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Friday, 27 January 2012

Are You Sitting Comfortably?

How many times have you been told to sit back on your seat?  It’s good advice, of course, but the way you do it can have a huge effect on your position and your horse.

Most riders are aware of their two seat bones but what about your fork? That’s your pubic bone – or the front of your seat. (The bit nobody dares to mention!) It has to take some weight. How else can you support the weight of the front of your body?

Think about it. There’s a reason your feet stick out in front of you – they give you a broader area to support your body weight. When you get on a horse you take both feet off the floor yet suddenly you think you can support your whole weight on two small bones at the back of your seat. That’s like walking around on your heels. If you did that you’d spend most of your life falling over backwards! You can balance on your heels – try it – but your muscles would be so tense to maintain it you’d soon get tired.

Tip back onto your seat bones and you’ll put direct pressure onto your horse’s back in one small area. It’s the difference between being prodded with a finger or pushed with the palm of a hand. Is it any wonder some horses get tight behind the saddle?

Tip back onto your seat bones and your legs naturally swing forward, just as they do when you sit in a chair. Your body would like to tip backwards too but if – like many riders – you look down or lean forward you’ll end up in a slumped position or you’ll have a back like a banana. These things can all be corrected BUT if your seat is still at fault then tension moves to your hips and lower back as your body tries to hold everything in place.

Ideally you should aim to get your horse to take roughly ¾ of his weight on his quarters and ¼ over his shoulders. Think of your seat in the same way. Whilst your seat bones take the majority of weight your fork supports the rest.

Get on your horse and in halt sit straight down in the saddle. Forget about trying to find your seat bones. Aim to distribute your weight across the saddle as best you can. Allow your bum to look big on it! Anyone anticipating cutting themselves in half shouldn’t worry. If your saddle is big enough and you’re not tipping back (and therefore ‘exposing’ your fork) then you’re actually better protected!

In halt feel how your legs just hang down when you sit flat onto your seat. The weight should fall directly onto your stirrup. Let it. Leave your foot in a fairly flat position and move it so your heel is directly underneath your hip. A good guide is to look down at your knee. Your toe shouldn’t be visible.

Sit and focus on how it feels to have your weight supported over your whole seat. Now breathe in and pull your body up as if you’re trying to pull your vertebra apart. Pull the bottom of your ribcage out and forward. Be careful as you breathe in that you don’t tighten your seat, everything needs to stay soft.

In this position you are in self carriage. Your weight is evenly distributed, your muscles are relaxed and each part of your body is carrying itself without causing tension through the rest of your body. It’s what you expect your horse to do.

Still in halt push your heels down. As your heel pushes down your lower leg will swing forwards. Your seat will slip back and tense up. You’ll feel your knee tighten against the saddle. In halt this has little effect on your horse but do the same in trot or canter and you’ll find it’s impossible to sit in the saddle. If you can’t remain in contact with his back then you’ll find it difficult to control his speed, keep him balanced or shorten him up.

Ride forward in walk, trot and canter on 20m circles and serpentines but forget about your horse’s carriage and focus on yours. As your seat relaxes your leg will naturally hang longer meaning your heel will be lower than your toe but don’t force it. Keep your foot flat on the stirrup and allow your weight to fall directly onto it. Practise sitting trot with your weight spread over all three points of your seat and instead of thinking ‘heels down’ think ‘foot flat’.

On turns and corners concentrate on keeping your whole seat relaxed and in contact with the saddle. Keep the weight evenly spread and you’ll avoid direct pressure points. When you turn your shoulders onto the line you want your horse to take don’t forget to turn your hips. He’ll copy what you do with your body. If his shoulders turn but his hips go straight on his quarters will swing out on a corner or turn. You can put your outside leg back to correct it but whose fault was it anyway?  

Some of the lightest riders can actually sit quite heavy in the saddle. It’s not about your weight in stones but what you do with it. Take responsibility for your own body weight. Distribute it around your saddle and make yourself as easy for your horse to carry as you can. Once you’re in self carriage you may be surprised to find he is too.

Good luck and enjoy your schooling.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Set in Stone?

Once again can I just say a huge thank you to everyone who has voted so far to get me into the final 10 at the Equestrian Social Media Awards. If you like this blog and you haven't there's still time! Click on the logo at the top of this page and find me - Lorraine Jennings in section 21. Thank you :)

Does your horse set his neck? If he does it can feel as if you’ll never get him to bend but don’t despair! Before you head out to buy yourself some weights to build up your arm muscles take a look at where the tension is coming from and why.

Your horse could be setting against you for any number of reasons. It can be hard to believe when he appears to be doing his best impression of a rhino but there’s a good chance it comes from your hands.

The source of this tension usually lies in your horse’s lower jaw or at the base of his neck. If your hands are fixed or heavy he’ll set his jaw against them. Try it. Grit your teeth together and smile. Feel how the tension spreads to the front of your neck? If that’s what he’s doing his bottom line will be more developed than his topline.

If your horse started setting his jaw and tightening his bottom line then there’s a good chance you’ve tried to ‘get him off your hand’ by squeezing one rein and then the other. (That’s putting it mildly!) Don’t feel bad – most riders have done it. BUT tighten your jaw again, smile and then move your head from side to side and tilt your chin up. NOW you’ll feel the tension move to the back of your neck and settle at the base. If he’s doing this you’ll see a noticeable dip in front of his withers.

You may well be reading this thinking “But HE started it!” Maybe he did but unfortunately he’s a horse and so you’re the only one who can stop it!

In the case of the tightened jaw you need to look at your balance. When a horse starts to set themselves most riders lean back. There’s a big difference between leaning back and pulling up. Check out this post which shows you how to sit up and stay balanced to help your horse -

When you lean back your weight goes to the back of the saddle and often your legs swing forward. This does two things. Firstly it puts direct pressure on one point of your horse’s back – that’s going to make him tighten his back. Secondly it means you’ll lean back against his mouth. Without realising it the one thing you’re doing to try to stop the problem could actually be causing it.

Pulling up through your body puts you in the perfect position for your horse to carry. Imagine if he was to disappear from under you. If you’re balanced then you’d land on your feet and stay upright. Lean back and if he disappeared you’d fall over backwards – which is exactly how you feel to him all the time you’re on his back.

Pulling your horse’s head to one side won’t make him bend. He needs to bend through his body. To bend his body you need to ride him from your legs. The emphasis in these exercises is on your legs not your hands so it’s important you keep them together and still. Remember your horse can only set on something if it’s solid. Hold the rein between your thumb and first finger so they don’t get too long but open and close the other three to keep your contact soft.

Trotting round and round the school either large or on a circle won’t help your cause. Your horse needs to get mobile. To do that you need an exercise that moves him from one rein to the other and allows him time to relax in between. Try this –

In walk or trot go large. Introduce 10m figures of eight at K, H, M and F that consist of two 10m circles joined by one stride on the centre line. These will get your horse moving and bending through his body. It’s vital you don’t pull back on your inside rein. As you approach the marker turn your body onto the curve you want to take and look ahead. Your hands should move round with your body – think of using them as a pointer to tell your horse where you want him to go. As you touch the centre line ride one stride straight and then turn your body the other way taking your hands round with you.

Your hands keep your horse’s shoulders on the right track and used by the girth your legs keep his quarters behind them. (Move a leg back and you’ll be pushing his quarters over and he’ll be crooked) What should change is pressure. Your inside leg should become stronger to push his body out and round. If he starts to step sideways then ‘catch’ him with your outside leg and push him forward.

As you ride straight on the centre line your leg pressure becomes equal. As your body turns to the new circle your new inside leg pushes his barrel out towards your outside leg again. In this way you’re taking what was a rigid barrel and making it pliable by pushing it from one leg to the other.

Put this theory to the test by setting your own jaw again. Now move your own barrel from side to side (you may want to try this behind closed doors!) You’ll find whether the tension is in your jaw or at the back of your neck it starts to disappear.

One figure of eight at a time is enough. As you continue to the next marker make a conscious effort to push both hands an inch further forward. You’ll find as he starts to use his body your horse will start appreciate that extra bit of rein as you straighten up on the long sides and without realising it his neck will soften.

It’s easy to feel frustrated when your horse sets himself against you but you can never win a battle of strength. However - you are more intelligent. Try to remember that the next time you lean back ready to take a pull!

Good luck and enjoy your schooling.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Riding the Straight Curve

Did you vote for me in the Equestrian Social Media Awards? Thank you. I made the final 10! If you enjoy this blog please take a second to give me your vote again at Find me in section 21 Lorraine Jennings

Now back to business -

Can you ride a straight line? How about a straight curved one? Straightness is important whether you’re on a curve or a straight line. It’s essential to everything you do. If your horse isn’t straight on a circle he’s not on one circle at all. He’s on two!

Your horse is straight when his hind feet follow the line of his front feet. (With the exception of some lateral movements) Look at him from the front and you should only be able to see his front legs. He’s said to be on two tracks. If he gets out of line – or crooked – you’ll be able to see two front legs and one or both of his hind legs. He’s on three or four tracks. On three tracks he’s crab-like - his quarters will be following one circle while his shoulders are following another.

Your horse is at his strongest when he’s straight. His hocks are directly behind his shoulders and the energy they create can drive his body forward. If his hocks are slightly out of line then some of that energy is wasted or worse they push his body in the wrong direction.

There are many causes of crookedness in horses. Most are easily solved. Before you reach for the phone and call a dentist, saddle fitter or chiropractor have a good look at your own position to see if your horse’s problems could stem from you.

Your hands control your horse’s shoulders. Did you know he doesn’t have a collar bone? That means both shoulders can move independently of each other. Keeping your hands together keeps his shoulders together as one unit.

Whatever you do with your hands your horse will do with his shoulders. If one hand is further back than the other his shoulders will mirror them. If one shoulder is further back than the other he’ll be crooked. If one hand is lower than the other he’ll drop the same shoulder. If he’s falling in he’s not straight.

Without pressure from both legs your horse may swing his quarters one way or the other. It’s important that you drive him forward from even pressure from both legs in their usual place near the girth. Your legs only come back to correct or order. Use one leg further back than the other and you’re unintentionally asking him to move his quarters to one side. He’ll be on three tracks at least and be crooked.

If you have problems feeling if your horse is straight check out this exercise which makes it more obvious and shows you how to correct him if he’s crooked -

So a straight line is easy. You push your horse with both legs in their usual place to a steady, level and even contact and he drives himself forward. Simple. It is until you have to turn the corner at the end!

Imagine riding down the centre line and having to track right at the end. How would you ride that turn? Inside rein for a bit of bend? Or up to stop him falling in? Outside leg back to bend his quarters round the curve? Outside rein to get hold of the shoulder? There lies the problem. What happened to the straightness? Try this –

In any pace work on the centre line turning either way at the end unless you’re in canter. Then stick to the same rein to avoid too many changes.

Ride down the centre line using both legs in their usual place. Keep your body square to the front and push on. There’s nothing like a lack of energy to create crookedness.

Your turn at the end requires two things. Straightness and balance. To maintain your horse’s balance don’t leave the turn too late. It’s the same with any corner. Don’t make your turn so sharp that he loses his balance. No horse can do a right angled turn. Start as you pass G or D and ride a smooth curve to the track at the point here the ¾ line finishes. It’s a corner with the end rubbed off.

As you make the turn ride it as you would a straight line. Push with both legs in their usual place. Keep your hands together and level. In this way your horse keeps his hocks directly behind his shoulders, he’ll stay balanced and be able to drive himself round the turn.

Of course you need him to bend to the inside. So what should you do? What you don’t need to do is pull your inside rein. Pulling it will change the pressure in his mouth and move your hands apart. You’ll get him out of line and unbalance him.

Another common mistake is pushing his quarters around your inside leg by putting your outside leg back. Think about it. Why would you want him to move his quarters in off the track? That’s what your leg behind the girth means.

Your body shows your horse which way to bend. Turn your shoulders and your hips to the inside and he’ll do the same. Keep your legs in their usual place but increase the pressure from your inside leg to move his barrel out. Now you have his shoulders and quarters on the track where they should be. His hocks can drive him forward but his body (matching yours) is turned to the inside.

Try riding circles and turns around the school. Keep your hands together and push your horse’s hocks behind his shoulders. Don’t get obsessed with inside bend. When you turn your body he will bend through his. Trust him. He always copies what you do with your body. That’s what causes most problems in the first place!

Good luck and enjoy your schooling. 

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Finesse or Anticipation?

There is nothing more frustrating than a horse that anticipates your every move. Does your horse: jog the minute you take up your reins in walk? Canter if your seat stays in the saddle for more than two strides in trot? Drop down into trot from canter if you so much as move in the saddle or on the reins? If he does then there’s a strong chance that what you’re doing to avoid the problem is probably making it worse.

The trouble with anticipation is your horse isn’t actually listening to what you’re saying. At first he’s just trying to do as you ask before you’ve asked. The problem is as he happily bounces off into canter before you’ve had a chance to put your leg on he’s failed to realise that you were actually going to ask for counter canter – or even walk! Whilst you don’t want to crush his enthusiasm wouldn’t it be nice if you could get him to wait before he jumped in feet first?

That initial enthusiasm soon becomes tension as you try your hardest to ‘sneak up on him’. In walk you shuffle your fingers up the reins, in trot you sit for half a stride and bang your leg on before he has a chance to go and in canter every move you make is preceded with a hearty squeeze to keep him going. Sound familiar?

It’s easy to think your horse is over confident the way he plunges head first into everything before he’s asked but what he really needs is for you to slow down and make things clearer so he starts to really listen to what you have to say. The more you try to avoid things the more confused he becomes. And that always causes tension.

The clearer your aids are the easier it will be for your horse to understand you. Check out this post - before you try these exercises so you’re absolutely clear how to use both legs in your canter aid.
Check out - for ways to slow down without depending on your reins.
Your legs are there to ask for changes in pace and more energy not just to keep him going. Check this out if you’re using your leg more than you should -

Use a 20m circle at E/B. Your horse will have to pay more attention to you because he doesn’t have the fence to guide him. In any pace ride a spiral into the centre of the circle so you finish with a 10m circle in the middle before you spiral back out again.

This spiral will keep your horse focused because it’s something different and the tight curve will mean he has to use his hocks. When he concentrates he’ll start to relax. The spiral is the main part of this exercise. Don’t come off it for the rest of the session. On it you can work between all three paces.

It’s important that you ride a true line NOT a leg yield in or out. You may find your horse tries to drift out to the bigger circle. Keep your hands together and the contact even in both reins to keep his shoulders together as one unit and straight in front of you. Use both legs in their usual place - putting your outside leg back won’t stop a horse drifting out – driving his quarters behind his shoulders will.

For this exercise your trot work should be done in sitting trot. This is really important because it will allow your horse to relax and stop thinking you’re about to ask for canter. There’s only one way to learn to sit well and that’s to keep doing it – and relax. The longer you trot the more your muscles will relax and stop bracing against the movement. Practice really does make perfect.

Once your horse has accepted the fact sitting trot doesn’t automatically mean canter – or walk you can start to introduce transitions between the paces. Take your time. Don’t spring anything on him suddenly. Make clear movements and be firm with your leg. Remember the firmer and clearer you are the more control you’ll have.

The tightness of the spiral will maintain your canter for you. Aim to canter into the middle and back out again at least three times so it’s continuous. That allows your horse to settle and get his balance. Make sure you sit up and ride forward with both legs to a steady contact to help him keep his weight back on his hocks.
Check out this post - There are some easy tips on how to change your position to help him.

Practice walking on a long rein and taking them up again in one fluent movement. Check this out - There’s absolutely no benefit to you or your horse in shuffling your fingers up the reins. Lean forward take the contact on the outside rein and then take up the inside rein – all within two strides and then you’re settled again. Keep your legs on and don’t back off if he jogs. The answer is to take your reins up quickly and get your weight in the saddle as soon as you can – not to do it so he doesn’t feel it!

All these problems can be resolved if you stop avoiding them. Your horse can feel a fly landing on his back so there’s no chance of you ever being able to do something that he can’t feel! Make your movements clear and confident. Let him really hear what you have to say and then he’ll be able to listen.

Good luck and enjoy your schooling.