In this article I look at the importance of being able to feel our horse’s footfall and follow his natural rhythm with our body. We will start off looking at the walk, as what we learn in a walk we can carry over into the trot and subsequently the canter.
We all know that the first 2 clauses on the celebrated Scale of Training are Rhythm and Relaxation (sometimes translated as Looseness). These clauses come way before contact , impulsion, straightness and collection, but we seldom spend enough time striving to achieve these 2 primary goals for horse, let alone for ourselves!
I see so many horses constantly nagged to walk faster, either with our legs…kick, kick, kick (either intentionally or accidentally) or by, what I can only assume, is meant to be a driving seat, when the riders stomach has a sort of wave like motion that is totally at odds with the horses’ gait.
The walk is a four-beat gait with no moment of suspension. You should be able to hear each hoof separately touch the ground. The most common error about how horses move is in thinking he begins walking by moving a front foot. He does not. Actually the hind foot (which hasn’t yet come off the ground) has to push the horse forward so that he loses his balance and reaches forward with a front leg to catch himself and re-establish his equilibrium. The sequence of strides for a walk, for example, might be left hind, left fore, right hind, right fore. Watching the horse, you’ll see the left front foot lift off the ground even though the left hind hasn’t left the ground yet. Still it is the left hind which is in action first, pushing the horse out of balance. The left front foot is moving forward ahead of the left hind because the left hind foot is going to over-stride the hoof print of the left fore. The left fore must get out of the way of the left hind or it will be struck (forging) or it could “scalp” the coronet band of the hind foot. Each hoof affects the horses’ back, with the result that there should be more movement in the horse’s back at a walk than at any other gait.
To follow the horse’s back at the walk you must have a deep, flexible and receiving seat. Your balance and freedom of movement have a direct affect on the quality of your horse’s walk. If you are tense or have a rigid seat you will restrict the “schwung” of those long back muscles. If you have an over-active seat, you will block the horses’ natural movement. A horse with a long, swinging stride at a walk needs to be nurtured. All too frequently our horse’s walk has been ruined and it is only by going back to the basics of rhythm and relaxation, the walk can be improved.
Ideally, the following exercise is best done on a lunge, but that assumes you have an experienced friend who is able to help you. If you haven’t got a friend who can lunge you, you can still do the exercise but having a helper to call the foot fall is beneficial.
After mounting your horse, cross your stirrups in front of the saddle and check that your 2 seat bones are level and that the flabby part of your thighs has been pulled out of the way. Allow your upper body to extend upwards from your centre at the same time as letting your legs drop down and around your horse from the same place. Breathe into your abdomen and relax. Now imagine you have no legs below your lower thigh and see if it helps your thighs soften and drop. Now you should have progressed from two little spots of weight on the horse’s back to offering him a wide band of weight that include your the buttocks, seat bones and thighs.
With your body and hips relaxed and freely balanced it should be easy to follow your horse’s motion. If you can feel more movement with one bottom cheek, then you aren’t centred and your seat bones aren’t equal. Check that the rim of your hat is parallel to the top rail of the school and check that your elbows are the same level, readjust your thighs as needed. Then begin to allow your buttocks to follow the hind feet. When the right hind touches the ground and the horse starts to put weight on that foot his back will rise and lift your right buttock. As his left hind leg swings forward his back on that side will drop and the rib cage will swing inwards. Pay attention to one buttock at a time. Feel each lift and drop. Notice the constant movement of your hip joints caused by the rise and fall of your legs following the horse’s shoulders. Feel and follow the movement. Have a friend call NOW as the inside hind comes off the ground and moves forward. See if you can tell when it moves. As you start to relax and get in to your horse’s rhythm notice how your horse’s walk extends.
Another exercise to help you with these receiving sensations is to stretch one arm straight up by your ear, with your fingers pointing towards the sky, whilst the rest of your body drops below. Either hand will do, just change hands when your arm gets tired. (This exercise really helps loosen the lower back and hip joints). Feel how your buttock slides forward, leg drops, etc. If you let your horse move your seat bone he will walk freely and the rhythm and purity of the stride will improve. If you lock your hips, not allowing the slide he will slow down or even stop. At the other extreme if you drive him forward, he may go but with tension and resistance!