Monday, 30 August 2010

Let's continue with the theme of breathing.
The following might seem a highly unlikely scenario, since we are talking about a rider and horse who were, at the time, about to make their debut at Grand Prix Dressage. Two years later they were placed in competition in Germany, beating some very big names. But one of my best breathing lessons ever was with Heather Blitz and her horse Otto, who was sold on soon after that German success.
Otto was a tense type, who was pretty unruly when he was first given to Heather to prepare for sale. She really liked him, however, and soon realised his potential, so she set about finding a buyer who would let her train and compete him. Despite her enthusiasm, she has described to me one occasion when his head went up so high that she could see his nostrils! Whilst this was a one-off, he always kept a 'veneer' between himself and his rider, as a way of reducing the rider's influence.
Many horses do this, and it can give them a look that I describe as 'brittle'. A rider can look 'brittle' too - she might or might not sense herself like a china doll that might break, but she can certainly have that look. Seeing this 'brittle' look in either partner immediately makes me question how much breathing is really happening, and I know that changing this can be the turning point that changes everything else.
When the rider does not breathe well, the horse is unlikely to. Even when the rider does breathe well, she may need to use the power of thought to transfer this to the horse. So we like to think of 'breathing down into the pony' . I say 'pony' as we so often teach this to children, but its usefulness spans a spectrum from their first few lessons on our school ponies to top class riders on their Grand Prix horses!
So in breathing down into Otto, Heather thought of her breath infusing both her body and his. It can work well to think of it as a colour. It probably took 20 minutes to begin to really change him - he lost the look of a 'cat on hot bricks', and he also lost his veneer. His muscle quality changed as his movement changed, and it was a turning point in his training. He had finally let Heather in - and perhaps he had finally let go and breathed deeply, in a way he had never done whilst ridden.
I am sure there are sceptics out there thinking 'yeah right', but the power of this kind of thought is incredible. The rider firstly needs good breathing skills herself (which of course Heather had), and then that additional focus. It can work wondours. Try it.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

It's time for a change of topic, and I am going to go for breathing. Breathing whilst bearing down is a cornerstone of riding skills, and hard for almost everyone. Take a few breaths and notice, do your ribs lift at the front? If they do, and if an in-breath makes you taller, you are breathing into your upper chest. This is not a great breathing strategy for life as well as riding. It means that you are likely to be a hollow backed, both on and off horse. Your attempts to fix this will be frustrating, because every inbreath lifts you into that posture.
When you inflate the lower part of the lungs you have a much more efficient breathing strategy, which goes with a much more viable posture. Your lower ribs are allowed to expand outwards, making a bigger diameter and a bigger circumference to the 'circle' of the rib cage, but they are not allowed to lift up.
Anatomically, your diaphragm is like the cap of a mushroom, with its edges connected to your lower ribs. It keeps your lungs separate from your guts, and on an inbreath it is pulled down, making room for the lungs to expand into.
Imagine that someone has bought a big pile of loose shavings, covered them with a big tarpaulin, and put tyres on the edges to hold it down. If the wind gets in under the tarp it billows up. This is like upper chest breathing. Imagine deep sobbing, which is the extreme of this strategy. In diaphragmatic breathing, it is as if there is a suction pump at the bottom of the pile of shavings that sucks the tarp down on the inbreath. This will make your lower ribs expand but not lift.
So imagine this within your body, and maybe put your hands around your ribs, feeling them expand without lifting, and think of the suction happening from low down in your abdomen.
At first, this can feel difficult and stressful, and after a few breaths you will probably be longing to gasp, and lift your ribs. Do this if you must, but come back to the new pattern. Practice whilst driving your car - for you need to master this way of breathing, making it how you breathe all the time, not just when you are riding. I guarantee that you will not breathe one way 23 hours a day, and get on your horse for hour 24 and breathe differently.
In time, breathing 'down' rather than 'up' will leave you taking deeper, slower breaths, and you will supply much more oxygen to your muscles. This will increase your endurance, and perhaps even lengthen your life! It will certainly improve your riding, and it will encourage your horse to breathe too, for he may well take his cue from you. Like people, some horses are naturally much better 'breathers' than others, and good work can change their breathing pattern. When the horse begins to breathe diaphragmatically he usually begins to snort, and this is a sign that his body is releasing in a really good way.

Friday, 11 June 2010

I'm sorry, it seems ages since I have 'blogged' - blame lots of travelling and teaching, with a huge backlog of tasks that needed doing at home. But the last few months have been a very productive time in terms of some new skills and understandings that are enhancing both my riding and teaching.
My last series of blogs have been about the challenges of riding lazy and whizzy horses. Maybe I can bring those two strands together through the following analogy.
Imagine two people standing opposite each other playing a game of catch with a tennis ball. This is a co-operative game - neither person is trying to catch the other one out - and each throws the ball so that it bounces once, giving a reliable rhythm of bounce, catch, bounce, catch, bounce, catch....
Then imagine that one partner secretly substitutes a more bouncy ball, which would speed up the rhythm of the game, and make it much more precarious!
Also imagine that one of them secretly substitutes a bean bag! That is the end of the game.
Our 'bounce, catch' analogy illustrates the energy exchange between horse and rider in rising trot, and we want this to work as if each one were throwing the other a tennis ball. But the lazy horse might want to throw bean bags, which deaden the bounce in the game, making it 'wind down'. Many draft crosses are of this type. The rider might also tend to throw bean bags, and one of my pupils once nicknamed herself 'bean bag butt' (I would not have said this - it's too cruel!) But it was certainly true that every horse she rode tended to 'give up the ghost'. She was a low tone rider, and her body naturally had a 'bean bag' quality that she had to work very hard to change, holding her muscles much more firmly than their natural level of tone.
Many riders throw the horse a bean bag when they want him to go more - they land heavier, dig their seat into his back, and expect this to make him go forward. But they have deadened his bounce, with the inevitable result that he will go less If the horse is a 'bean bag' type, the rider has to keep throwing him tennis balls, and not get seduced into throwing bean bags back at him. If she does this, he will inevitably loose impulsion.
It is not easy to keep 'tennis ball' quality in your body when paired with a 'bean bag' horse! His hind legs have to 'ping' off the ground more than he wants them too, and he has less recoil energy in his tendons and ligaments than, say, a thoroughbred. The tempo has to stay faster than he would choose, and you may need to learn to give leg aids in the way I have described in previous posts. If you nag and shove you are doomed.
You also have to be able to diagnose the moment when his bounce descreases. Most riders 'wake up' then both they are the horse are well into the process of 'winding down' - and by then, it is a huge big deal to re-find 'tennis ball' impulsion. Prevention works far better than cure!
In contrast, thoroughbreds might well want to throw you a bouncier ball than you want them too, increasing both the speed and the force of their 'throws'. Your job is then to slow the tempo, keeping their hind legs on the ground for a little longer than they want them there, especially with the proverbial 'cat on hot bricks' kind of horse. This is the only way that you can regain control of the speed of the 'throws' and the force of the 'throws'.
I wish I had understood this better years ago, as the wonderful thoroughbred horse pictured on the cover of the 'Essentials' book would con me by speeding up the game, and I would match her thrust-for-thrust, only to have her try and speed it up more. It was as if she was saying 'any way you can thrust I can thrust better/faster/harder...' (she was a wonderfully exuberant soul, and loved to run away with people in medium trot!) It was a long time before I realised that my job was not to match her but to slow her. I had to become extremely pro-active to make pauses at the top of the rise and the bottom of the sit that were effective enough to slow down her legs. I had to develop good enough 'chewing gum string rise', and to keep a reliable 'windscreen wiper rise', before I could maintain my ideal amount and speed of thrust. (See previous posts for an explanation of these analogies.)
The tennis ball analogy is a lovely way to talk about the energy exchange between horse and rider. We as riders have the task of creating 'tennis ball energy' in our bodies - and some of us are more bean-bag-like, while others are more bouncy-ball-like. Our horses too have different energetic qualities, and we are (we hope) training them to become more tennis-ball-like.
Next time you ride, think about tennis ball energy exchange, and see if you can diagnose yourself and your horse, bringing you both to the more ideal game of throwing tennis balls!

Sunday, 28 March 2010

One of the responses to my last post asked, 'How does counting 'te-tum, te-tum, te-tum' in rhythm with the horse's front legs slow down the canter? This is a good question, and the answer is that I really don't know, except that it really demonstrates the phenominal power of attention, and it works every time!
Just being aware of the tempo and tuning yourself into it slows it down, and increases the chances that as you begin the canter, you can 'take the horse' instead of having him 'take you'.
This difference is so critical. When 'the horse takes you' he is in charge of the speed of his legs, and the rider is often reduced to 'pull and pray'. She looses the ability to 'bear down' with her abdominal muscles, and to match the force of his movement in every stride. She becomes the waterskier to his motor boat.
I watched a lesson a short time ago in which the coach was working with someone in canter saying things that were totally irrelevant, because with the horse 'taking the rider', only this situation could be addressed effectively. No other change was available to the rider, as the horse and the situation made her so powerless. The rider needed to be told 'bear down', and the lesson needed to be set up so that she had at least some chance of taking the horse - otherwise she was doomed. Counting 'te-tum, te-tum' would have been the best way to turn this around.
When you 'take the horse', you have changed the rules of the game, so that the horse is dancing to your tune, in your way, at your speed. This is a watershed of a difference, that makes so much possible. You can bear down, and you can give your hand forward. But to make it work, you must begin counting from the very first stride, miss that one and it may or may not work. Try it, and prove its effectiveness to yourself!

Friday, 5 February 2010

Right then, those canter transitions. I confess to often messing up the first few of the day, and many riders do not ride these well, largely because they don't believe the transition will happen, so they over-do their aids.
A common strategy is to 'kick start' the horse into canter by leaning back and shoving with your backside. This means that you end up in waterski position as you 'push' the horse into 'motorboat'. He might just trot faster, or he might canter, but either way you have put your centre of gravity behind his, and will pay the price for this as he races off with you. The more you lean back, the more he speeds off. This is like a rug being pulled out from under your feet. It would slide away from you ever faster as you leant back.
Think of trot like the smooth surface of the ocean. The first canter stride is like a tsunami wave that arises out of it, swelling up and coming back down ready for the next wave or stride. Your aim is to go up with the wave, and come down with the wave, staying vertical throughout. If you fall off the back of the wave (either on the way up or at the top), you are unlikely to get canter, and if you do, you may well loose it after one stride. Many riders who lean back and 'kick start' the horse fall off the back of the wave. A smaller proportion of riders get 'in front of' the wave, and staying on exactly the right balance point is no mean achievement.
Realise that each successive canter stride is like another tsunami wave that you have to stay with.
The canter aid comes from the inside seat bone as much or more than it comes from the lower legs. The front inside shoulder of the horse lifts into canter, almost like taking off for a jump, and your inside seat bone lifts with it. In fact, lifting this seat bone can cue the horse to lift his shoulder, as if he were stuck to your underside. To make this work you have to be well anchored over the outside seat bone. (If all your weight is on the inside one, you can't move it!)
If you have trouble doing this, and/or you have trouble getting the right lead, think of looking over your outside shoulder. This is good advice at any time, as it makes your torso face to the outside, putting your inside hip and shoulder ahead of your outside hip and shoulder. This goes with 'inside leg on the girth, outside leg behind the girth', which you have probably heard
Canter is the four legged equivalent of skipping, and you (like the horse) could skip on either lead. If he has both inside legs in advance of his outside legs you must match him, by putting your inside seat bone and torso ahead of of your outside seat bone and torso.
This also means that facing your body to the inside (and reversing your seat bone position) would invite the wrong lead - especially if you also pulled on the the inside rein and made the horse 'jack-knife'. He would then fall on his outside shoulder as this is the only one that free to move. Result: you are on the wrong lead.
Think of keeping your outside rein and giving your inside hand during the transition. This is a good policy because it helps you not to pull, and not to face to the inside. The horse's inside shoulder is free, and the horse who feels that the hand brake is off will make a much neater job of the transition than the one who feels constrained.
At the same time, the more you can demote the transition inside your head and make it no big deal, the more likely it is to go well. Keep aiming to keep your body lined up, and make this a higher priority than getting canter at any cost.
Good luck!

Friday, 15 January 2010

Back to whizzy horses. As I have said before, it pays to be in control of the speed of the horse's legs in the slower gaits before you go faster: so you want to be controlling the speed of the legs in walk before you trot, and in trot before you canter. Canter transitions are notoriously difficult to teach - and do - well, and most riders instinctively do the equivilant of putting their foot on the accelerator instead of changing gear! If you can sit the trot well for several strides you have a huge avantage over the riders whose only options are rising or bumping whilst kicking and hoping! Improving how you sit the trot may pay huge dividends in the transition itself.
A good canter strike off really helps you canter more slowly, and the horse that runs into canter via a fast trot will inevitably be fast and unbalanced in canter. If the trot is getting faster and faster it is almost always better to abort the transition than it is to keep kicking. Do not be afraid to abort the transition repeatedly, even if it seems that your horse is not 'getting it'. You will teach yourself and him far more by slowing the trot and asking again than you will by keeping on kicking as he trots faster. Be sure though, that you are not pulling on the reins at the same time as you ask for canter. If your body is saying 'I want you to canter, but actually please don't!' you can't blame your horse when he doesn't! If you suspect that this is true for you, what you need is an extra dose of courage, which may come simply from learning to bear down. This is my term for how skilled riders use their abdominal muscles, and I have written about it extensively in my books. It will also help to follow the steps below.
If you think your horse is going to be speedy, the best place the arena to ask for the transition is coming around on a circle towards the wall on the long side. Having the wall almost in front of the horse will help to slow him down, and you have 3/4 of the circle to go before you reach the begining of the long side. Here, the sight of that wide open space will tempt him to motorboat (and accelerate out from under you) and you to waterski (as you lean back, push in the stirrups and pull on the reins). The more to lean back the faster he will go - both in miles per hour, and in terms of how fast his legs go around. So this is a bad idea, and as ever, you need to 'keep up with the horse' so that your centre of gravity stays over his in each canter stride.
When you begin canter count the speed of the horse's front legs. Te-tum, te-tum, te-tum, works well as a way to do this. You need to be sure that you begin counting with the very first canter stride. If you are with an instructor, ask her to count out loud as you count inside your head. Very often just counting like this will slow the horse down. It can be a remarkably effective technique, but you must begin counting with the very first canter stride.
We'll talk more about the transition itself next time!