Monday, February 7, 2011

Working From the Center

Most people reading this know a few things about the action of the leg. To most it means go forward or go sideways. It would be fine if this was all we needed it to mean. But what if I told you that the rider's legs can tell a horse to move his legs visually in one way but inside he can be using his muscles in 100's of different combinations. In other words a simple collected trot can have any number of combinations of muscle usage and still look the same! The research and exploration in biomechanics of trainer Jean Luc Cornille elaborates on this fact and calls us to use care with what we ask, how we ask it and when we ask it.
You don't need sophisticated understanding to figure out the what, how and when. Equitation researcher Christine Sander is in the process of translating into English her sensitive approach to starting(and re-starting) a horse. I found this approach quite meaningful, mainly because of its simplicity and consideration of the horse on a level more in tune with the orchestration of motion as the horse sees it. And it is congruent with Jean Luc's work and demonstrates an important idea. That is if we work from the center, the parts that follow it will find the right combinations of muscle usage with the least chance of getting it wrong. And by that I mean that the horse, being so willing, is often so ready to answer that he hurries to do so and the configuration in which he answers is not always healthy for him. But he does it to please!
Eventually we are so lost in a mire of tensions and misunderstandings that we cannot find our way out of it! A simple request of the rider that SHOULD produce a simple clean answer very often does not produce anything. Why? Because it did not originate from the center! Example: The sensitive horse that lost his sensitivity...shut down. This can be avoided if we ask consistently from the center.
What is the center I am talking about? I see it as a spiritual place. The horse has one and the man does as well. Combining these centers is a first step. How to do this?
The center is our place of our heart. If we work from the outside we see identity as flawed---we see all the imperfections. But if we view our work from the inside(the center) we will see that God has not created imperfection.
Today, instead of looking to the outer horse, search to the inner horse, the perfect horse. Go to that place in quietude and ask, quietly, from there. Whatever the answer, know it is the perfect answer! Maybe not the answer we want or expect but it is perfect. Let it suffice. Now change the question---change the direction, change the intensity---even wait with no questions. You will soon be amazed. What you will find is that on the inside of the still horse is a lot of motion! The frenzied horse has chaotic internal motion. It is useful if we claim our right to restore order. We do not do this by imposing order from the outside but more from suggesting on the outside and waiting upon the horse, with the horse, from the inside....and go on with him when he answers.
If we are sensitive and open to the horse's way from the inside we get a clearer sense of how to sit with better poise to help the horse do his job. We hold our reins more delicately and touch with our legs more gently. We turn with the motion from this center and we find the tone we need, the breath, the beat. And we dance in heavenly romance. Riding should be deeply romantic. We should fall into it and get lost the center.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Self-Possession - Self-Carriage

In many equestrian circles the concept of a horse having self-possession is frowned upon. Horses should be brought into submission, dominated, controlled completely lest they go astray and do bad things to their riders--right? hmmm Think again. What really needs to be brought into submission? Not the horse himself but the manner of our requests. You see the horse that has control over himself moves the best, feels the best and reacts to outside stimuli more appropriately.
Self-carriage is more than just a horse moving straight and holding himself up at all times. Self-carriage is not something we force or even 'ride' the horse into. It is the result of calmly helping him to feel where to place himself, allowing him to try different options and find what feels the best. The difficulty with all this is that as a result of our not sitting well, asking inappropriately or our demanding in ways that upset balance, very often what the horse choses as the best option doesn't agree with our plan. For the sake of some pre-conceived notion of correctness or to satisfy some dressage test criteria, we may ask for too much forward motion, too much sideways, too much bend or transition from a poorly balanced posture. It goes without saying that riding a dressage test is difficult but if we really think about what is so difficult we may be less inclined to send in those show entries. Ever notice how so many horses do not make it above second level? It isn't because they cannot, will not or that the rider is not good enough. I rather believe it is because we have taken away so much of the horse's sense of self that he gets into a situation where his self-carriage cannot be located.
Rehearsing the shoulder-in over and over does not make a better shoulder-in! And what is the shoulder-in but an exercise to help the horse. If you are having difficulty helping him with an exercise that needs help itself....hmmmm....maybe something else is wrong!
This may sound strange but I would like to step back from 'dressage' and just look at balance and quiet, testing the waters of motion to see how this affects balance and calmness. Can we get vertical impulsion with all its appropriate tension, not hear the horse huffing and puffing and return to walk and halt with complete ease? What is all this I am speaking of? It is working with the horse's cooperativeness without taking away from him...allowing him his self-possession....encouraging it. By this self-carriage is fostered. All we need is patience while the horse tries to make his own adjustments. Contrary to what most would have, the resistances we feel are not to be interpreted as the horse always saying "no"....the horse trying to defy us. He innately wants to partner with us and we push him away with our disappointments over his seemingly wrong answers to our questions.
Mastering ourselves and how we project our energies through our subtle motions within
'parameters of stillness' is key to gaining ease in partnership with the horse. Much can be relayed with no apparent motion from the rider. And likewise much can be disturbed in the horse with improper relay of energy and with too much rider motion. Knowing in the mind what we want, envisioning it, waiting upon the horse for the right postural adjustment and balance makes the resulting response from the horse more like an intelligent and pleasant conversation than a mere shouting match---words flung at each other in careless, thoughtless chatter.
Let me ask this. Do you pause for a moment of peace before you speak to someone, look them in the eye or feel for the energy of the state they are in, get their attention first and then choose appropriate words to say what you want and bring 'building up' to your relationship? Think about this. Try it with a person. Feel the difference. Talk to someone who is in a moment of self-possession and you will find optimal balance and peace and good feelings will emanate from the interaction. Words carry energy. By the same token, help your horse to find peace and calm....self-possession...then choose your conversation well to preserve self-possession and see what amazing self-carriage results.

Friday, December 31, 2010

The Power of Intent: 'Love Energy'

All the most extraordinary riders and trainers have one important thing in common. They convey 'love' to the horses. I don't mean they 'love' horses or that they show kindness but that they actually project loving thoughts directly to the horse. This special 'something' sets them apart as having an unobtainable gift when it is actually possible for us all to have with our 'intent'. Yes, there are talented people but the best of the talented convey 'love energy' and you can too!
In the book "HEAL THYSELF", Dr. Pieter DeWet says that DNA actually contains the script for healing. Switch on the script by affecting the DNA through 'love energy' and the body moves away from a sickened state of imbalance toward a wholesome state of balance. I believe this can happen in our interactions with the horse. And I will go so far as to say, I experience this first hand with them on a regular basis and have seen how 'love energy' can change and restore them in minutes....even seconds. Lasting change needs time and patience but it begins and continues to be nourished through a singular spark of 'love energy'. If you think this is easy, think again! It happens ONLY when this intent flows out of self-less humility and absolute genuineness. Any imitation will not do.
Remember: a horse knows the difference between the intent of a person who accidentally bumps into him with a pitchfork and one who strikes him with it. He recognizes this with absolute clarity. His DNA knows it! And so with 'love energy'. Fake it and the DNA knows the truth and will respond well always to truth. When a horse has been mentally(and emotionally) damaged the cellular change from the impact of 'love energy' is there but you may not recognize it! In time, however, it will be inevitable that the positive changes will reveal themselves.
In "HEAL THYSELF" Dr. DeWet mentions "THE DIVINE MATRIX" by Gregg Braden who describes experiments done with DNA in a laboratory where researchers holding vials of DNA were able to affect the coiling of the DNA strand simply by their thoughts!!!
Similarly, Leonard Laskow MD in his "HEALING WITH LOVE" talks about experiments done with bacteria where the bacteria exhibited protective effects from the destructive power of anti-biotics when the researchers projected love and acceptance onto the bacteria! This sounds crazy but it is powerful information for us as riders and trainers.
If we can envision that horses are like beautiful sculptures hidden deep within huge boulders and that our sculpting reveals what is already there, we can transfer this idea to the effects of our projection of genuine 'love energy'. 'Love energy' guarantees that we will not chip away at the boulder and damage the horse inside it. 'Love energy' emanating from perfectly aligned intent(aligned with God himself)will always do good---will always bring about harmony---will always heal and restore. What this implies is that we must strive to focus the mind properly so it can direct proper intent through the conduits, both seen and unseen, of the body. Intent matters!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Thigh Position & Influence

As I have mentioned in earlier posts, the saddle can limit us in training particularly if it hinders the thigh. This can only be realized when a fuller expression of the thigh is experienced! Most people focus on the efforts of the calf and heel and do no much consider the importance of the thigh. In dressage we are told it is most correct to ride with well let down thighs. This one description, I believe, has done damage to our understanding of how to ride and train with minimal hand and leg aids.
The thigh bone is the longest bone of the body and is surrounded by the strongest muscle we possess. In healthy and moderately fit individuals it is able to rotate inward or outward, can swing forward and back, and move sideways out from under the torso or tuck in toward the other thigh. Essentially it can move in many directions because of the way it connects into the hip. The pelvis houses the powerhouse of energy(or dan tien) and can send important messaging out through the thigh. When not on a horse, all day long without our even knowing, we use our powerful thighs to stabilize ourselves in motion and against forces we do not think about. So why when we are in the saddle would we not continue to use the thigh?
Let's start by looking at the effect of a simple rotation of the thigh. An 'open' thigh, where the underside of the leg is slightly more in contact and the knee points slightly outward, opens the front of our lower abdomen(dan tien area) and allows a release of energy forward and invites more energy from the hind quarters to move up and forward. Unaware of this we could inadvertently create more forward motion than the horse can manage without compromising balance. With awareness, however, we can open the thigh this way(especially one at a time)to invite the corresponding hind leg forward as needed.
A 'closed' thigh, where the front side of the leg rolls more inward(releasing some of the underside contact) and the knee points slightly more toward the horse, closes some of the release of energy from the pelvis and has the effect of 'retarding' the hind quarters slightly. This is very useful when we want to have a slowing effect of forces in one direction without resorting to the use of the hand. So we can actually help control forward motion through the turning of the thigh---inward to slow the horse---outward to advance the horse and individually to likewise affect the same-sided hindquarter. There are many occasions when I see a rider push harder with the calf and to get a mechanical advantage they turn the knee outward. I have to wonder.....might that push not be so necessary?! Perhaps the touch of the calf can be greatly reduced if we just use our intent through the open thigh. Horses do go much better when they feel less pressure against their ribcage!
The next position to consider is the 'pushing' thigh that moves against the saddle. This has a lateral effect away from the push. The opposite to this would be the 'drawing' thigh. I seldom see this used except by very good riders. The thigh is lightened and taken slightly sideways away from the saddle and has the effect of leading the horse's shoulder on the same side into the direction the thigh moves toward. Very useful on the outside in shoulder-in and on the inside in half-pass.
The thigh can also be positioned more horizontally or vertically. A horizontal position affects lift of the shoulder and can create a raising of the shoulder and forearm on the same side while a more vertical thigh affects a 'retard' on the shoulder. The passage can improve in lift in front by the horizontal usage of the thigh. In canter an inside more horizontal thigh can help indicate more lift up of the foreleg. Add an opening of the same thigh and now the inside hind leg will jump up into this lively canter stride.
These thigh variations affect the rider in subtle ways as well which suit the messaging of intent. An outward turned open thigh narrows the lower back on that side and sinks us down closer to the horse to stimulate him better. An inward turned closed thigh widens that side of the lower back and helps us draw the horse up more underneath us.
In conclusion: we can affect the vertical and horizontal forces, bridging the hindquarters to the shoulders to bring about yin and yang posture variations in the horse by simple and subtle changes within the thigh itself. At first the changes you might experiment with will be slightly awkward feeling but as you progress, try to find ways through the mind to execute them with minimal effort and with less gross movement.Then feel the difference this makes in the fluidity of your horse's motion and how it improves elasticity and athletic scope as you move toward ultimate collection.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Hand Posture & Influence

Recently, equine researcher and equestrian Christine Sander(of a.i.s. study horsemanship), shared with me the following conclusion from her current research on the use of the hand in riding:
"While a horse is long and low the rider's hands are flat. Pinkies
and reins point away from the neck. When the horse elevates the rider's
hands turn and become upright. The impact of his ring fingers and
that of the reins are now directed towards the horse's neck....There is
a natural correlation between the horse's elevation(or the lack
thereof) and the orientation of the rider's hand."
When I first read this, I was awestruck. How could I have missed this? Remaining open to the possibilities of the down-turned flat hand was important though and proved to present new understanding in how to directly influence the lumbar region of the horse!
As with all things there is an opposite(good or bad, it exists). SOMETIMES we close ourselves off to 'beneficial' opposites and in the case of the down-turned flat hand I had done just that as I had been instructed that it was a bad thing in riding. Even though I do this with the two-reined double bridle without thinking, it was frowned upon with a snaffle. I am assuming it is because in this hand posture, the bones of the forearm cross and energy flow is cut short. In Tai Chi I learned exercises that show how the arm of an upright(thumb up) hand is stronger through this flow and how that of the down-turned hand is weaker. A closer look at Christine's conclusion was warranted and indeed brought forth a confirmation of the following conclusions on a variety of horses: In the low postured horse(stretching forward, out and down), the upright(thumb up) hand 'drains' my own energy and affects the horse by dropping his forehand more, whereas the down-turned hand does not 'drain' me and helps the horse stretch better because it seems the horse's chest and shoulders do not to advance out but more the head and neck do! The horse seems to retain his balance much better this way!
It is important to note that the wrist does not bend but turns(from a swivel at the elbow) much like turning a key in a lock. There should be no pulling on the reins either---simply a turn of the hand-wrist unit and a gentle opening of the fingers.
After much thought, this made sense. The horse could move out(yang) with more spring because I was not overpowering him with more energy from behind than he could manage. Instead, that energy gets 'recycled' better through the body, creating more buoyancy in the stretching horse(vertical energy without vertical horse!)
The down-turned hand opens the rider's upper back and closes slightly and 'contains' his chest! Mirror for the horse!!? The upright hand closes the rider's back slightly and opens and lifts his chest. This latter effect in the rider is what we would like to see in the upright collected(yin) horse!
Having a model now for low(yang)reaching and high(yin)collected postures in the horse, I began to look at how this information might help the horse in mid-posture(the place where so much of the training exercises take place). The results were amazing! In the mid-postured horse the rider can adjust his hand postures individually as needed and the effect is that the horse can approach collection(yin) much more 'safely' by retaining more of the benefits of the looseness of the low-postured(yang)work! (Once again, emphasis on NO pulling and merely a turn(like a key in a lock) of the hand-wrist unit. It is also important that the mind of the rider be in control of intent.) A turned-down (flat) hand on the right(e.g.) will have the effect of greater lumbar vibration and looseness(on the right) which can enable a blocked hind-quarter on that side to free up and send the energy of the leg forward and under more readily. This is an important discovery for helping a horse to create more even strides. A left(e.g.) upright hand with right down-turned hand can help control an over-reaching left hind leg and enable the right hind to step up and under easier.
Try this in lateral work on the inside(or even outside) and learn other benefits of smoother striding and greater reach. Try it on circles and turns and see how the yin and yang postures of each hand can help regulate energy flow better and hopefully prevent a lot of the blockages that disturb balance. Perhaps you do this already without knowing but now awareness of it can open you to a new tool in your understanding and development of feel.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Learning from the Caprilli Seat

Federico Caprilli(1868-1907), an Italian Cavalry Officer whose great legacy is the Caprilli seat, gave us all some very significant information about riding which I am not sure has been fully appreciated. The seat, with its shortened stirrup and forward inclined rider with free-following arm, was employed for jumping obstacles, riding between fences and across country and up and down hills and over ditches. The philosophy behind the seat was to allow the horse to move naturally, unencumbered and make independent decisions in his negotiation.
Federico Caprilli observed the horse without a rider under these conditions and decided his theory was best for the horse. Previously a 'full seat' was used with the misconception that it was necessary to help the horse land hind feet first so as not to burden the more fragile front legs. His observations proved horses did not use themselves this way, refuting the idea behind the full-seated rider and lead the way to more fully cooperative horses.
Having learned the Caprilli seat myself, I will say that, done properly, it requires real fitness from the rider who balances himself over his knee and thigh, follows the horse in good equilibrium and does not use the horse's neck for balance but allows it to be completely free through a straight line connection from elbow to bit along the sides of the horse's neck. These days we see riders leaning on the neck. This is not the true Caprilli seat and riding this way robs riders of an appreciation of what real following feels like! It is hard work! It requires strong core muscles and strong well toned thighs. But it is very rewarding when the horse responds at his best.
There is more to be learned from Caprilli than meets the eye though. Firstly, we learn that observation is essential. Observation helps us put our approach into the perspective of the horse, helps us take healthy steps to break away from old habits and unfruitful styles and challenge what we hear and see so that we might come up with something better!! Secondly, we see that Caprilli adopted his style to naturally accommodate the horse's neck and bascule with complete freedom. He recognized tremendous horizontal forces in the forward moving horse that the rider needs to be able to absorb and follow. In proper balance, the rider could remain in a beneficial equilibrium that would make it possible for the horse to carry him easier. Thirdly, I believe Caprilli recognized that the moving horse was balanced mainly over the forehand, that different shaped horses had different needs in the use of the neck and that a standard seat was needed that would allow any shaped horse the full use of his own neck in his negotiations. This was only possible when a rider could center himself forward with a free yielding arm that could follow the mouth forward and supple hips which open and close with flexibility. The shortened stirrup helped to form natural shock absorbers and assisted with lever action in the thigh.
Caprilli knew that only with a stable yet supple seat would a rider be able to let go in the rein. When he demonstrated over and over again how his horses were improving in their performances and in their cooperativeness, he was showing us how the horizontal component of the thigh(in the forward seat) could act as a bridge to connect the rear and front ends of the horse. Did Caprilli recognize an energetic connection born out of correct mechanics?!
I bring up this entire subject about Caprilli to make a point about the dressage seat that previously left me feeling dissatisfied and searching for a missing puzzle piece. Caprilli didn't like the full and deeper seat, collection, and force. But why(apart from the obvious)? It is my belief that he preferred the forward distribution of weight. One must remember that Caprilli was familiar with larger, longer horses and not so much the shorter coupled Baroque style horses more suited to dressage. Had he lived longer and thought more about the school movements with these larger 'style' horses might he have come up with an adaptation of his own theories on forward seat?
In tai chi, as one moves from posture to posture there is a constant shifting of position from one leg to the other so that motion itself never puts the person out of balance. I will often hear my instructor say, "you need to shift60(or 70)% of your weight onto the foremost leg." I think about this a lot and how it applies to riding. To constantly maintain ones balance while shifting postures takes some fitness.....we NEED to know how to balance over our thighs. So many of us do not use our thigh muscles and put too much stress on our back or other parts of the body. Once we can learn to feel life flowing down into our thighs we learn how reliable these large muscles are for helping to stabilize us. So what does this say about the dressage seat?
Recently I had the good fortune to audit a Manolo Mendez clinic. Manolo places a strong emphasis on freedom in the horse's body and especially the neck. When I saw Manolo ride I recognized Caprilli immediately! Manolo could cleverly move from a forward inclined torso to a more upright one as the horse needed and was prepared for because he was properly balanced over his thigh which always had a horizontal component in action. Before mounting he would always measure his stirrup by the 'ruler' of his arm length. He rode in dressage saddles with 'dressage length' stirrup yet he could move elegantly and effortlessly in and out of forward seat, one minute reaching to stroke his horse's neck with full freedom and the next minute he was more upright and the horse was moving effortlessly in shoulder-in!!! Sometimes he was leaning forward, stroking the horse's ears, his neck, his chest---but always he held his own balance, allowing the horse complete freedom through his back and neck. It was amazing to watch the horses unraveling their tensions. It was also rewarding to realize that what I found so problematic about the dressage seat was that Caprilli had been lumped into a 'jumping' category and we had lost what he could offer our dressage seat! The full seat, namely with a vertical leg that does not relieve the back through greater weight distribution in the thigh and does not bridge the rear and front ends of the horse through a horizontal component will pose problems in the development of these large athletes and lead us into greater discord with them. Manolo's seat was a perfect example of how to sit without hindering the horse!
It is time for us all to re-evaluate our seat, especially those of us in dressage saddles. Even in dressage the thigh must carry a substantial distribution of our weight and be positioned to allow the forward motion of the horse to flow horizontally through it. Yes, we must use our thighs to carry some of our weight! This is not easy and it is time we learn how and get FIT! Try taking the stirrups up a hole or two, get forward, and go for a trek in the woods.....feel the horse let go in his body. What is this saying to us? I think it says that we are not helping our horse's body but hindering it in a poor 'full seat'!
If we are not carrying ourselves, and are expecting the horse to carry us, if we are relying on our saddles to balance us and keep us stable, if we are using the reins for our own stability or restricting the neck for vanity's sake or manipulating the reins ignorantly then we are doomed in our efforts to create beautiful dance.
The seat under our buttocks must be softer and lighter to glide with motion. Even if we understand nothing else, note that the canter is a jump.....a bascule! Are we helping this bascule? We cannot grasp these concepts in saddles that lock us into place. Making the seat lighter through better use of the huge core within us as well as the large thigh muscles we have been blessed with will allow us to communicate more sensitively and provide more freedom under the saddle for the horse to respond cooperatively. Taking a few moments to reflect on what Caprilli has taught us might be our new beginning.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Balance, Cooperation & the Four Corners of the Horse

When I think about poor balance I think about 4 things...ill-health, blockage of energy flow, misalignment and misunderstanding. Horses do the best they know how in order to maintain good balance in their circumstances. They want to eat but not fall down so they figure out how to contort themselves so they can do both! Similarly, they are willing to carry us but don't want to be in pain or to fall down so--again--they figure out how to contort themselves to manage it all. Dealing with ill-health and injury is a subject in itself. So assuming we have a healthy horse that is not lame, it is useful to consider how the four corners of the horse can work together harmoniously to achieve a common goal---improved balance.
Without our interference horses do a very good job of managing their whole body to deal with all aspects of life without falling down or getting left behind. Enter a hander and/or rider and now things start changing...and very often from our being overly controlling.
One of my students recently mentioned hearing dressage rider Steffen Peters talk about his thoughts on how the FEI might do better by changing the word "submission" in its guidelines to "cooperation". What a brilliant idea! Think about it. Just changing that one word could, if we are willing and inclined, change the way we think about training horses. The word "submission" is so harsh and final whereas the word "cooperation" is so liberating and forgiving. The latter allows us to give the horse the opportunity to decide to go along with what we have in mind.
I would like here to briefly describe how I envision improved balance to come about. It is through helping the horse to become increasingly aware of the four corners of his body when we are working with him---first on the ground and then in the saddle. We stop and touch him with our hands, our stick or whip and help him locate the spaces around his body and how they relate to our space. We move him forward, backward and sideways, touching legs(and various parts of the body) to enliven them and help give sense of where to direct the power generated in each limb.
Under saddle, the first thing we do is find calm. We try not to snatch up the reins and confine the horse. Of course, under no circumstances would we invite danger to ourselves by not using prudence. But what I dislike seeing is how the first thing riders so often do is tighten up the reins and close in on the horse with the legs. This latter way is the direct route toward blockages. And then poor balance and then an uncooperative horse.
Start with calm and just as you did in the ground work, touch with one leg or one rein and see the reaction, reward and either re-establish a quiet halt or quietly move on to the next moment of calm, preferably into a halt or slow walk. Make the horse aware of himself---aware of his four corners---taking possession of himself. We should not hold the horse up or fight with him. Gently speaking with one leg or rein or just the stick(stiff whip) to bring this awareness to him gives the horse an amazing feeling of freedom---it reminds him he is a whole horse! And, most importantly, without force it brings the horse into progressively greater cooperation.
A touch on the side------step over
A release-------step into
A touch behind----step forward
A touch in front-----step back or refrain
When we think of the whip only in terms of punishment...even if we only carry this thought in our mind...that it is there to threaten the horse if he doesn't comply, we have missed the point and communicate all the makings of a blockage. (Even harsh commanding legs or a rigid rein against the butter soft tissues of the mouth can shut a horse down.) But if we think of the whip as an extension of a finger or an arm.....reaching out to touch the horse and show him where his body is in space as he carries us, helping him adjust himself(his posture) better.....caressing him and guiding him....then we build trust, cooperation and set ourselves solidly on the road of ever improving balance.
Think like this: the whip, leg and hand are FIRSTLY our tools of finesse and LASTLY our tools of tact.