Relaxation Horsemanship by Guest Blogger, Bob Wood
I’m pleased to have a guest blogger on The Riding Instructor. Bob Wood has used his background in the Military Seat training horses and riders for polo, fox hunting and eventing, while he competed in these and other sports like team penning, and endurance riding.
Bob opposes trends, packaged training systems, and short cuts, in favor of teaching riders to learn from their horse. He teaches riders to use common sense, logic and human/horse “conversation” to understand and develop his or her mutual relationship with the horse.
Learn more about Bob and his work with horses and riders by visiting his web site http://www.triplecreekfarmpa.com
Although I don’t promote businesses on The Riding Instructor, I regularly receive emails from RI readers who are searching for apprentice situations. Bob is looking for a special individual to train in his methods. If his article interests you and you are considering apprenticing, you can contact him by email at email@example.com
Thank you, Bob Wood, for taking the time to write a very interesting post for The Riding Instructor.
The underlying goal of correct riding is unity of movement with the horse. To achieve unity we must let the horse move us. In order for the horse to move us in a manner that keeps us within the horse’s range of movement, it is imperative that we relax. Imperative relaxation is, of course, something of a contradiction but nonetheless we must teach this principle if we are to have students who can improve. The foundation of correct riding is shared movement with our horse through relaxation. Therefore, this is where we must begin the instructional process.
I rarely see an instructor working primarily with the rider’s stress/relaxation level. Instead I see form based instruction. Heels down, correct diagonal, and so on as the focus of the students initial lessons. This form/skill based instruction can lead students to believe that if they master all the forms and skills they will have mastered effective riding. This is simply not true. Forms and skills alone make a mechanical rider who is isolated from their horse’s movement. A quality instructor works to avoid the clichés that address rider body form and instead focuses on unity between the horse and rider. Forms are useful in the learning process. They can allow and support unity with the horse, but form alone will not lead a rider to unity with their horse.
We must try to look past forms to the energy in the rider and in the horse, and I try to see how these energies relate. I usually start with how and where the rider holds their tension. The usual suspects are in the elbow/shoulder area, or the knees/lower leg area. Instruction cannot progress effectively until the rider becomes aware of their body tension and the locations where they “prefer” to hold it. My favorite and somewhat odd example is a 40 something woman with years of riding and competing experience. She held her tension in her chin and jaw. The more tense she got, the further out her chin would jut until anyone could see her tension. She would come out on her horse to warm up, both horse and rider looking pretty relaxed. As she moved into focused work with her horse, I would see her jaw begin to tense. I have no idea how she developed such an odd tension structure in her body. As her riding became more demanding, the tension grew in her jaw and chin. I could see it was almost an expression of “I’m serious”, like when a prize fighter swings into an opponent.
This woman’s jaw tension was like all retained tensions people bring to riding, in that it was her reservoir of restricted energy. This restrictive tightness would spread out from its source in her jaw. I could watch it spread down her neck, into her shoulders and down through the elbows to her hands. I often wondered when her horse felt her tightness coming on. Horses can be so sensitive. Could he feel it when it began? Or did her tension moving down into her shoulders until her horse could feel the increased tightness run down her spine to her seat to his back? I could see he felt it grow and he didn’t like it.
To address her jaw tension I used the old trick we use for kids who stop breathing when they jump. I had her recite “Mary had a little lamb” over and over when she rode. The jaw movement of speaking the poem broke her pattern of forming and holding the tension in her chin. She was a good rider and she could immediately feel the result of the change in her tension in her horse. Her warm ups became real warm ups, not tense ups. This is a typical example of why identifying the location where a student retains their tension is so important, and especially important at the beginning of teaching a new student.
We can learn to see and measure the signs of a rider/student’s tension or their relaxation. We can develop an eye for the resistance a rider shows to the horse’s movement. This eye for the energy of movement begins with seeing how a rider is being moved “out of sync” or “in sync” with their horse. Because the tension stiffens the rider’s body, the horse’s movement can be seen wagging or jolting the student. Once you see that kind of counter motion to the horse’s movements in the rider’s body, then you can look to see where in their body they are trying to stabilize themselves in the disruptive back-and-forth between the horse and rider. Common ways riders employ include managing the disruption by stiffening the knees and riding from that stiff place in a very braced way. Or people also commonly tighten their upper body, collapsing their core and hanging on the reins. Like anything else, if you look at it all day every day, it becomes very obvious. But if you are developing as an instructor, you can gain an eye for these energies by comparing the horse’s motion with the rider’s. Shared motion is the vital sign of unity. If the movement of the horse and rider are not shared, they a separate and distinct each to its own. This is disunity and all kinds of form and skill teaching will not fully overcome the tension between the conflicting energies and movements. We must address the tension directly.
I use 1 to 10 scales to develop rider awareness. I ask, “where are you tight?” I will hold their horse for them and ask them to close their eyes. They might say, “in my shoulders”, and then I will ask for a number between 1 and 10 to indicate how tight they feel. If they say 8, I tell them we are targeting a 5 or 6 and ask them to breath deeply as they ride to see if we can get the number down.
We must teach the rider to give up this pattern of separate opposed movements in the horse and in the rider. Basic fixes are, if they hold their tension in their knees/legs, take away their stirrups and have them ride quietly until their body softens. If they hold their tension in their elbows/shoulders take away their reins and put them on a lunge line. Have them ride with their hands by their side, or outstretched like wings, or doing various swinging and circular motions as the sit their horse. The goal is to get the rider to soften their entire body, not like a wet noodle but like a dancer. The goal is relaxation and the ultimate goal is developing a seat responsive responsive to the horse’s energy and movement.
If we can teach a rider to allow the horse to move them and they can learn to go with that movement, that is a responsive rider. Once the rider can respond and can go with the horse’s movement and energy, they can redirect the horse with shared movement. This is the highest level of riding and it is never too early to introduce this ultimate goal in lessons. The first exercise we do to introduce responsive seat is to have the students walk a horse on a loose rein straight and perpendicularly toward a wall. When they get about 10 feet from the wall we ask them to turn their belt buckle left or right and hold that direction in their waist until the reach the wall. About 99% of the time the horse will turn in the direction that the student has turned their belt buckle. Then we explain why. We tell the students that when they were quietly walking toward the wall, the horse was moving their body, and their body and the horse’s were aligned. By turning the belt buckle in that simple context of unity they created a minor disruption of the alignment with their horse. The horse then, with a desire to stay in unity, turned its spine in order to have the seat bones align with the horse’s spine. Unity feels good and it is therefore the best way to ride and direct a horse. It is never too early or too complicated to share these ideas and goals with a rider, even with children. With experience and repetition, along with building body awareness, every rider can begin to feel deeper physical connection with their horse. Other connections follow.
Good luck in your teaching and post any questions. I will answer. Thanks, Bob Wood