Sometimes it is better to focus on just one or two skills than to try to fix everything all the time.
We've previously considered the importance of the riding seat in all things horseback. The seat is the source of all strength, balance and looseness. Without the seat, all other aids become postures at best and completely unusable at worst. So before all else, put your effort into your seat.
However, as your seat develops, and improvement in balance allows you to become more aware of your arms, legs, torso and weight, you can begin to put more emphasis on other areas of your body.
In typical riding lessons, we often break down positional faults into bits and pieces - inside leg/outside seat bone/outside rein/watch your head tilt/dropped shoulder/collapsed hip - and the list goes on and on. It is true that as riders, we need to become as body aware as athletes in other sports that require balance and positional outlines (such as ballet, gymnastics, skating or dancing).
But instead of critiquing each movement into a multitude of positional corrections, it is possible to simplify things to get the best out of your body, in a way that is easy to remember and perhaps even easy(-ish) to do.
There are two essential upper-body skills to learn so that you can maintain an ideal balance and support your horse in his movements to the best of your ability.
1) Position Your Core To the Direction You Want To Go
Think of your belly button area as your core. If you are going straight, your core should be straight. It should also be in line with your horse's shoulders. If your horse isn't straight underneath you, you might need to correct his position with a shoulder-fore, a straighter use of the outside rein, or some other aid that will allow your horse to align his body.
When you go to turn, open your core into the turn. We often tend to point our shoulders too far to the outside, or too far to the inside, depending on the straightness of our bodies. Know your own tendency and work to counter it.
If you know you tend to point your core to the left (regardless of direction of travel), be prepared to put in the extra work to open to the right. You might also have to reduce the "openness" when travelling left, because that direction is likely easier for you to turn into. Try not to over turn in that direction.
Now the key: keep your head, shoulders, elbows and hands aligned with your body (the hands should not have a mind of their own). Instead of letting each body part do something on their own, keep them working in coordination with each other. Become "one".
What to Avoid
- try to keep your shoulders level while you open into the turn; don't tilt into the turn like a motorcycle
- try to stay "tall"; many people have a tendency to collapse through the hip area, thereby dropping their inside shoulder as they negotiate the turn
2) Loosen Through the Lower Back
The second most important skill is to be able to loosen your lower back at will. Riders often resist the movements of their horses in their lower backs. When your back moves less than needed, you might be restricting the horse's movements without even knowing it. The bigger your horse moves, the more your lower back needs to be able to give.
As your horse moves, your lower back loosens (momentarily in stride) to allow your lower abs to come through to the front of the saddle. This happens in both the trot and canter, although there is more movement when cantering.
If you can move with your horse, you might notice that your horse takes more confident, forward-moving strides. As you develop your strength, you can even dictate stride rhythm through the movement of your seat and lower back, alternating resistance with following.
By focusing on just these two aspects of riding, you should be able to fix many other smaller positional problems that depend on a supple, correctly held upper body. Remember that by keeping all the "pieces" together, you can become much clearer and more balanced to the horse.
Next time you ride, keep your upper body in mind. Try these skills and let us know how it went in the comments below.
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When Do You Start Riding Your Horse? This question was being posed to me by a very respected and horse-wise mentor one day long ago, early in my riding development.
Why You Don’t Need to Panic When Your Horse ‘Falls Apart’: Even if you are not thinking “panic”, your body might be communicating it by either being completely passive or too reactive after the horse is off balance.
‘Go and No’: The Connection Between Forward and Half-Halt in Horse Riding: How to develop the two seemingly opposite aids.