I'm pretty surprised that I'm making any sort of progress in my riding at all, considering how cold it's been and how much I hate to ride in the winter. However both horses are going so well that I just can't stay away from the barn. That doesn't mean I don't complain a lot though. Once I'm actually on a horse it's not that bad. It's just the driving out there, grooming, etc that sucks. It's all so much better when it's warm and sunny outside.
Anyway, as I've written before I spent quite a few weeks riding Kaswyn bareback because I was concerned about hurting his back again. I wanted to take it nice and slow and make sure he was building the muscles up in his back properly. I spent some time making sure he was stretching down in the neck so that I could get his back muscles relaxed, up, and working. There was a nice article in Dressage Today by Cesar Parra about the training pyramid and it included a diagram of how the horse should stretch into the bit but not be on the forehand. I tried to keep this picture in my mind as I rode Kaswyn at the trot and canter, and I made sure that he was still connected to my hand but was stretching and using his back.
I found this video of Cesar Parra demonstrating warming up using this kind of stretching work. The first 2.5 minutes illustrates this nicely.
Video: Cesar Parra on the Stages of the Training Pyramid
So while I was doing this work I had a lesson and my trainer cautioned me to do some collected work too so that he can begin to build some of those muscles too. So I started to use my saddle again, with a gel pad, and did some collected work. I though Kaswyn didn't feel as good as I wanted him to, and more importantly he didn't feel as solid as Albert felt.
I decided to ride Albert bareback a few times just to see what he felt like. His back felt great - very powerful and carrying. I wanted to get that same feeling in Kaswyn, but I knew that Kaswyn just moves differently and he might not ever feel that way for me.
The big light bulb moment was when I got back on Albert with a saddle. I realized that I was gripping him with my upper thighs. I never noticed it before, but now that I had ridden him bareback I could really tell. With the bareback pad there was nothing to grip onto like there was in the saddle.
I took a minute to think about what I was doing. It wasn't so much a function of "leg on" or "leg off". I could totally take my lower leg off and still be gripping with my thigh. Why was I doing this? It was not necessary, unless I didn't trust my seat and believe that I could just stay in the saddle while letting go with my legs.
One of the things that was hard for me to get the idea of when I switched from hunt seat to dressage was that I should "leave my knee open". On other words, don't grip with the knee, but use the lower leg. I was able to do that eventually, but I never let go with my thigh completely. This, I believe for me anyway, makes it hard for my seat to be flexible, and makes it static. I can't go with the horse's back as easily because my thigh has me glued to one part of the saddle.
After all this thinking, I asked Albert to trot, and then I took ALL of my leg off of him. To do this I just spread my legs apart from the hip and let my seat fall totally in the saddle like it would if I were bareback. Then I used my seat only to ride, unless I needed the leg for an aide or half-halt. After I used the leg I had to tell myself "legs apart, seat only". It was a little scary at first, because I think that thigh gripping gave me mental stability in the saddle. My mind said "You are on a horse so you have to hang on." I had to convince my mind that I could stay on without gripping. I wasn't going to fall off.
You know, my ride got pretty amazing after that. Albert was a little hesitant at first, I'm certain because he is used to feeling a little clamped by my thigh. But once he realized that I wasn't going to squeeze him there anymore, he really loosened up his back and, wowza! It was so nice. Since then he has gotten increasingly sensitive to my leg, which is great because my aids can be very subtle.
The real proof of if I could make this work would be when I got on Kaswyn. All of my bad habits scream out loudly when I ride my own horse, because I have ridden him more than I have ridden any other horse in my life. I got on Kaswyn and took my entire leg off. And he also felt wonderful. In the last few rides I've noticed, like I did with Albert, an increased sensitivity to my leg aids. I still have to remind myself, especially on Kaswyn, to keep my legs apart and not grip. But it's definitely been a change for the better in my riding.
Of course I'm saying this before I've had a chance to have a lesson. I think it feels better for me, and I think the horses feel better, but that doesn't necessarily mean that it's correct. So the real proof will be when I have a lesson. We'll see if I'm on the right track.
The Harmany Muzzle
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