No matter your discipline, once you learn the finesse of communicating intent with your seat, weight, and legs, it opens you to a whole new level of riding. In addition to being able to guide your horse with a thought, the awareness you glean from practicing your side of the communication also educates your body into “hearing” what their body is telling you, too.
I find it is best to practice new things at the walk, and this will be especially helpful to practice flexing and relaxing specific muscle groups. And remember, while you practice, your horse is not “disobeying” if he misinterprets something – it is you who is learning how to ask the right questions. With the riding pyramid always in mind also, focus on forward first, and have fun.
Move Away from Pressure
First at the walk, practice simultaneously flexing your outside thigh while keeping your hips and your inside thigh and lower leg completely relaxed. This muscular contraction with the outside aids, even through the saddle, will be felt by the ever-sensitive back of your horse and is a cue to turn away from that leg. A lower leg aid can be added to impress the point when accuracy is required later on, but as always, less is more as it teaches your horse to remain sensitive always. Practice both ways, with serpentines, circles and changes of direction all at the walk on a loose rein to get the feel and develop your bodily control. Be sure to make changes gradual and smooth.
- Remember to keep your seat muscles (thigh, knee and calf) relaxed in the direction you are moving toward. Inadvertantly having your inside thigh clamped on with your outside thigh will send mixed signals to your horse. He may halt after feeling the restricting seat, or ignore your effort completely.
Which leads us to….
The “Open Door” Philosophy
The horse by his very nature loves to move. It is in their genetics. Movement is safety, emotional security and even communication. It helps, then, to think of riding and training as “channeling” that movement. We use our seat (and hands) to block the directions we do not want them to go, and instead direct them where we do.
It is incredibly rewarding for both horse and rider to keep this in mind at all times. Your leg aids cue gait as well as where not to go. Which means you must always have an “open door.” If you are circling and flexing off your outer thigh, your inner thigh must stay relaxed to accept the movement in that direction. If you are driving your horse forward, you must also keep a soft hand to allow expression of the shoulder and forward momentum. It is also helpful for those moments where “the horse just is not getting it/is being bad/etc”. Re-evaluate your own body. Oftentimes when we start asking for more, we start clamping our own bodies up as well. It is inhibiting when your muscles start to clench up without you even realizing it! (It happens to us all!) Imagine piggy-backing someone who is attentive but relaxed. But now envision them clenching their body, clamping tightly and stiffly. Could you walk or run as easily? Unlikely. If you could, would you even want to?
Your Seat Sets the Pace
While your thighs and legs largely determine direction of travel, your seat is, basically, the pilot of the ship. By increasing or decreasing the longitudinal swing (forwards/backwards movement) as you go with the gait, you can influence stride length or change the gait altogether (the details of which surpass the scope of this particular post, but it will be writ soon!). In the same manner, you can also set the tempo and influence rhythm. (It is still essential to employ the lower leg as well, especially for shortening or slowing, as they are likely to “downshift” the gait or lose impulsion entirely.)
Visualize Your Intent
It is important to have a clear picture in mind of where you want to go and how you want to get there. It is also an excellent practice to “see your way through” new stuff, or beyond the muddle and confusion of an existing challenge. So how do you execute it? Still yourself: your mind, your body, the whole sha-bang. Halt if you need to, and let all the marbles fall back into place for both of you. Now focus and ask yourself What am I trying to achieve, really? Now, set aside all of that “he’s bulging/rushing/being lazy/not listening/what-the-hay-am-I-doing and set it aside. Visualize your course, and now you, yes you, are the banks of a river. Your horse is the flowing water, and your seat is a kayak gliding straight and true over blue water. Channel the river through an open door (there’s that term again!) in the direction of your intent, and let the kayak ride the swells as it guides it through.
Especially while practicing new skills, it is helpful to have a clear goal in mind of what it is you are trying to do. ie: If you want to do a 20 metre circle at the end of the ring, start preparing for it before you approach the corner. (I used to wonder that the h-e-double-hockey-sticks that meant until I had that “ah-hah” moment and realized it was subtly priming the aids I was about to use for before I actually applied them full-on). It not only subconsciously begins to position you, but alerts the horse in advance as well so you are both better prepared. If you are sharing the ring with other riders (or, you know, just on a horse with a mind of his own), you will be required to react at the drop of a pin from time to time, as well, but you can also easily alert the other riders if there is a specific pattern you had in mind and would they be so kind as to let you have a go of it without getting in the way if possible.
Putting it All Together
In hindsight, I feel like this post wound up being far more “generalized” than originally intended, but I stand by it because:
So much of riding is as much about focusing your mind as it is your body, and by its very nature is so highly intuitive anyways, you need to learn the feel for yourself anyway. The “Open Door” Philosophy, I am more than confident you too will have an “ah-hah” moment of your own about, is a surefire way to ensure that you always give your horse the option to make the right choice. It is also what keeps all of us riders in check to make sure we’re not putting ourselves in the way of what we actually want. It reminds us that even though steering, and gaits, and all the stuff we want to do more of is us “telling” the horse what to do, it is a means by which we are doubly reminded that while we pretend to be pilots, we are merely the banks of a river, channeling energy, power, and a willful mind It is our responsibility to give that energy somewhere productive to go, or else we risk “building a dam” and obstructing it unmercifully.
Riding with your seat takes the emphasis off of your hands, and takes the focus back to the core of the bodies, where you share a connection and can have the most positive and influential communication.
Riding is much like ballet or yoga in that it is as much a feat of attuned body awareness as it is your external goals. Though getting the hang of the individual techniques along the way can require a great deal of concentration and self-control to master, once it is learned, it becomes second nature. As your communication skills continue to grow, you will find “asking and receiving” gets easier and easier, and the art of riding will be that much more rewarding,
I used to watch master horsemen in hopes to learn from them, but realized that what I wanted to see cannot be seen when it is done by a master horseman. ~ Sheri Spencer