Cider is My Thigh Master

The past two weeks I did not ride at Debbie's stable at all, which means that I did not get a lesson and I did not get to ride with the double bridle.

I have been able to ride Cider, thank goodness.

Cider is so stiff now, and she often flinches when a fore foot lands and carries her weight, especially down the slope in the ring. Because of her stiffness and sore fore legs Cider tends to twist this way and that way trying to get comfortable (or maybe it is to inspire me to get off and leave her alone!) Obviously my method of riding a pure Forward Seat is not working for her now so I am riding her a lot more with my thighs/lower legs.

And I realize why I did not automatically go to dressage for my handicapped riding experience, it is a lot of work for me. I get exhausted rapidly.

As usual I start off going up the minor slope at a walk on loose/sagging reins. With my alternating lower leg I ask her to bring her hind leg on that side further forward so that she extends her stride. But then we come to where the slope is downhill. Last week she did not flinch much uphill or across the level areas, but downhill she ALWAYS flinches.

This is where I start my thigh workout.

In order to coax Cider to bend her hocks just a little bit more so that she can start transferring some of her weight off her forehand, I have to use my leg when her barrel comes out to meet it, this is when the hind leg on that side lands and moves to where it carries some weight. On horses who are less stiff than Cider I can do this using only my lower leg. But on Cider I have to stiffen my whole leg, making it a barrier that limits the sideways movement of her barrel. This is when I have to start using my thigh muscles, not much but it tires me out quickly. Alternating my thighs makes my workout even more intense, and I have to pay close attention to make sure I do all of this at the right time in her stride.

That usually does work to stop Cider's flinches while walking down the slope. Sometimes I also use the diagonal rein, just tweaking my little finger, at first to confirm what I am asking for, but after a minute or two Cider does not seem to “need” the rein signal to give me what I want.

Then when we come to the relatively level parts of the ring Cider's spine is still all twisted up. One side or the other of her spine and ribs press up against my upper thighs. When I use my upper thigh when her back pushes against it, when my seat bone on the side goes UP, I use my upper thigh to try and persuade her to keep her spine straighter. Of course I have to alternate, but depending on our direction and if we are in a curve or not, I cannot use both thighs with the same strength, one side of her spine is always stiffer. All this time I am also using my lower legs to keep her moving or down slope to get her hocks to bend, with a few rein aids just when I need them to get my point across.

I have to stop and rest often. I work for a nice, soft halt, and I loosen the reins. This gives me a chance to practice my “rider's push-up/vertical far exercise safely. Right now I am having to pay attention to my lower legs so that they do not swing back. If they swing back I have to use yet another muscle in my thigh, the rectus femoris, the big muscle at the front of my thigh. Usually Cider is right next to Shannon, and since Shannon is telling her what a good girl she is Cider puts up with my gyrations with grace and patience.

By the end of thirty minutes I am just wrung out. I have to ask Shannon to press my knee into the saddle so I can dismount, otherwise I am just too weak to get off. Yes, Cider is my thigh master, riding her I don't have to spend hundreds of dollars to get a piece of equipment that targets my thighs, they are getting quite the workout on Cider's back, all at the walk.

A box full of horse books reappeared from the pile of boxes that hold my husbands business stock. I dove into it gleefully. It is full of books on dressage, some good and some not so good. But there is one REALLY GOOD dressage from that box that I've been reading.

“The Bit and the Reins” by Gerhard Kapitzke, with the subtitle “Developing Good Contact and Sensitive Hands” has the best presentation I've run into in print of how good, sensitive dressage riders use the bridle to communicate with the horse. He has a 24 page discussion on using a proper lunging cavesson (with a description of the best type of lunging cavesson) and how to use it to further the horse's education and understanding. I can no longer lunge a horse, but it is still a good read on that subject.

The meat of the book is 8 chapters about the bit, the reins, and the horses hands. Now, if I had a horse that I had trained from the beginning, there is no way in hell that I would allow a competitive dressage rider up on his back. In fact I would never allow a dressage rider who mainly rides with the horse behind vertical up on my own horse. I consider such riding to be ineffective and frequently brutal. However if a dressage rider came to me trained in the dressage school this book represents, I would have no hesitation about that person riding my horse. I might have some quibbles about details, but this type of riding is what I used to fantasize about when thinking about riding dressage.

Gerhard Kapitzke emphasizes that “the play between the hands and the horse's mouth is similar to a conversation between friends.” (page 57, picture caption.) He spends whole chapters on different bits, different head gear, how to use the equipment, and on the rider's contact with the horse's mouth.

Very few dressage books really impress me. This book is definitely superior to every other discussion on lunging, bits, bitting, bridles and contact that I've read in other dressage books. If you are a yank and spur dressage rider you won't find anything supporting you in this book. If you, on the other hand, have light responsive hands you will be going--”yes, Yes, YES!”

Have a great ride!

Jackie Cochran

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