Friday, 12 August 2011

Thanks to those of you who commented on the last post. Basic information about learning, what it takes to change habits, procedural and declarative knowledge etc. etc. really should be out there in the big wide world, it would help people so much. It seems ridiculous that it isn't, but such is life.
I had an email from someone the other day, who I think was wanting a quick answer to the question 'What is riding with your core? I hear the words but I don't get it....' She was asking this, I think, without having read any of my work, and really she needs to start with the 'Essentials' book and get the long answer. But it is an interesting challenge to see if I can give her the short answer.
My first big riding discovery, which set me on the path that I have now travelled for the last 30 years, dates to around 1979, and was about how to use your abdominal muscles. I had heard the phrase 'use your back' (not very helpful) but had never heard any admonitions to 'use your front'. I think those words really do get said to people nowadays - although, sadly, they are barely more helpful than 'use your back'! However, there is now a general realisation, largely through the influence of Pilates, that abdominal muscles are important. But within the horse world in general we still do not have good ways of teaching the 'how' of this.
Back in 1979 it felt like I was speaking a heresy, but I had actually discovered core strength as it applies to riding. The basic description has not changed over the years - you pull your stomach in to make a wall, and then push your guts against that wall. You do this naturally whenever you cough, giggle, or blow your nose. This is how you increase the pressure in your insides to stabilise your torso. This last sentence might have blown past you, but it hid the profound bit. Good riders sit so still, and are not wibble-wobbled about by the forces of the horse's movement (like the rest of us) because of the high pressure in their insides.
Physiotherapists call this a 'valsalva', but that term is not much use to the general population! I called it 'bear down', though 'bear forward' or 'bear out' suits some people better. We now have coaches working in German, Danish, French, Polish, and probably some other languages, but no language has a really good word for it. So... you pull your stomach in to make a wall and you push your guts against the wall.
If you want to fast track yourself to a more profound level of this, blow up balloons, without pinching the neck of the balloon as you inhale. (You will have to arrange your tongue in your mouth to make this possible.) Sit in a good neutral spine position as you do it, and realise how you have to breathe, and how your ribs remain expanded even on the outbreath. Sit and breathe like this for a while - you will find it pretty stressful. Welcome to core strength!
Another way into this is to stop your horse, drop the reins, and reach back so that your fingers are behind the back of the cantle. Then pull on it, and feel what happens to your front. It should firm up - there is your wall, now you just have to push your guts against it, and hold this as you ride! Also try making your hands into fists, and pushing back on the cantle. This should make your back firm up, but it is a little trickier to make it work, so be persistent.
The firmer you hold the 'box' of your torso, the better. The hinge of the hip joint has to be movable, but the rest of you must stay still. You bear down to make this happen, to stabilise your spine, and to help you match the forces which the horse's movement exerts on your body.
Good luck!

Thursday, 16 June 2011

As ever, it's been too long since my last post...
I was thrilled to meet someone during my last trip to the USA who read my previous post and was able to go away and make a significant difference to her 'dud leg' as well as her overall balance whilst riding. It always gives me a kick when someone really can take my words and turn them into the feelings/organisation within the body that change both your riding and your horse.
My most recent course back in the UK had a participant from South Africa, who had been working through the books in partnership with a friend, and together they had done a very good job on her baselines. Of course she was as thrilled to hear that as I was to tell her that - and her next step, determined perhaps by the horse she was riding, was to learn to 'slingshot'! (You will only understand the need to the exclamation mark if you have read the last few posts!)
In theory, these success stories should be more common than they are, and every book ever written on riding was written in the hope that its reader would ride better for reading it. Great idea, but I am not so sure how often it really happens! In truth, only a couple of the books I have read over many years have had that much influence on me. The rest were full of nice ideas.
I spent much of my early 20s, when I was working for my BHS exams, reading every book on riding that I could lay my hands on, telling myself again and again 'Perhaps I'll find the secret in this one....perhaps it will be in this one...' I met disappointment after disappointment, and realise now that those books were full of declarative knowledge, that tell us what horse and rider should look like, and how they should progress up through the grades of dressage. But that is presupposing the skillset which the book was supposedly going to help its reader to find!
The answer lies in procedural knowledge, which tells you HOW to do the skill in question. I like to think that I have written the books and articles that put that knowledge on paper, in an accessible, do-able form. When coaching coaches, I talk about learning needing to happen in 'bite size chunks', and no one - however talented they may be - can go straight from A to X.
I recently heard a wonderful phrase used by evolutionary biologists, which I think applies equally well to learning skills. It is 'the adjacent possible', and this is the best that any of us can possibly hope to achieve as the next step in the evolution of our riding skills. But as 'adjacent possible' leads to 'adjacent possible', you get to see miraculous changes, just as you do in evolution.
For a coach to recognise this in practice, she has to honour the pupil's starting point and proceed form there, in bite-size chunks that are each an 'adjacent possible'. This means that she (the coach) gets to cross the skill-gap between her and the pupil, instead of miraculously expecting the pupil to leap across that skill-gap herself. The coach does this whenever she uses the 'puppeteering' school of coaching, in which she attempts to 'ride through' the pupil as if she were a puppet. She also does it whenever she sees that her words do not elicit the response she expected, but she just keeps saying them... because if it were her up there, shoulder in really would work well and fix the problem if she only did it one more time...
Over the years have met at least ten people who have done a stunning job on their riding from the books and DVDs. That is not a very big number, but I am still really proud that those people have proved that it's humanly possible. Many more have made significant improvements from their starting point, and there would be may more still, I am sure, if it were not for the fact that however good a job I am able to do in my explanations, the books and DVDs cannot diagnose YOUR particular starting point.
After all, if you want to get to there, the only way you can possibly do it is by starting from here, and you have to locate that 'here' on the map before you can possibly know if you have to go North or South. Are you a round backed rider or a hollow backed rider? Do you tip forward or back? Do you make your horses too heavy in your hand or too light in your hand? Do they whizz off with you, or lack impulsion? Each of these requires a different direction of travel, requiring a diagnosis which a skilled coach will be able to do better than anyone else. But if you lack that, there are always mirrors, cameras, videos, good friends, and even, so I am told, (though this is undoubtedly on rare occasions), husbands!

Thursday, 28 April 2011

As promised in my last post, here is the antidote to too much slingshot. If you need to, look back at that post so you understand which good thing I am saying you can have too much of! But if the slingshot idea is too complicated for you, worry not. You will also find this correction very effective for the kind of 'dud leg' that we discuss below.
If someone has over-done the slingshot, she will be too far back in the saddle, with the thigh too horizontally out in front of her, and the knee too up. Most people have a leg that behaves like this, even though they have never heard of the sling shot idea! Either way, the rider needs a correction that enables her to bring herself forward in the saddle, and to kneel more down through that thigh. At the same time she also needs to make more push forward from her back, and to direct that push into the thigh and the kneeling posture.
I recently used the idea I am advocating with a relatively novice rider in the USA, who had one leg that looked just like a rider's leg should, and one that looked weak and 'unstuffed', with her knee too up, her foot too forward, and her pelvis too tucked under on that side. You can't exactly say that she was' over-slingshoted' as she had never learnt to do this (and her posture was an aberration of the sling shot idea). But her asymmetry gave her one leg that stayed easily in the shoulder/hip /heel line, and one that wobbled about in front of her. She could barely influence it at all. Whilst hers was an extreme example, most riders can recognise this scenario.
Historically, our fixes for the 'dud leg' have been hard for people to do and maintain, and they have required the slow, progressive 'drip water on the rock' kind of change that can be pretty tedious and painful (in an emotional 'here we go again....' kind of a way). But this rider changed it profoundly in one session, and could maintain it well. Here's how.
I suggested that she imagined we could make a vertical cut in her thigh beginning from her 'front tendon' (where the big muscle of the front of the thigh inserts into the pelvis) and going vertically downwards. Since we do not want it to bleed to much, we put a metal plate on it, and her task was to push the whole of her torso, pelvis and thigh 'up to the plate'. This is rather as if someone put their lower arm against her back on that side and pushed it forwards, towards her thigh.
She could immediately do this, and it changed the entire look of her thigh and pelvis, giving her more 'kneel', and a shoulder/hip/heel vertical line that she could maintain. It was hard work, and it felt like defying gravity, and the position that her body so wanted to fall back into. But it was possible, and highly effective.
I also suggested that she felt the resulting difference in the positioning of that seat bone, and thought of her balance over it being like that of a ballerina on point. Her pelvis would have so loved to have fallen backwards, away from the plate, as if on to demi-point, so that her seat bone pointed forwards. This was probably in fact the bottom line: on that side of her torso she was round backed, falling back to sit 'on her jean's pocket', which inevitably bought her thigh forwards and up. On the other side she she could sit in neutral, with her seat bone pointing down, and a good 'kneel' down through her thigh.
The rewards for this change were huge. Her original feeling that she could not control the 'dud leg' was not great, but along with this she lost so much ability to control her horse, especially when that leg was on the inside. As she 'pushed up to the plate' and got into a kneeing posture, her centre of gravity was no longer falling backwards, and she was able to match the forces that the horse's movement exerted on her body. This meant that her horse no longer felt as if he was dragging her along on that side, and he became lighter in her hand as his back came up, bringing him into carriage underneath her. It was a win-win for both of them.
As riders, we need to be able to draw our centre of gravity back, and also to be able to bring it forward. Leaning forward and leaning back are not the answers to this. To think of the pelvis moving back away from the thigh (as in lengthening the sling shot) and forward towards the thigh (as in pushing up to the plate) are very different, and very effective tactics. It is highly likely that one side of the body naturally tends towards one option, whilst the other side tends towards the other. But knowing what to do about this gives you a huge advantage!

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Time - well over time - for a new post!
I have been gadding around America teaching clinics, and have seen a number of long term pupils who have over-used the 'slingshot' idea. Any good idea when taken to the extreme can become a bad idea, just as any cake cannot be successfully baked when one ingredient is out of proportion with the others. My plan was to write about the antidote for the slingshot, but I think I need to save that for another post and start by explaining how the slingshot works.
When a rider needs to move further back in the saddle, we usually suggest that she thinks of her thighs like the elastic in a slingshot, imagining that her knees are at the ends of the stick that would form the 'Y' of the slingshot, and that her pelvis is the stone. When the thigh muscles elongate and come under tension they form a longer, narrower 'V', just as the elastic does when you pull out a slingshot. The knees and the seat bones move further apart through being pulled in opposite directions.
The easiest way to access this is to put the heels of both hands on the pommel, and to make a sustained push back off them. The trick is to do this with your seat bones continuing to point straight down, so that they slide back over the flesh of your backside and do not point forward or back in a way that makes you round or hollow backed.
I am of course assuming that you are in 'neutral spine' with your seat bones pointing straight down as you begin this, which is a big assumption, given how many riders either lean forward or lean back, often whilst also either rounding or hollowing their back! Sitting in vertical and neutral cannot be taken for granted, and once there you might still find that your first response to the slingshot idea is to lift your seat bones within your backside, or to point them somewhere other than down. If you can, halt your horse sideways on to a mirror so you can check that you remain vertical and neutral as you push off your hands.
If you are sitting reading this with a table in front of you, try finding neutral and pushing back off the edge of the table. Experiment until you can feel your seat bones move back over your flesh and your front firm up. This should make your torso feel stronger.
As your seat bones slide back you are bringing your whole torso and your centre of gravity back. This may become necessary on a horse who delights in pulling the rug out backwards from under your feet. He is the lethargic or even nappy type, who attempts to get you 'in front of him'. You can then find yourself sweating away to no avail, as you are no longer in the place where your aids have meaning. You can kick and flail about all you want, but he will take no notice of you until your centre of gravity moves back over his.
Is it difficult, but very effective, to 'slingshot back' instead, using your energy to keep yourself still and firm, with narrow elongated thighs. If you then kick from that further-back-place you will find the 'go' button, as your aids suddenly work. On this kind of horse, you are unlikely to overdo the slingshot - in fact it is far more likely that you will not some far enough back, and that feeling weird will stop you from making an adjustment that is as extreme as the situation
This may sound paradoxical, but on easier horses, the idea of the slingshot can also help you move the horse's centre of gravity back. As your thighs elongate back and your torso moves back, you need to think of the horse's insides moving back within him (as opposed to you moving back relative to him). Some of the riders who have been doing this for a while are the ones who have reached overkill. They needed to change tactics and find a way to draw the back of the horse towards the front of the horse. But more of that in the next post!

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Oh my, I have just seen that I last wrote this blog in August 2010. I knew I was behind with it, but had no idea it was that long. Oh well..... thank you those of you who commented on how helpful it was (breathing well never goes amiss!) and thanks for your patience, those of you who follow these posts.
Fortunately it is quite recently that Tavia has responded, telling me that a chiropractor has pointed out how distorted her spine and pelvis are. She is sure that this explains her inability to turn her horse left, and wondours if she should give up riding until the treatment - which apparently will take some time - is complete. She asks my advice.
This is a difficult one. The bottom line is that none of us are symmetrical, and we all do the best we can with what we've got. Sometimes I do suggest that people would be better to spend their money on bodywork than riding lessons or training, but I rarely suggest that they don't ride. However, I have known riders driven to tears of despair and frustration by their asymmetry, very upset by the way they feel they are torturing their horses, and tempted to give up riding because of it!
I think I have solved my own asymmetry to a pretty large extent, forging a path that few if any riders have previously trodden. This has been a thirty year saga, but it has yielded knowledge that makes it progressively faster and easier for the pupils who join us. But realise that we are all like the goldfish who would never discover water - we are so deeply ingrained in our asymmetry, and it plays a massive role in patterning how we walk, breathe, drive, and even lie in bed. To step outside it (whether it is based on a significant injury or just on the habits of a lifetime) is inevitably a challenging, demanding process. And because of the goldfish effect, it cannot be done alone.
Realise that the chiropractic treatment will not make you perfect. I think some body workers make the mistake of thinking that all they have to do is to treat a rider and a horse and 'Viola!' they will ascend into a symmetrical Heaven! It is not like that - new neurological pathways are needed to make muscles fire in a whole new pattern. They have to be learnt, and this has to happen against the pull of the old pattern. Only when the new pathways work well can the muscles themselves change significantly.
With or without our help, you will probably spend many years working out how to turn left. The answer can only reveal itself in layers: each one makes a significant difference, and can make you think that you have 'got it!'. But in reality it is only one small step on a long journey. After the elation you will soon realise this, as the next layer of the problem reveals itself (again and again!). You cannot go straight from A to X and neither can your horse - especially if you both have a history of riding during which he has patterned his body around your asymmetry!
So Tavia: read the chapters on steering in the 'Clinic' book and if you can, get some biomechanics based coaching to help you as the bodywork progresses. You almost certainly have a significant rotation left if you cannot turn that way. Work with it too as you drive your car: can you weight each seat bone evenly? Can you stop your upper body from creasing on the side as you go around bends and roundabouts? This is far harder than you think, and a good test of progress. Exercises on a gymball will also help.
Whatever you do, realise that it is about enjoying the journey instead of longing to arrive. Each new insight can give you so much satisfaction, and make your horse's life easier too. Savour them, but at the same time, be ready for the long haul.
Good luck,