Riding – Prevention of Pulling on the Horse’s Mouth
In schooling horses, pulling on their mouth is unnecessary and causes them anxiety and eventually physical damage. The discomfort and stress to the rider is also enormous, unnecessary, but well deserved. The rider should hold the reins but not his horse. Nature made the horse to balance perfectly on his four legs. The rider’s duties do not include lending the horse a “fifth leg,” the reins, to lean on. In fact, classical horsemanship cherishes the ideal of a horse in self-carriage. While that concept includes several ideas, depending on the horse’s gymnastic development, it always includes the notion of a horse moving free from the rider’s encumbrances on the reins. In fact, the reins may do a number of things but not these three: they should not inhibit the horse’s liberty to use his limbs freely; they should not attempt to shape the horse’s neck and posture; and they should not steer separately.
The reins in the rider’s hands are tools and, as with all tools, can be put to good or bad use. Pulling on the reins, even in transitions, is a misuse of the reins. It is possible to think of dressage as desiring the elimination of pulling hands and any painful contact in general. Thus, strong contact through the reins, whether constant or occasional, is counterproductive to the goals of dressage.
Many riders pull because they do not sit in balance, which means they are not in full control of their body and therefore their aids. Often their riding remains ineffective. Words are not sufficient substitutes for feeling through riding. Words-can only guide us to situations that will result in proper feelings.
Riding is a sport and, as in any sport, muscle tone, skeletal coordination, and strength in certain areas are all necessary.
During riding instruction, we may hear repeated requests for relaxation. Relaxation of the useful kind can be forthcoming only after the rider has achieved balanced unity with his horse. Indiscriminate or inappropriate relaxation is counterproductive. Certain areas of the body should be relaxed, but others should not be! As riders, we must carefully define each area in order to have an effective seat that can either drive or restrain without our pulling on the reins. No athletic endeavor can be based on total relaxation. People under anesthesia or in a faint are relaxed but are not capable of athletic performance.
In general, the proper and therefore effective seat demands that the rider be silent and present isometric unity from the waist up and be imperceptibly active from the waist down. Some riders who have misunderstood requests for relaxation collapse their torso and grip with their legs. A hyperactive but mushy torso can not remain balanced in the saddle. In this situation, only the strong grip of the lower legs keeps the rider on the horse. In fact, the isometric situation should be reversed!
The rider’s torso should be isometrically toned to form his cabinetry. He should be properly stretched, straight in the back, and perpendicular to the level ground. In the torso, the rider should feel isometric muscle tone induced by his own inner toning rather than tensed by the horse’s motion. Without isometric firmness in the torso, the “silence” of the torso cannot occur. The horse is moving, and the torso must not only accompany but even partner the horse’s movement. The torso should accommodate the horse’s movements in all three of its dimensions. The lumbar thrust accommodates the horse’s horizontal progression in space. Suppleness in the lumbar back and in the ankles provides for “shock absorption” of the horse’s vertical rise and fall with each of his steps as he impacts on the ground. That impact on the ground causes the verticality of the horse’s motion. Finally, the rider’s cabinetry—that is, his torso, including the upper arms and elbows—should pivot slightly in the exact rhythm of the horse’s alternating use of his limbs. The horse progresses with alternating use of his limbs and many muscle groups. Therefore, a good rider’s seat becomes quiet in repose precisely because he has learned to accommodate and harmonize with the horse’s motion in all of its dimensions: its horizontality, verticality, and laterality. The motions in all three dimensions, of course, emerge as a combination of all three. The way they combine will differ accordingly in each of the horse’s gaits.
Let me suggest some things to do when sitting in the saddle. This will necessarily fall short of my personally “sculpting” the rider, but it is all that words can offer:
1. Sit on the saddle without pressing down on the crotch in order to achieve the three-point seat, which has nothing to do with any downward pressure on the crotch. In other words, do not tilt the hips forward, but keep them directly above the seat bones.
2. Do not hollow your back or in any other way arch and stiffen your spine. Sit on your (relaxed, not tensed) buttocks rather than pushing them out behind. Keep the spine straight, which includes the pointing of the tailbone toward and not back and away from the saddle.
3. Tighten your shoulder blades and flatten them into your back so as to have no more than a small space between them; that will stretch the torso up. This is the way to elevate the rib cage and stretch the abdomen. This also, very importantly, stabilizes your shoulders, which in turn allows the upper arms to hang with steady elbows.
4. Flex and firm the abdomen to hold yourself erect. A flat and steady abdomen allows the lower back to follow the movement. The lower back should be relaxed so that the lower spine and lower back muscles can both drive and restrain to perform the half-halt properly. The abdomen provides the deep, adhesive seat so essential to driving and half-halting. Occasionally, lean behind the vertical as an exercise to experience how taut the abdomen ought to be and how it should control the lumbar thrust both horizontally forward and vertically downward. The pelvis and the thighs should hang down on the horse’s spine and be draped over his back and barrel in full but lightly adhesive unity.
5. Keep the arms immobilized and cultivate quiet fists. Hands may either be still or yield forward, but both the silence and the motion must occur entirely by the rider’s will and design. Involuntary and haphazard hand activities, as well as voluntarily rude activities, are grave riding faults. The hands (lower arms, wrists, and fists) must be mere extensions of the rider’s seat only. It is through the stable, well-angled elbows that the horse feels the rider’s seat in his muzzle. The buttocks in the saddle convey to the horse most of the rider’s weight. Surely, the elbows are very important elements yet not equal to the rider’s seat. Yet, the full effect of the seat, that is, its weight plus the activities of the entire torso (the cabinetry of the rider) is fully communicated through the elbows.
Perfectly steady hands are a vital component of correct riding, and that includes straight and steady wrists and fingers closed into a full fist. The lightest contact is not obtained by hinging the wrists or by opening or spreading the fingers. In such hands, there is frequent change, restlessness, inconsistency, haphazard or willful leverage, and loss of contact.
Aiding succeeds through a totally coordinated, harmonized, and perpetual system. There should be a firm feeling of “one riderness” in order to allow for the lightest possible contact. Regardless of how many thousands of miles an underground pipeline supplying water may be or how long an electric transmission wire, if these systems are broken at one tiny point, the system will fail to supply what is needed. Analogously, in riding, if the seat, hands, elbows, or legs fail to perform the proper functions, everything “shorts out” and the aids fail to reach the horse!
Know that all horses can be ridden with the lightest of contact and without inhibition through the reins. It only takes correct equitation and the constant perfecting of riding skills to be effective through lightness, ease, grace, and elegance, totally without force.