I have been wrestling with a problem in my mind for a few weeks now, and after a long discussion with the very helpful Wiola, who then produced this useful blog – http://aspireequestrian.wordpress.com/2014/01/02/stiff-arms-when-riding-how-to-train-them-away/ – I finally got my chance to sort it all out.
Let me fill you in.
A teenage girl rides at our yard, and is intelligent, keen, and receptive to teaching. I taught her for a few weeks in the summer when she started at our yard, and then she progressed to the Saturday afternoon jumping lesson with another instructor. She`s always been a bit stiff in her position but recently I became aware that she had fallen off a couple of times and was very unstable in her seat. I suggested to her Mum that she came during the holidays for a bit of work experience, get a bit more confident around horses and then hopefully she will relax a bit too. We also discussed in private how much she enjoys riding and I came to the conclusion that she loves horse riding, she wants to do it, and she wants to be good. How is this relevant to her position I hear you ask. Well, imagine you really really want to be the best in your class at something. You put so much pressure on yourself to be perfect nine times out of ten you don`t perform at your best. You are creating tension.
So just before Christmas she came up to the yard to help us. Her mum also booked her a lesson for that day, which I taught, and I was surprised with how fragile her riding was. She was on a gentle giant who got her over the jumps and through the lesson, and I tried to (without picking her to pieces) encourage her to unlock her body and just have fun. Just go for it and enjoy. After the lesson I scratched my head a bit.
Let me take a moment to describe her position. She sits centrally and naturally has a very good posture. However, she tends to grip with her thighs and knees, so no weight drops down. This makes her lower leg unstable and her centre of gravity is higher, so her balance is affected. I also noticed that her rise in the rising trot came from her knee, leaving the foot swinging around. I explained about likening the rise to stepping up a stair, the whole leg is a column to support the body and the rise needed to come, for her, a bit lower down. Initially this makes the lower leg wobbly, but it does stop the knee fixing. It sounds incorrect, as we usually teach rising from the thighs, but in her case I thought it would help get the leg working as a single unit. Going upwards from the seat, she sits tall but is tense through her shoulders, down her arms and wrists, giving the appearance when cantering of being petrified.
Now last week she came back to do some more helping, I put her on one of the bigger ponies who needed exercising, and she was in the beginner lesson as lead file. My theory? Just walking and trotting round monotonously gives her brain a chance to switch off a bit and hopefully she “feels” a bit more. Additionally, this pony shows up any gripping as he shoots forward. By the end she was a bit more relaxed but still in quite a negative frame of mind. However, I was determined to solve this problem so got permission from her mum to give her a private lesson yesterday while she was helping.
I gave her a very steady, smooth horse, and we went down to the arena with a pep talk: you aren`t rubbish, we just need to solve a couple of issues, jumping will fall into place once we get back on top of the flat work, stop worrying about it all, etc etc. Almost immediately I got her to take her feet out of the stirrups in walk, shake them out “like jelly” and then swing them forwards and backwards like scissors, coming from the hips not the knees. Then I distracted her from her legs and got her doing large shoulder shrugs. Initially they were teeny up down movements but with a bit of cajoling I got them up to her ears and right back. I told her, as Wiola suggested, to shrug her shoulders every few strides. You couldn`t see a massive different initially but you could see her getting more flexible.
Next, as per Wiola`s recommendation, I led her horse and had her sliding to the left and right, first in halt and then in walk. The first one was a tiny movement but after that I kept thinking she was going to fall off! You could really see her starting to loosen up then. Next we moved on to tiny trots without stirrups, getting her to wiggle her hips with her horse`s movement. Thankfully, her mount loves going very slowly, and eased into a snails pace. A bit more cajoling about wiggling hips like the models and she suddenly unlocked. It was like magic. Even her head was wiggling with the movement! After about ten minutes of short, slow trots we stayed in trot, still very steady, but keeping relaxed and wibbly wobbly.
Hail stones caused us to run for cover for five minutes, so whilst we sheltered and she sorted her stirrups I explained the seat aid, squeezing her bum and breathing in to lighten her seat and how that allowed her horse to lift through his back during transitions, and the slight pushing aid she may need to utilise if her horse loses energy in a gait. Whilst we were stood there she obviously tried lightening her seat, and shot backwards into a lovely rein back! We went back to the arena and worked on some transitions using the seat and legs more than the hands, shortly bringing in circles and serpentines. This was mainly to take the focus off her position and body, although I did have the odd nag about relaxation, but also to have her holding her whip across her thumbs, so we could work on ensuring the left rein didn`t keep creeping shorter, and to discourage her from using the inside rein too much. She started to feel the difference in her movements and started to turn and shift her weight with her horse. Her left side is a bit stiffer, but it`s something to work on. There was less loss of rhythm during circles and changes of rein and her seat was really waking up.
We moved onto canter next, and utilised an old favourite, but rarely used, rising canter. She has just established an excellent seat in canter, but still tense, so after a couple of normal canters, with her feeling her new found relaxed legs, I introduced rising canter. It was a toughie! It took a few attempts and the rises were small, but when she cantered the short side sitting, the long side rising, and then back to sitting you could see more suppleness in her pelvis. Interestingly enough, once this happened her arms became softer and less rigid.
To finish, I had her trotting round, in both sitting and rising, moving her hips with the horse, using her seat and body position and weight for manoeuvre him, and then I suggested she bent her elbows and lifted her hands. At least four inches. She found it strange and wasn`t sure that was the correct hand position. It was a tad high, but the idea was for her to remember how to bend her elbows. I explained as well how the elbows are absorb shockers and once she`d found the bend and relaxed her arms they would be in the correct position.
I felt she dramatically improved through the lesson, and went away happier with herself and her riding. I plan to follow this up with some more private lessons where I will keep working on her position, but also introduce a bit more, intelligent riding, where she has to think a bit more about what her horse is doing and how she can improve it. I think this will really help when she comes back to jumping because it won`t be so much “Oh here`s the jump” but “Can I jump from this canter? Do I have enough impulsion?”