To Sit or Not to Sit?

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As an equine fitness specialist, my job is always to ask how we can improve the horse’s body. One of the simplest ways we can do this in daily riding is to think about how we ride the trot: posting vs. sitting. Certain disciplines tend to prioritize one method over another, but regardless of a sport’s traditions or fads, we need to consider our force impact on the horse’s physical structure. On the whole, I see many horses’ backs suffering the effects of too much sitting trot. Gaits could be improved, muscles bloomed, and energy restored by spending more time posting.

A collaboration of U.S. and Dutch researchers recently confirmed this by using motion analysis cameras and electronic saddle pressure mats to study the effects of riders’ weight. While there is always some degree of pressure on the horse’s back when carrying a rider, forces were significantly lower during posting trot as opposed to sitting. During a lighter seat, or two-point position, forces on the horse’s back were even less. The general message here is that sitting trot creates the most impact and force on the horse’s back, while posting—and lighter seat variations—create much less.

Further, the same researchers found that the horse’s back extends more (vertebrae move away from each other) when loaded in sitting trot. During posting trot, the back flexes more. These findings validate the long-held belief by many trainers that posting trot is much better for a young horse’s back, in order to allow him to round and flex it (moving the vertebrae closer together). Posting trot should not, however, be reserved for only youngsters.

What we can derive from this research is that, even with a well-muscled and mature horse, periods of posting trot with allow him to work with a flexed back and less burden. There are indeed times to add more load or force to his workload, and spend time sitting the trot. This is also obviously necessary for developing a rider’s skills. But do not forget to intersperse these bouts with periods of posting. You will keep a horse’s gaits fresher this way and avoid having his back adopt an overly extended pattern or create hard/tight muscles from consistent force impact.

Interestingly, preliminary research has also indicated that total range of lateral bending is greater during posting trot compared to sitting trot. Further research needs to be done, but for now this might indicate that posting trot during lateral exercises may offer advantages to the horse. This thrills me, because I have felt such a difference in my own horses when, years ago, Manolo Mendez urged me to school lateral movements while posting the trot, not sitting. As a devout dressage student, I felt uncomfortable about this at first; it felt like a violation of strict dressage code—a rider MUST sit the trot during lateral movements. But when I made the switch, the improvement in my horses convinced me that posting during lateral movements was better for their backs. And now science just might be proving this true. Stay tuned for study results. In the meantime, trot on!

Taking the Glamour out of Business Travel

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Our differences began to enumerate right around the time I admitted I needed to call this kind of jet-setting work—life on the road as a clinician—something else. At first, I thought of it by the same title given to the well-heeled individuals working for big companies who occupy the luxurious seats at the front of airplanes: business travel. For the fact that they and I alike traveled to locations both wonderful and dreary to deliver our expertise, we seemed to share professional descriptions. I have since sobered up to the reality that a traveling horse trainer shares very little, if anything, with those on bona fide business travels. I guess that leaves us among a marginal group maybe best called obscure career travelers.

To start with, there is the issue of in-flight seat price and privilege. Those company men and women sit much closer to the front of the plane in seats like La-Z-Boys, placidly reclined with carbonated beverages already cupped in their smooth hands before the rest of us have wrestled luggage overhead and squished down on to our tiny cushions. By comparison, the rest of us are sweaty and frazzled. A carbonated beverage will not make its way to us without an equation of smooth air, flight duration, and benevolent attendants.

Then there is the difference of attire between the bona fide business folks and we obscure careerists. The front-of-plane folks, making their way to fancy meeting rooms instead of dusty arenas, appear as buffed and clean as mannequins. Everything about them looks pressed, tidy: shirts fronts, hairstyles, cuticles, handbags. In contrast, my finest work outfit, consisting of jeans, polo shirt, and paddock boots looks unkempt. And while it was crisp clean when I took it from the closet that morning, my jacket usually bears several horse slobber streaks from a quick stop at the barn en route to airport. My paddock boots have lost the ability to hold a shine when polished, and I would not know the first thing to do with a designer handbag.

When I was growing up, I often watched my mom swing her suitcase in to the trunk of her car and head off to teach at stables around New England imagining the glamour of her excursions. I thought about the novelty and energy of each new location, how her life on the road seemed so exotic. My childhood imagination put it on par with being a traveling performer of sorts. I assumed my mom, like the business travelers I wrangle my suitcase past looking serene and content in their on-board La-Z-Boys, was wined and dined every night. I figured she slept on silky sheets after working all day with courteous students.

It turns out I misidentified the glamor in my mom’s travels. She herself was an obscure career traveler, meaning that, as I do today, she slept in strangers’ basements, barns, and an uncanny number of sheds. She drank coffee, occasionally palatable and accompanied by food, and then walked out to an arena to spend all day on her feet teaching a rainbow of personalities. Eventually, she got to put her suitcase back in the car and come home. She showed up looking pensive, exhausted. And her weariness, I have discovered, did not come from staying up too late in a fancy hotel room surfing entertainment options. It came from swatting away the smelly barn dog nosing her legs under the host’s dinner table, from endless hours on her feet and breathing arena dust, from feigning politeness through fatigue, from navigating students’ moods: grouchiness, emotional bursts, distractedness.

All these years later, I can see my mom’s—and now mine—career for what it truly was: incredibly hard, often gratifying, but decidedly not fancy. Perhaps the airline industry has not yet thought of this, but I would like to propose a new seating section for those of us who desperately need to get off our feet and hold a cold beverage before everyone else. Right behind the big comfy recliners up front, I want to see a few rows of seats for those of us with a few wrinkles in our trousers and very rough cuticles. Bring on the obscure business traveler seating area.

Relax, I’m Just Trying to Praise You

 

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This particular student cooed “good boy” between a few slurping kiss noises for nearly half a circle before hearing my instruction to carry on with things. By carry on, I meant to get back to the point of what we were doing. The student had nearly achieved it when she folded over the horse’s neck and began praising him in a classic example of what I call the Praise-Flog Equation. This is where riders praise their horses, often without warrant, while constantly flogging themselves to higher standards. It makes for a tricky instructional setting.

When I tell these students they have done a nice job, they insist, no, it stunk. When I laud them “good, good” they grimace and insist it was not good. They maintain such unreachable standards for themselves that sometimes I can’t tell if they actually enjoy riding or not. And yet towards their horses they accept quite little effort for big praise. I have found myself wondering if they praise their children for the mere thought of going to school but not for actual attendance. But I digress.

Earlier in my career, it seemed like part of my job requirements as a teacher were to understand this incongruence of expectations for rider versus horse, to figure out these complex psychological riddles. I tried to puzzle through students’ disjointed, confusing mind states. I won’t claim I excelled, but I tried. It did not take long to admit that we horse trainers are not adapted for psychological ponderings. We are very ill-suited to getting inside—and understanding– other human beings.

Normally, I assume that since riders hire me to teach them certain things, they want to learn these things. But then right at the moment I am urging them towards a specific feeling or cue, a Praise-Flog student will abort a potential ahah! moment by throwing down her reins to praise her horse for something that might have, but did not, happen. Or as I am verifying the accuracy of her techniques with positive feedback, she will sputter and spew at me that she is not possibly getting things right. As I assure these riders prone to the Praise-Flog equation that, yes they are doing well, I am dismissed even more. As a young professional, I spent a good deal of time standing in the center of the arena confused. Why was this student harrumphing at me when I, the professional, told her something positive? And yet when I told her to expect a little more from her horse, she looked at me like I was a heartless ogre.

Trying to un-spool this incongruence of expectations can lead an instructor to consider a whole slush pile of inner workings. Is this student aiming some mis-placed frustrations at me from elsewhere in her life? Is she compensating for a feeling of inadequacy? As I said, entertaining these sorts of reflections sends a horse trainer in to realms that he or she is not meant for. We end up standing around confused quite a bit of the time. We are trying to read through a student’s scowl to determine if she is heeding our instruction or wishing we would go away. And, truth be told, we are trying to work our way in to that Praise-Flog equation to get ourselves a helping of gushing, satisfying praise each day. Now, if we can just figure out how to understand the inner workings of other humans.

How Pretty do You Ride?

 

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In that moment, it did not feel like the kind of dressage test to be proud of. In fact, it was more the type that tempted me to run and hide in my trailer afterwards. The young horse had been a bundle of angst-filled tension all the way through our final salute. She punctuated a few decent movements with loud whinnying and high-headed glances outside the arena. We drove home disappointed by the onslaught of show nerves she experienced and hoping nobody at the barn asked me how things went.

When I got home and read the judge’s comments, though, I felt a flicker of pride. For as marred as many of our moments in the test were, the judge’s impression offered the kind of feedback that validates and fulfills trainers. Under the Rider evaluation in the Collective Scores, the judge underlined “effectiveness of aids” and beside it wrote an exclamatory “yes!”. In other words, even in the midst of my horse trying to meltdown, my aids had been effective in guiding her to the best possible performance. I beamed. Years of priority shifting just culminated in those comments.

In my early 20s, a coach with a barbed delivery told me that I had taken too many equitation lessons, that I needed instead to work on getting results from my horse. I spent more time focused on the position of my leg than whether my horse responded to its cues. She said dressage riders can be pretty riders or they can be effective riders. In her assessment, I was picture pretty but fairly ineffective. I worked so hard to keep my hands quiet and my back straight that often I did not feel the horse’s subtle shift in balance or attitude under me. And sometimes, she pointed out, I hesitated to to influence my horse with a big aid because I did not want to wobbly out of my textbook posture, so I was missing moments to improve my horse’s training.

I disputed the coach’s remarks, lobbying for the belief that a rider can be simultaneously elegant and effective. This coach might have been talked in to agreement but not to the acceptance that I was that such rider. In all fairness, she had a point. In an industry where trainers are constantly scrutinized by those watching, it is easy to fixate on looking good because to some extent our living depends on it. When a trainer gets on a horse, even one with scores of problems that need to be worked out, the lookers-on begin to analyze what they see. Whether or not they are privy to the training issues being addressed, those leaning against the arena fence begin to form an assessment based largely on how good things look, but maybe not on how influential and effective the session is. They note that the trainer’s upper body is leaning forward or maybe his heels are up or he holds his reins a little wide.

There is a pervasive belief in dressage that if a rider sits perfectly in balance and aligned, the horse will move and perform as it should. Granted, there ARE times this is the case, and this belief does hold a lot of merit. However, there are ample times when it is not the case. When a rider prioritizes herself (position,alignment) over feeling and responding to the horse, it can lead to ineffective riding. This is not to say it is bad riding, just not influential. Our challenge as riders lies in mastering both elegance and effectiveness.

All those years ago, I chafed at the notion of being elegant but not fully effective. Then I started to pay attention to the moments during lessons and training that supported it. I began to notice times when my horse’s performance would be vastly improved if I were to move out of my posture for a moment for an aid. For instance, I sometimes needed to allow my leg to move out of textbook alignment in order to get my point across to a horse. Or I needed to incline my body forwards or backwards to clarify a cue when a horse was plodding along becoming dull. When lookers-on were gathered, though, I found myself reticent to make these big, less-than-perfect moves in the saddle, not wishing to deal with a student’s analytical commentary afterwards.  Eventually, of course, I got over this and began prioritizing my influence from the saddle as much as my dressage alignment. Purposeful riding necessitates this.

The goals of classical riding remain the same as they have always been: ride as quietly and softly as possible with your aids coming from a balanced and aligned position. But when you’re in a training role, your responsibility also includes guiding the horse to his best performance every moment which sometimes includes a quick and clear, not-so-elegant aid in order to carry on in a beautiful manner. For me, the aesthetic pleasures of dressage are the real joy of this sport. And yet I have also learned the deep satisfaction of being plain old ‘effective.’

A Horse With One Speed

Every once in a while a horse comes along that reminds me about something important: a few steeds, despite the best training attempts, are best suited to a certain discipline. While most horses are capable in my opinion of dabbling in all kinds of skills, there are a few proverbial square pegs in the herd for whom any job outside the one they were meant for causes them annoyance. And it always seems like I rediscover this tiny percentage of equine athletes during moments of humility, during that oh-yeah-that’s-right moment of recalling that not every creature feels the same fondness for dressage tedium as I do.  Indeed, for some horses, the methodical and alleged harmonious benefits of dressage have resulted in bug-eyed head tossing. Or nervous jitters. These were the ones who made me concede they might be better suited for something else. But who knew what that something else might be? Thus begins the journey of emptying bank accounts on new equipment and trainers while surfing through other sports hunting for the elusive fit.

Then there are horses like Serafina. From the moment I laid eyes on this wiry chestnut Arabian mare tied to the trailer last week, I suspected that she was a firecracker. She was not the doe-eyed calm spirit typically seen snoozing in the aisle of a dressage barn.  Or the low-headed Western mount with eyelids at half-mast. Or even the kids’ spunky gymkhana horse with excess energy. No, Serafina came across in those initial moments as wise, charged up, and set in her ways. What exactly her ways were we had yet to find out. But I had a hunch that she couldn’t be bothered to care about my dressage language of half-halts and flexion and so on.

Let me clarify that I had borrowed Serafina from one of my competitive trail riding students for the purpose of competing in the Ride and Tie championships, which is a race involving teams of two runners plus one horse leap-frogging down the trail (www.rideandtie.org). In a nutshell, it’s a little nutty. I told my student I needed a horse with stamina, a little bit of speed, and a whole lot of sanity. She sent Serafina to the event for me, giving me no special instructions beyond the vague disclosure that Serafina did not like to ride behind other horses. With nothing else to go on, we saddled up the little mare for a practice ride.

After five minutes of being throttled around in the saddle atop a bouncing gait that more resembled a dolphin in high excitement than a horse being ridden, I thought my student’s descriptions of Serafina might have lacked substantial detail. We were at that moment nowhere near another horse, much less behind one and yet the mare was high-headed and turbo-charged as I was asking her to settle in to a calm walk. It rattled me to consider that this might actually be her good behavior and that we had not yet seen her in the amped up state she was capable of behind other horses.

I tried a few dressage-like attempts to quiet her down. My spine resembled a reed in stiff wind as she jigged and pranced and twisted her neck sideways, then up in front of us like a serpent.  I rode a few circles. I gave several exaggerated half-halts. Then I gave stronger ones. Then I administered a Hail Mary yank on the reins that in no manner resembled dressage. Regardless of which aids I gave, Serafina didn’t seem to notice or care much about that nice calm walk I was after. Meanwhile, I tried everything I knew to determine if, in the presence of other high-strung horses flying down the trail, we would survive to see the end of the ride. My answer at that point was probably not. Having gained this clarity, I asked Serafina for a high-speed trot across a wide meadow in order to assume a two-point position and relieve my joints from the jarring they were enduring.

Adopting a raggedy flopping posture of standing in the stirrups with the reins choked up good and short and my back hunched over like an invalid, I scanned our surroundings for any wildlife that might leap from the pampas grass and startle my high-speed mount. In that instant I realized all the scanning and rein-tension was entirely unnecessary. I noticed that Serafina—bizarrely—felt like an orb of Zen-like calmness under me. Her ribcage felt relaxed and swinging, her neck was softly arched. Since launching to high speed at my request, her temperament had puddled in to a state of total focus and peace. Her mood was palpable, and joyous. She charged down the trail bending left and right as narrow trees necessitated, adjusted her balance for the down hills (her balance, mind you, not her speed), and startled at absolutely nothing. Aside from our raw speed, she was a pleasure to ride. An absolute delight of willingness, confidence, and sure-footedness.

Just to make sure none of this was a fluke and that I was calling a few more shots than the horse, I asked Serafina to stop. Right on cue, she halted and stood still at the edge of the meadow near some trees. Then I asked her to fly again, which she did without hesitation. Again, I asked her to stop a little further on. Once more she stood quietly until I gave her the nod to run with abandon. This was how the little firecracker mare and I found common language. It’s also how she won my heart. Without knowing it initially, we had borrowed this hot mare to do exactly the sport she was born to do! We would unleash all of the strengths that had most likely annoyed and pummeled previous riders trying to use her for disciplines requiring measures of moderation and grace.

She was a horse with a single speed and that speed happened to be a bit excessive. Sometimes with horses like her, riders get frustrated and sour. Luckily, we had borrowed Serafina to do an event that capitalized on her natural preferences. For the Ride and Tie championships, we needed one speed—fast. We also needed an obedient horse that would stop and stand tied to a tree when swapping runners, which Serafina obliged easily. Over a competitive field of teams, little Serafina—a total rookie horse to this sport—took 10th place at least week’s Ride and Tie championships. Her expression at the end of 35 hard miles: bliss. As I massaged her hamstrings and praised her, I let her know how impressed I was by her performance. I also whispered in her ear how grateful I was that I had not borrowed her for a stuffy dressage event.