Lately I’ve noticed that I feel terribly ignorant about the language of riding. I know enough to feel when my body and my horse’s body are in harmony, but I find it hard to unpack the aids and explain them in a detailed and analytical manner. Back when I was at William Woods, my instructors started asking us to to “talk through” our riding, explain which side our horses were acting stiff on and which aids were called for at that exact moment.
Luckily, I still have my books I bought for that class (and sadly placed on a shelf without reading), and I am making my way through the books.
Right now, I am focusing on the guide books by the German National Equestrian Federation (GNEF): The Principles of Riding, and Advanced Techniques of Dressage.
I’ve already read through The Principles of Riding, and I annotated it all over with stars, underlined sections, and brackets, eagerly eating up every morsel of tasty riding wisdom. The book is slim and compact, with only 189 pages, and it written in a straightforward style that isn’t too dense or heady to understand. Also, there are helpful drawings and diagrams on each page to help illuminate the text and give your eyes a break every now and then. It’s become my riding bible, and I have actually taken it with me to the barn on occasion.
For example, most instructional riding books will tell you to sit and slip your outside leg back to canter, but The Principles walks you through seven highly detailed steps, including a detailed explanation of why we put our outside leg back:
“Place the outside leg in a ‘guarding’ position about 10 cm behind the girth to prevent the left hind leg from stepping sideways and to make sure it steps forward in the direction of the centre of gravity; the role of the rider’s outside leg is particularly important, since in the phase of the canter when only one of the horse’s hind feet is on the ground, this foot can only bear the weight correctly if it is underneath the center of gravity” (GNEF Principles, pg 96).
The book walks you through anything you could possibly want to know to get an excellent foundation in equitation. The topics covered include:
- The regular beginner topics of dress, etiquette in the arena, attire, equine nature, the responsibilities of the horseman to the horse
- Planning the training, rider seat and “feel,” the coordinated use of the aids in every gait and movement
- Basic exercises for dressage, show jumping, and cross country
- Introduction to hunting and overnight trips
- Training horses with conformation defects and difficult temperaments
- And so many more
Admittedly, I did gloss over the jumping and cross country sections. I read the beginner segments on jumping and that was enough for me. My interest in jumping is limited to the odd log on the trail. Someday I think it could be fun to go on a hunter pace again and do more jumps, or run the most beginner/infant-level cross country course (do they make those)? It’s not that I’m scared of jumping, it’s just that all my love selfishly goes to dressage. Hats off to you crazy eventers that have to know it all!
So far, my most important take-away at the moment is the focus on looseness and relaxation, the second rung on the training ladder (just behind rhythm). It’s been a constant struggle to get Cooper loose and relaxed. We waffle between ultra stiff and moving slow and creaky like a rusty robot, or running mechanically out of rhythm. His physiological build makes it hard for him to relax and swing through his back.
I really like the chapter on “riding-in,” or warming and loosening up your horse before the work. The book suggests you take a minimum of 10 minutes walking on a loose or very light/non-demanding contact, then shifting to 20-30 minutes of loosening work at the trot. Then, you can move on to heavier contact and your more focused lesson. The book notes that when a horse’s neck is free of tension, it releases the parotid glands (behind the edge of the lower jaw) to open and allow the horse to salivate and soften his mouth around the bit. Hence why foamy mouths are so prized as an indicator of a horse that is soft and supple.
Obviously, I already knew about the importance of warming up and that compulsory 10 minutes of walking to warm up the muscles and tendons and get the synovial fluid swishing around, leaving plenty of breaks for work on a long rein. I just never considered actually doing my entire warm up almost on the buckle, then working long and low in the trot for another 20 minutes or so. Usually, I just pick up a light to medium contact after a bit of walking and go from there. I guess I’ve been conditioned to pick up more rein right when I get on because Shiloh was so hot I couldn’t give him a loose rein till after the ride, because he’d be zinging off into the next county.
I’ve started adopting this riding-in phase and the change is amazing. I let him stride out on a completely loose rein for 10 minutes, making laps around the pasture or hacking out a little ways down the road before my ride. I felt a marked difference in Coopers walk
(more swingy, less boxy and jiggy), and he actually stretched his head down to blow and sigh in relaxation. I found myself get a lot less “sticky” in the saddle as well, feeling less tension in my body.
Right now I am working through the beginning of Advanced Techniques of Dressage, and I will probably re-read The Principles again when I’m done. There’s so much good stuff in these books, I’m afraid to walk away from them without reading through them each about ten times! I want to get to the level of familiarity with the information that I can pull the contents of a chapter into my brain in the middle of the arena when I’m trying to figure out a movement and be able to walk myself through what I need to change to be successful.
Cheers! Happy holidays, fellow horse crazies!