

Keep this image in mind when you study riding today. This rider has no fear of speed or force! He asks for extended trot and he lets himself be carried off by the horse, he has a good position and a clear direction - full speed ahead!

"Toughness and force are exclusive to the mediocre who never want to be true."
de la Guérinière

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Counted walk

On April 7 I wrote the following statement here on my blog
”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”.

As an example on how the rider can influence the horse's posture I would like to discuss the counted walk.

Counted walk
I heard this term for the first time at a clinic with Craig Stevens.

The counted walk is a slow walk (read my last blog entry about the footfalls in the walk)where the horse takes short steps (each hoof moves forward no further than a hoof length) as well as keeps in a slow tempo with a prolonged standing phase for each hoof.

What have the counted walk and posture to do with each other? Well, it is like this. You ask the horse to produce the counted walk by asking the horse to elevate its neck and head.

When the horse raises its head and neck, according to Craig, the construction of the vertebrae in the cervical spine means that the horse can no longer bend in the neck. When the horse raises its head to its anatomical maximum, the entire spine from neck to tail, not just the cervical spine, will become straight. As the rider I don't have to keep the horse straight by the use of external influences from either reins or legs. The horse keeps himself straight due to his internal structure. It is in this way the rider can affect the horse's posture and balance the horse to move its legs equally, which is another way to say the horse is straight.

I wrote that the skilled rider can affect the horse's posture. What I mean by that is that, for this to work, the rider can not ever pull back with her hand, or hang on the reins. The contact between the rider's hand and the horse's mouth must also be light. The horse must not hang or press on the bit, nor challenge the rider's influence by either weight or force.

The counted walk is a very effective tool for the rider to influence the horse's posture. When you try this exercise remember that a light contact is a must. You will probably also notice that your horse will be uneven in pace or that his hind quarters deviate to one side or the other. This is your horse trying to communicate to you: "oh gosh, I do not think I can manage to be completely straight and go slow". Take it slow and let your horse strengthen itself little by little, do not require too many steps in the beginning, one or two may be enough.

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