Horse-Riding: Achieving Utter Unity with the Horse

The important thing to remember about the seat is that it must accompany the horse step for step in all three dimensional motions. The horizontal, vertical, and lateral direction of the motion as performed by the horse must naturally be accompanied by the same activities of the rider. Each stride contains all three of the directional components! A rider who sits motionless relative to the ground is rigid. Immobility while in locomotion and transgressing space is achieved by moving at the correct rate and in all three correct directions.

I caution against demonstrative bobbing, wiggling, and dangling activities as some sort of proof as to how well the rider handles the vertical punch. Likewise, to elevate the knees, hang the toes down, lean behind the vertical, and hang the head down to a hypnotic stare over the horse’s head does not prove the easy horizontality of travel. Nor should the rocking of shoulders or hips and visibly alternating shimmying around be offered as proof of accompanying the lateral motion. All proper accompanying movement in the rider should stay so small that it remains hidden inside the riding coat, and certainly a good rider will remain seemingly motionless relative to the horse, erect, stretched tall, “at attention,” and with an aloof look of concentration. I often ask my students to finish their properly tall and quiet seat with an aloof facial expression of concentration without tension.

The rider’s legs are the primary source of the all-important impulsion aids. They are also responsible for bending. When the torso hangs down correctly with perpendicular interception to the horse’s horizontal spine, the legs can hang down long and deep. The rider must train the now-independent legs (no longer gripping to balance) to stretch and drape around the horse’s barrel. The torso sits on a horse absolutely effortlessly, naturally, when sitting correctly. Riders can, and did in wars, sleep while sitting on a horse. However, the leg position of the rider is not natural and must be learned. Gradually, with tutoring, perpetual reminders, and repeated self-readjustments, the legs will take on the learned but correct position that allows them to hang with well-stretched calves, be powerful without tension or gripping, and yet remain perpetually in contact with the horse’s sides. Not only must the legs remain draped onto the horse like a sticking wet rag against his ribs but also in that intimacy the rider must isometrically vary the pushing and bending aids. The horse has a very sensitive area on each side, where, incidentally, the correctly placed riding legs happen to touch him. There he perceives the activities of the rider’s leg, which can deliver the impulsion aids with rhythmic coordination, mindful of which hind leg is ready to be engaged as it is leaving the ground. A horse’s hind leg cannot be urged to activity when anchored on the ground, supporting the body weight at the moment of impact. However, the leg can and must be influenced as to where to step and in what fashion, at the time when it is leaving the ground. Only adhesive, well-wrapped, and draped calves can perceive this timing and deliver the necessary muscular contractions that produce the driving or bending aids.

The rider’s skill in positioning his legs must include such details as well-closed, adhesive thighs and knees and hanging lower legs pressed down by the deep knee position and back enough to allow the heels to hang under the seat bones and the toes to remain behind the knees of the rider most of the time. This is a difficult feat on account of the requisite unnatural positioning of the hip, knee, and ankle joints. Furthermore, while bending the horse and while cantering the rider must keep his outside leg stretched somewhat farther back than the position of his inside leg. It is around the inside leg that the horse bends, yet it is not the inside leg that does the bending! Instead, the inside leg is the leg responsible for propelling, for the impulsion and the rhythm of the gait. It is the outside leg that must stay stretched farther back (from two to six inches, depending on the conformation of the horse and the degree of bending required), with the heel still scrupulously the lowest point of the foot, and remain steadily leaning against the horse’s outside to create bending. The outside leg is responsible for the horse’s bending. It also displaces the horse during some two-track work and assists in all turning. It remains adhesive to the outside of the rib cage without any rhythmic bouncing. Rather than assuming the assignments of the inside leg, the outside leg presses more or less but always steadily, depending on the degree of bending needed.

One of the most important features of a deep, balanced, and therefore independent seat is that the rider is utterly capable of using each of his limbs according to necessity: no longer should the rider deliver accidental signals prompted by the horse’s jolting or the rider’s bad habits. Instead, all movements should be by design. Their strength should be by will! Seldom is the rider in need of identical actions of both hands and legs: that is, most riding consists of “diagonal aiding” and infrequently requires “parallel aiding.” That is, riders seldom use their limbs as we use windshield wipers. Just because one side moves, the other is not obliged to parallel its actions. In fact, what a rider’s inside leg does is vastly different from what his outside leg ought to do. The position of the legs is usually different and the strength and nature of their activities differ greatly. When a rider stretches his outside leg back adhesively, of course, he is automatically placed on his inside seat bone. One never sits on the inside seat bone by leaning in like a motorcycle rider or pressing and grinding on it. Instead, one simply places the outside leg back correctly and that elevates the outside seat bone higher up into the buttock muscle, leaving the surface of the saddle. Simultaneously, of course, the inside seat bone drops down and forward inside the relaxed inside buttock muscle and falls down toward the saddle.

The rider’s feet must remain parallel to the horse’s sides and the feeling is that the big toes are elevated off the stirrup irons and weight increases on the outside rims of the boots. The ankles fold outward and the toes can rock the stirrup irons toward the horse’s belly if necessary or when exercising, in a free rhythmic, relaxed manner. However, the inward dabbing with the toe does amount to the pushing aids of the calf, and, in fact, any toe-out and/or toe-down with heels gripping the horse is utterly contrary to the production of impulsion and bending. The stretched inner calf muscles deliver the impulse that originates from motion at the ankles as the toes are rocked inward.

Classical equitation is based on all the influences that the seat and legs emit. The hands, which are effectively lengthened by the inclusion of the reins, remain mere extensions of the influences of the rider’s seat. Disharmonious, strong, punitive use of the hands is permissible only in an emergency. When a horse is out of control, endangering his rider and even himself, a rider should do whatever is necessary to regain control—even through pain, shock, surprise, administered by strong use of the hands. Yet in such extreme circumstances, riders still strengthen the hands by anchoring the weight of the torso to them and by making the punitive emergency hand action as brief as possible. After such an episode, the rider must make peace with his horse expeditiously. Reassure him of your friendship and continued reliable guidance.

Excluding extreme circumstances and emergencies, the hands, as said before, remain mere extensions of the seat’s influences. The most important concept in such unity is “passive resistance.” Other than using the hands as participants in passive resistance, they can be used as active, yielding hands. This latter function should prevail and is an indispensable part of properly driving a horse.

“Passive resistance” is a result of the rider anchoring his lower arms to stillness by the increased strength of the vertically downward vector of his upper arms and elbows. The rider isometrically straightens and flattens his shoulder blades, increasing the straightness of his upper back, and emphasizes the shoulders’ directional pressure back and down. The rider’s upper arm and elbow, indeed, must act as if they are part of the rib cage. They belong to the rider’s cabinetry. The lower arms extend almost horizontally. They belong to the horse, through their extension by the reins.

“Passive” means simply that the rider temporarily refuses, with an absence of motion, to follow the horse’s movements with his seat-and-arms combination. “Resistance” means that if the horse were to contest this by suddenly jerking on the reins, hammering down or leaning forward against the hands, he should not succeed in dislodging the rider’s fists, arms, or torso. The strength of the rider must come from the correct position of the vertical upper arms’ relationship to the torso’s identical vertical downward-pressing influences. Any attempt to dislodge the rider’s hands should not only fail, but also the horse should feel that he pulled the rider down into himself. That is to say, instead of horizontally “unseating” his rider, as would be the case if the elbows were loose and subsequently dislodged, the horse’s efforts “help” the rider add to the perpendicular downward pressure, increasing rather than decreasing the rider’s seat.

Again, only by sitting properly and being isometrically well honed can a rider be in charge of himself, remaining “seated on his horse” and not “unseated” by his horse’s head-tossing or jarring movement. A rider who cannot hold his upper arms and elbows absolutely still, and, consequently, fists, has no seat. Instead, he has only hands! Disturbing, disruptive, punitive, confusing, misguiding, uncontrollable, jolting hands. The hands are kept still by the isometric stillness of the upper arm and elbow relative to the rider’s torso. All riding skills depend on the rider’s training for, and ability to, retain isometric unity without stiffness.

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