Instant Feedback

One of the most useful tools I took away from the Franklin Method clinic I attended in November was riding with resistance bands.

I find myself repeating the subject of not giving the outside rein away to all of my riders, but for whatever reason, my teaching isn’t as effective as it could be. I’ve worked on different explanations for the importance of supporting the outside shoulder, using that rein to bring that shoulder around the turn, and for preventing an over-bend in the neck to improve the bend through their barrel. I’ve explained about a positive inside rein, thinking of opening a door away from you rather than bringing the hand back towards your stomach to help maintain impulsion and balance. I’ve used exercises like turn on the forehand and discussed the biomechanics of the inside hind to help riders understand the importance of keeping the outside rein. I’ve used the exercise of carrying the whip horizontally over the index fingers, which helps riders see their outside hand creeping forwards on turns, but it seems to be limited to just acknowledging the movement. My riders all understand what they should be doing and why, but breaking any bad habits is easier said than done.

When I did the Franklin Method clinic we rode with resistance bands around our lower arms. The resistance bands were the lightest option, and were placed around the wrist just above the cuff of the gloves. The purpose in the Franklin Clinic was to ride keeping the hands apart so that the slack was taken out of the band. It wasn’t to force the hands out into the resistance of the band and create tension in the shoulders and arms, but to keep the hands a consistent distance apart.

The result of keeping the hands five inches apart, where there’s least pressure on the bars of the horse’s mouth, is that as you turn your horse you keep the hands working as a pair, akin to carrying a tray (you may have heard that analogy elsewhere). If a rider tends to bring the inside hand back and let the outside hand forwards on turns, they will instantly feel pressure from the band.

I liked how the band provided instant feedback to a rider when they let their outside rein creep forward, or even if they were dropping a hand, or holding it further back, regardless of whether it was the inside or outside. Usually I find that a rider will acknowledge that their hands are asymmetric or wander forwards, but only become aware of it when the hand has moved to the extreme and is now ineffective.

But it’s no good correcting an error once it’s gone wrong, you need to correct at the first deviation in order to retrain the muscle memory and to improve the subtlety of the aids to control the horse. The bands gave an earlier signal than visually seeing the outside hand, or me reminding them not to move it.

After the Franklin Method clinic I found a light resistance band at home, and went armed with it to my next few lessons. I had all my riders ride with it during their warm up focusing them on their hand position, make them aware of discrepancies between the reins, and to improve their outside rein contact. All of my riders realised that their hands moved more they thought. It encouraged more use of the seat and leg aids, as well as creating an even, more consistent rein contact.

The difference in the horses was amazing; they moved straighter, started to use their inside hind leg, carried themselves better and were stiller in the hand and taking the contact forwards happily because as soon as the rider’s outside hand started to creep forward they felt pressure on their wrist so corrected themselves. Having a band is an easy accessory to keep in your pocket, and means that riders can practice riding with the band in their own time so will improve their hand position more quickly then having me cue their corrections and then them self-correcting on their own once their hand position had moved significantly.

I’ve not used the bands since before Christmas, but I think it’s time to get it out again for warm ups in the next few weeks … So watch out clients!

Heels Down!

It’s the old adage of riding instructors, and if we were paid a pound every time we said those two words we’d all be millionaires.

Last week someone asked how they could get their heels down on a Facebook group. And there were hundreds of comments. Some keyboard warriors obviously got involved, and some suggestions were useful, others not so.

Really, you could write a dissertation on the subject, but I thought I’d try and sum up the topic for you.

Firstly, your ability to put your heels down depends on part on your conformation. Some people have longer, stretchier calves and tendons so their heels naturally drop. If you have short, tight calves then the first thing to do it regular stretching. We do these horrible stretches in Pilates which I find really painful, because of my right calves. You lie on your back and with the help of an exercise hand lift one leg up as far as it will go without the knee bending. And just hold it there. Eventually your muscles relax and lengthen. Perhaps my New Years resolution should be to do this stretch more often. Another way of stretching is to stand with the balls of your feet on a step, and let your heels drop off the step. This is quite an easy one to do on a daily basis. 

The next thing you should know about putting the heels down is that they shouldn’t be forced down. This locks the knee, brings the lower leg away from the horse, and puts the heel in front of the vertical ear-hip line, making rising and maintains your balance harder. 

Instead think about the heel being marginally lower than the toe, but the weight of your foot being in the heel. Imagine a loads of marbles rolling round your foot. Point your toe down and the marbles (your weight) go forwards.  Lift the toe and drop the heel so they roll back towards the back of the foot.

The reason we want the weight off the toes is that you’re less likely to go head first over the horse’s neck, or at worst, collapse forward onto the shoulders and neck, which already carry 60% of the horse’s body weight.

Which brings me onto ways of keeping the heels below the toe. Firstly, our favourite sitting trot without stirrups, and the possibly dropping your stirrup length.This deepens the seat, opens up the hip joint, lengthens the leg and gives you the vertical ear-shoulder-elbow-hip-heel line we all desire. Having the leg longer puts less strain on your calf which makes it easier to keep the lower leg in the correct place and balance. 

With children I spend a lot of time practising standing up out of their stirrups. Either standing tall, or maintaining jumping position. In order to stay up our of the saddle they must keep the weight into the heels. Otherwise they pitch onto their pony’s neck. They usually enjoy this challenge and you can soon see the difference in the security of their lower leg position. A little girl I taught last week proved this because after doing jumping position with a very strong lower leg her rising trot improved massively and she was more effective with her legs in keeping the pony trotting.

I would always say don’t stress about keeping your heels down because forcing them can creat just as many other problems; just work on a few stretching exercises and keep remembering to relax the knee to allow the weight to drop into the foot, lowering your centre of gravity and making you a more secure and balanced rider.