“I want to invite you to truly engage in the moment and agree to CONSPIRE with the most noble of all animals – our silent friend, the Horse..”
Conspiration vs. Cooperation
“To Conspire – With Your Horse“
: to act in harmony toward a common end
This is one definition of the word conspire – in the positive sense. The Latin root of the word is to “breathe with”.
To conspire – with your horse? As a hobby etymologist (someone, who likes to understand the origin of words), I absolutely embrace this phrase.
As I have my morning coffee in the sun room and watch my dogs playing in the yard – in secret agreement that it’s now OK for the 5-month-old shepherd puppy to be a good bit bigger and stronger than the old pit bull mix, who helped raise her from the age of 6 weeks – I realize there is a deep level of connection and unity between them that goes beyond what meets the eye.
In a split-second of play, there is understanding, question and answer, fluid negotiation, all leading effortlessly to unspoken but solid agreements.
I realize that this is what we see in master riders of all walks – e.g. Egon von Neindorff or Tom Dorrance – and that we find so hard to achieve.
It goes beyond cooperation, partnership, and mastery of riding technique.
Instead, it is rooted in the rider’s willingness (the horse is always there…) to abandon all agenda, ambition, self-consciousness and vanity (including the conscious effort to ‘get it right’), reflection and inner chatter.
In that endeavor, joy is our greatest and most effective ally. The joy that comes from being truly with your horse, from humbling ourselves into a heart-felt relationship with our horse, and from abandoning a selfish perspective.
I want to invite you to truly engage in the moment and agree to CONSPIRE – WITH YOUR HORSE (breathe in unison and act in harmony toward a common end), your silent friend and the most noble of all animals.
Riding education – whether dressage, eventing, show jumping – follows a certain pattern. Once the rider develops an independent seat, is able to stay out of the horse’s mouth and does not disturb the horse in its movement, the rider learns how to “ride with back”.
Besides our rein and leg aids, there are seat (back) and weight aids. A well-educated instructor will familiarize their students with the concepts and applications of these aids in an easy-to understand format. This takes time and feel and lots of experimenting (until the ‘light bulb’ goes off…).
As riders, we need to effectively apply seat aids and control the suppleness and rigidity of our backs at will. So, our back musculature must both be strong and supple enough to support our spine and ‘do our bidding’.
“To effectively apply seat aids and control the suppleness and rigidity of our backs at will, our back musculature must be strong and supple enough to support our spine during movement ‘do our bidding’.”
Ride With Your Back!
Have you ever heard this instruction during a lesson?
What did it mean?
If we were asked to collect the horse, it meant that you should engage the ‘erector‘ muscles. These muscles straighten the spine and make you appear and feel taller.
In our illustration* to the right, these muscles are called “Rückenstrecker”. The literal translation of this German term is “back stretcher”.
* this illustration of the back muscles is from “Das Reiter ABC” by Siegfried von Haugk
Strong and Supple
Just like in the horse, where strength and suppleness must go hand-in-hand, the rider also needs to be both strong and supple.
For the back muscles, this means, enough strength to
support the spine
engage muscles as needed and maintain this engagement through movement
and enough suppleness to
relax muscles when an engaged back would bother the horse in its movement
allow other anatomical elements to maintain their independence (think independent seat)
The Rider in the images above (Alois Podhajski on Nero) demonstrates the action of the erector muscles.
On the left:
The rider has a relaxed, natural spinal posture, we clearly see the “S” shape.
On the right:
The rider now engages his erector muscles to lengthen the spine (back stretchers…). We see how the hollow of the back has now “filled out” some, because as we lengthen the spine, it becomes straighter, also visible in the shoulder area.
NOTE: When we talk about filling the small of the back, there are TWO ways to do this. A) For collection and B) for driving or encouraging forward movement. Above is an example for collection.
Stay tuned for part 2 of “The Rider’s Back” soon…
The Rider’s Back – A Precision Instrument
We must take our backs seriously. They have a profound influence on how the horse moves under saddle.
In the best case scenario, your seat is a precision instrument, enabling you to have fine-tuned communication with your horse.
In the worst case scenario, an uneducated, weak or stiff rider back (or one locked into the wrong saddle) has a detrimental effect on the horse’s well being and soundness, up to behavior issues and lameness.
For most recreational riders, it is important to understand that we are ‘somewhere in between’. We do our best but may still have situations, where our riding negatively effects our horses, usually resulting in stiffness and tension.
The good news: As riders, we are all engaged in a process of continuous improvement. Let’s stay aware and work at it! As we improve our backs and seats, our horses well being and suppleness improves!
“Life’s too short to learn how to ride right.”
Master rider & instructor Felix Bürkner
As we advance in our riding education and learn how to ‘ride with back’, we learn to use our seat aids, engage or disengage the back. We can have a collecting or driving seat.
In order to use our seat aid – our backs – effectively, we need to have both strong & supple backs.
As we develop our own riding skills, we may inadvertently cause tension and stiffness in our horse’s back.
During this learning journey, it is important to
develop our back musculature
relax and release any tension in our back muscles
do the same for our horses by ‘riding right’ and providing relief from tension & restriction
Ready to Ride with Back?
Take these steps:
Get a massage, go swimming, visit the sauna, roll on a foam roller, whatever it takes to massage the tension of stressful every day life right out of your back muscles!
From Stone Age to Rocket Age, humans have been practicing collective and individual gratitude (e.g. Thanksgiving Holiday, Thank You cards, Prayers and Offerings, etc.) and there is good reason for it: Gratitude is Good Medicine!
Gratitude is Good Medicine
Have you ever felt warm around the heart when expressing gratitude to someone? Then you did it right! That’s the kind of heart-felt gratitude that feels good to you when expressing it and to the receiver – whether human or not…
No Lip Service, please!
In our brain-centered, head-heavy world, we tend to rationalize, organize, streamline, multi-task – all brain-based ‘surface modes’ that do not get to the core of feelings. To express gratitude so that YOU & the RECEIVER FEELS IT, please let it come from the heart.
Let it come from the heart!
Try this exercise at home:
Stand in front of a mirror (or talk to your dog or an imaginary friend 😉 and say “Thank you for [fill in the blank].” How do you feel?
Now let’s try that again: Feel you heart area. Really direct your consciousness to this area. Then imagine, you heart had lips. Relax you shoulder, soften you gaze, smile a little and say (with your heart lips) “Thank you for [fill in the blank].” How was that?
In step 3, you ‘lip synch’ with your heart. If you do it right, you will feel your heart area and other parts of you body – perhaps your hands – warm and feel pleasant. This is the kind of FEELING you want to convey when expressing gratitude.
5 Ways to Show Gratitude in the Barn & Beyond
Simply say ‘Thank you for […]’ whenever you feel there is something to be grateful for. Example: I say “Thank you for providing such caring help to Regalo.” to my helper and friend Bettie – either in person or even via text! Important: You must look the person in the eye (when in person), smile, and ‘lip synch’ with your heart. Then it’s a real gift!
Leave a little note. That can be a sticky note with a smiley! Example: I have a little book that my dog walker and I use to communicate. I draw little smileys next to my thank yous and often say “I really appreciate that you….”. Find opportunities to express your thanks to others with little notes they find in unexpected places.
Share a little. Baking something? Got a little too much of something? You certainly have experienced an overabundance of something. Instead of putting it in the freezer or the cupboard, why not attach a little ribbon and a thank you note and express gratitude by sharing. You can find plenty of opportunity! Example: When I buy a big bag of Forage First horse treats, I put a few in a little bag and leave it for a helpful barn friend’s horse with a little thank you note.
Picture that! You may have a smartphone or a phone that takes pictures. These can be easily shared. Taking a picture of something someone else loves or has helped you with and sending it to them with a ‘Thank You’ is a great way to show gratitude. Example: Take a picture of your friend’s horse (“Thank you for […]. I saw your horse in the pasture and thought you’d like to this picture.”)
Book it! Accidentally bought the same horse book twice? You may have done this before, if you are like many horse people on a horse book buying binge… This book will be someone else’s treasure! Write your heartfelt thanks into the cover and give it to or leave it for your helpful barn friend.
You got this!
These are just some ideas. You know best who to thank and how to do it. Practice is key! Here some tips:
Practice heartfelt thank yous at home – you may be in ‘brain mode’ and give ‘lip service’ without realizing it!
Grow your gratitude vocabulary – create a little collection of terms and phrases that express your gratitude. Write them on a card or in a journal. Soon, they will be anchored in your gratitude tool box!
Say less – mean more! A simple heart-felt ‘Thank You’ is better than a stream of words that come from the ‘head’.
Be grateful! For everything. Food, air, your old paddock boots, a cup of Joe, fair weather, YOUR HORSE!
Hope you find this helpful. Please share this article, if you do!
After many successful rehab experiences with horses that had ‘people problems’, and 7 years of working with ‘airs above the grounds’ performer turned equine behaviorist Anita Kush, I realize that a large range of problems in the human – horse interaction can be traced back to a small set of unhelpful behaviors on part of the human.
Let’s get one thing clear: It is NEVER the horse’s fault. If we can agree on this, you may read on and may find something helpful here.
Bonding with our horse – what a wonderful and noble intention.
Not only do we want to get on, get along and understand each other, we want to forge a relationship that will be strong enough to carry us through the unavoidable moment of crisis – big or small. We want to have ‘something in the bank’ – on the trust level. This topic is rich enough to fill a book. But it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Let’s start somewhere…
Here 3 common mistakes and what to do instead:
Mistake: Constantly feed snack as reward.
Do this instead: In general (exception below) let ‘virtue be its own reward’. The exercise went well? The horse stood calmly for the farrier or while mounting? Praise in a soft voice, gently stroke the favorite spot, be a relaxing and reassuring presence for your horse. Then feed snacks out of that context of reward, for no reason at all, just to socialize.
Exception: Feeding ‘high-value’ treats (I use brown sugar cubes) to establish a certain behavior can get you ‘over the hump’ and leave more time for higher-value activities. Example: Horse learns to line himself up at the mounting block. That said, the horse should not get into the habit of constantly expecting treats after you praise him.
Mistake: Letting your horse fend for himself
Do this instead: A dominant horse is crowding your horse when you fetch her from the pasture? Your horse’s more assertive friend grabs for his feed bowl? A fellow boarder is loud and encroaches on your space in front of your horse? These and other types of situations require you to take charge. Give your horse the feeling that you are “in charge of everything” and will create a safe environment where your horse’s needs (for instance for space) are met. Be your horse’s ‘Joan of Arc’ or ‘Sir Lancelot’! This will strengthen the bond with your horse.
Mistake: Expect obedience at all cost (i.e. “don’t let him get away with it”)
Do this instead: Look at every interaction with your horse as a conversation. E.g. you want to turn left, your horse turns right. Diffuse, deflect, re-channel – never argue with your horse. In this case: Good idea, but let’s do that my way (turning right, circling around, coming at it again, repeat until desired outcome is achieved – without confrontation!). The way to bond with your horse is building obedience as a habit that is willingly built on trust – never enforced!
Exception: Dangerous behavior. Example: The horse runs over you or other humans without regard. This must stop immediately without discussion. Be decisive!
Follow this ‘recipe’ for 30 days, then let me know how you and your horse are doing.
NOTE: This article focuses on “Tempo” (the beat). Precondition for finding tempo is relaxation and RHYTHM (regularity).
Please see an article on Rhythm here.
As we follow the Olympics (or not…) or view Youtube videos of the classic ‘Pas de Deuxs’ of yesteryear or spunky dressage Freestyles of today, we may get the idea of riding to music ourselves. Not a dressage rider? Never done this before? No problem! You do not have to wear any special kind of pants to have fun with music.
For those, who have never tried this and would like to give it a shot, here some tips
1. Getting the ‘horse to move in the beat’
Hmm… this is actually not how it works. It works the other way around! Find your horse’s natural beat (Tempo) in all three gaits and certain exercises (according to your schooling level) by determining Beats Per Minute (BPM). Thanks to modern mobile technology, that’s easy with a Smartphone app such as the Android App BPM Tap. This video shows how it works.
Have someone tap the beat on the Smartphone while you ride and write down the respective bpm for trot, canter, for example.
If you prefer to take a video of your horse under rider and then determine the needed bpm on your desktop, this is the app for you: BPM Online Counter for Desktop
Here the average BPMs – your horse, depending on size and breed – may differ from this!
Walk – between 50-65 BPM
Trot – between 75-90 BPM
Canter – between 95-110 BPM
Passage/Piaffe – between 60-65 BPM
2. Determine the kind of music you like
What type of music do you like? Classical, Pop, Rock, Reggae? Dig around in your CD collection, on your MP3 player, your iTunes, record collection or on Pandora.com.
Unsure? Let your horse guide you! What type of guy or gal is your horse? Daredevil or sensitive flower? What kind of expression do you have as a pair? Serious, sense of humor, goofy, elegant? Have fun with this!
REGISTER HERE NOW: Path to Performance “Rhythm” on 10/27/19 @ AMB Stables in Larsen, WI
3. Find the songs with your horse’s BPM
Oh my! Just when we thought this was going to be easy. Here a good way to start:
Go to Equimusic.com, a free resource created by Michael Matson, creator of the “Dancing Horse Fund” or to the very comprehensive, searchable BPM Database.
Enter the desired BPM in the search field and ‘enter’ to bring up search results.
Browse the songs and listen to the song (youtube, iTunes, etc.) to develop a feel for the beat.
You can either use the suggested songs or find one with a similar beat in your own collection. In that case, double-check with your BMP tap app.
4. Create a log of suitable music per gait.
A great tool is Evernote. You may just be sitting at Starbucks and hear a song that may work for your horse’s trot, tap the beat, confirm, and want to remember that song later! Evernote will work across all your mobile and desktop devices.
5. Create a first practice routine
Motto: Keep it simple and make it short and sweet! Have fun! Just ride in the arena and experiment, then write down what your’d like to do and practice a few times.
Once your are relatively secure, have a friend time the different sequences or take a video so you can time them yourself.
6. Assign music to sequences
Decide which of your selected pieces would be fun to combine and write down your plan.
7. Be the mix master!
Purchase (if needed) the music and mix to match your routine. A useful tool I like and that is also recommend by Equimusic, is the open source application Audacity.
8. Load and go!
Load your mix on your mobile device, get the ear phones going or hook up to your arena speakers and give it a whirl!
9. Some don’ts…
Do not try and force your horse into a beat just because you like the song!
Your horse has ears, too! Heavy Metal may not be the best choice.
When it comes to speaker volume: As high as necessary, as low as possible.
Mix it up and create built-in walk breaks. Be mindful of your horse’s fitness level!
10. Last not least…
Don’t be surprised if your horse shows a side of his/her personality that you did not know yet. You will feel different and so will your horse!
Riding to music can be addictive. You will never listen to the car radio the same way!
Most of all, make this an activity you BOTH can enjoy and keep in mind that it’s easier to overdo it when you are having fun…
During my equine bodywork practice, I occasionally encounter horses with unexplained lameness or “offness”. Vet, farrier and saddle fitter have exhausted their possibilities and the owner faces their horse’s recurring unsoundness without explanation. Here, bodywork provides relief and can sometimes solve the problem “accidentally” (by releasing deep-seated tension) without knowing the cause.
More often, however, there is a missing piece in the puzzle: the horse/rider interaction or rider biomechanics and how the rider affects the horse’s soundness.
The Horse as a Riding Animal – 2 Undeniable Facts
Our vertical spine meets the horse’s horizontal spine in various levels of impact during a sequence of motions of two separate yet attached bodies and
“There is nothing natural about horse back riding”, since horses were not by nature designed to carry a rider.
To Keep a Horse Sound – 2 Inconvenient Conclusions
Yes, riding a horse implies the possibility of doing the animal harm, simply based on the biomechanical parameters and
Riding technique is a factor that can keep the horse sound or potentially make him unsound.
Rider biomechanics have been on my mind for a long time, since I am interested in anything that can improve the horse’s soundness.
This is a vast topic and I can only highlight a few aspects and hope to enthuse you for the subject.
Riding Technique & Ability
When we talk about and want to address rider biomechanics, we need to differentiate between
natural inclinations rooted in our being human (biped),
ability (flexibility and strength) and
technique (did we learn how to sit, how to ride right?).
We need to recognize our natural inclinations, hone our abilities by tuning our bodies, and perfect our technique by getting correct instruction and putting into practice.
The Biped’s Dilemma
As bipeds (beings that move upright on two feet) we often naturally move contrary to the horse’s quadruped movement. As riders, our dilemma is that what we want to do naturally – humans love to ‘push, pull, and dig in their heels’ – goes against “riding right” or staying out of the horse’s way. It is not natural to us. We – our minds and bodies – need to learn that.
As an example: The walk, the ‘easiest’ of all gaits to ride. We bipeds move our arms diagonally to the legs during the walk, meaning when our right hip moves forward, our right arm moves back. When we ride and hold the reins, we will tend to do the same: move the right hip forward, and the right arm back (even if ever so slightly). Try it on a chair! This directly counteracts the movement of the horse and means, that if we do not want to jar the horse’s mouth with every step, we need to make a conscious effort to develop an independent seat, where hip can move independently of arm.
The Slow Dismantling of “Thunder” – A Fictional Case Study
“Jane” – who has not yet developed an independent seat – rides her new horse “Thunder” – a willing and compliant horse – for several months, jarring his mouth with every step in the walk. Soon the horse develops a ‘dead mouth’, responses to rein aids get duller and duller, leading the rider to conclude the horse needs a sharper bit, especially since Thunder started rushing under saddle.
After using the sharper bit for some time – which works wonders with the ‘stoppability’ – the horse starts shortening the stride and refuses to take the right lead. He develops an unwillingness to bend in the neck and an ornery temperament. Jane and her trainer attribute this to a number of factors unrelated to Jane’s rider biomechanics and Jane continues to ride until the horse develops unexplained front leg lameness. A journey through farriers and vets begins with no result.
This is a fictitious scenario, a combination of different cases I’ve experienced. Similarities to real, living horses are merely coincidental ;-).
Discomfort, Compensation & Self-Preservation
What happened here?
Jane caused the horse discomfort in the mouth by moving like a biped on the back of this quadruped.
The horse started carrying himself in a way that compensates and allows him to avoid the discomfort as much as possible.
A whole series of self-preservation mechanisms ensue that make it difficult to understand, where the original problem lies:
How Jane & Thunder Got Here
Instead of swinging his head and neck lightly up and down during the walk, he will hold his head still, and his neck stiff, in anticipation of the next jarring feeling in the jaw.
Over time, the ‘head neck muscle’ (bracchiocephalicus) and related muscles become permanently contracted. This muscle’s job is to move the front leg forward. Through the restriction, the horse’s stride becomes shortened.
Soon the tension will expand into the upper neck musculature and muscles that are responsible for the movement of the shoulder blade (scapula). The shoulder becomes tight and unyielding.
Since the shoulder is the ‘shock absorber’ for the front legs, it now loses its function as such and the front legs have to bear most of the impact with every step. The trot becomes choppy, the strides restricted.
Discomfort and restriction leads the horse to get stiff in the neck and possibly refuse to take one lead or another.
By the time the symptoms become loud, this has been going on for a while.
Could Your Riding Be a Factor in Your Horse’s Soundness?
Often it’s hard to make the connection. It’s not easy to ask yourself ‘how could my riding be a factor’? Nevertheless, it’s the right question to ask. The answer is always YES! For all of us, even master riders!
3 Steps Toward Better Riding
Understand your “biped” nature and natural inclinations! Understand how the horse moves and what it needs!
There is an excellent website with in depth information regarding rider biomechanics here. You can also order a book on this website about the same topic.
Improve your “riding ability”, meaning flexibility and strength in the right places. Read my separate article about “The Able Rider”, improve your flexibility with daily exercise and get strong but not buffed! Yoga, Pilates, Pavel Tsatsouline’s “Strong First” and “Relax into Stretch” are great resources!
Study Riding Technique with a qualified instructor and get longe lessons to improve your seat. Caution: Incorrect instruction (unfortunately more the norm than the exception) does more harm than good. Brush up on your knowledge of classical horsemanship before committing to an instructor.
Do Little – Reap a Lot!
Even small changes in your riding can make a big difference for your horse’s soundness.
As a non-ambitious rider who doesn’t show, I have to make a conscious effort and work on my seat. Having seen quite a bit of damage to horses by unskilled (often very experienced!) riders, I am painfully aware of what my riding can do to my horse and do what I can to get guidance and feedback, to keep myself flexible and strong, so I can work on my independent seat and stay out of my horse’s way.
I hope you find this article helpful and you now feel enthused to explore the topic in more detail!