Enjoy the Ride: Confidence at the Faster Gaits

I get questions about going faster without bouncing--trotting, cantering, loping, galloping--and realize that novice riders are often intimidated by faster gaits, not realizing that riding the trot or canter on a calm, well-trained horse is fun and relaxing, even exhilarating.

Part of learning to ride comes from spending time in the saddle but plenty of riders spend hours in the saddle without really learning the one simple thing that will make it enjoyable to ride: moving with the motion of the horse. riders can ride for years and even appear pretty accomplished while they constantly resist and tense up against the horse's motion. We do this instinctively. A normal reaction is to resist the unfamiliar motion of the horse, just like when we first stand on skis or skates or a skateboard. We stiffen, and until we learn to relax and ride we are going to fall.
That natural reaction to stiffen on a horse causes us to bounce and lose our balance. It also causes us to bang the horse in the mouth, clutch with our legs do all sorts of things that makes it very hard for the horse to listen to us.

Learning to move with the motion of the horse, allowing your body to absorb and go with the motion, is essential to riding in balance and comfort--or to ride well at a high level. This takes the ability to sit in balance with a neutral pelvis, breathe with the diaphragm, and relax while allowing your horse to move you. If you resist the motion you will be unbalanced and uncomfortable; both you and your horse can suffer back pain. Go with the motion and it's pleasurable and fun.

1. Neutral Pelvis, the key to Balancing through your Skeleton: Riders move with the horse's motion by learning to balance through their skeleton and move fluently in the low back and hips. Balancing through the skeleton means you are balanced upright over your seat bones and your spine is flexible, the muscles toned but not tense. Movement can go through you from pelvis to head. You are leaning neither forward or back and your pelvis is in neutral. To find your neutral pelvis sit on a flat stool or bench and put your fingers under your seat bones. Round your low back, bringing your tail bone closer to the bench. Feel how your seat bones change shape. Next arch your low back and feel how your seat bones move. Now slowly round and arch your low back, finding the place where it is neither rounded nor arched. This is your neutral pelvis and the beginning of skeletal balance. You will need to be able to arch and round your back as you ride, without staying in either position. This not only keeps you balanced but wards off low back pain from riding with a tense back. Breathing from your center will help keep the pelvis and low back soft and centered around neutral.

2. Belly Breathing: Breathing with the diaphragm helps keep us balanced and supported by the big muscles attached to our pelvis and low back. Try this simple inquiry into whether you are a chest or belly breather. Lie on your back on a firm surface on the floor. Without changing anything, bring your attention to the movement of your torso as you breathe. Put one hand on your chest and the other on your lower belly, below your belly button. Which moves more? Now, find your belly button and put three fingers, horizontally and flat on your abdomen below it. At the bottom edge of your fingers, about half way between belly button and pubic bone is your center. Lay one hand over this area and breath, focusing on pushing out so your hand rises on the in breath and falls on the out breath. Can you allow your chest to remain still as you do this? Can you let your lower back stay long and sink into the floor as your belly rises? As you gain the feeling of breathing from your center, practice it as you walk around or do daily chores. Breath from your center when you ride your horse--first practicing at the halt and walk. Maintain this at the canter and you'll find you begin to stay with the canter rhythm.

3. Dance Partner: Relaxing into the horse's motion while maintaining a toned but relaxed posture is essential for moving with the horse. It takes time to learn this, just as it takes time to learn to lead or follow a dance partner well. First make sure you are upright but relaxed and moving with the horse at the walk. Can you detect the motion of your seat bones when the horse steps onto each hind leg? Your hips should feel like they are rotating one at a time as if pedaling a bicycle backwards. Each time the horse steps onto a hind leg your hip on the same side will come up. You legs must stay relaxed and hanging along the horse's sides. At the canter you need the same mobility of the hips and relaxed thighs and legs.

Taking lunge lessons on a horse that is well balanced and will canter on the lunge in a smooth rhythmic pace gives novice riders a safe, comfortable way to learn. Have an experienced friend or trainer lunge you at the canter on a well-trained, quiet lunge horse that easily goes into the canter and easily trots or walks from the canter. Start with only a few strides of the canter, allowing your horse to move you and allowing your body to stay relaxed. Focus on your breathing and allowing your pelvis to move with the motion of the horse while your hip, knee, and ankle joints are relaxed. You have to learn to identify where you hold tension and how to let it go so the motion of the horse can go up your spine. If you can identify areas of tension, continue breathing into your belly and allow these areas to let go.

If, when you ride, you are riding with tension in your body, not allowing yourself to be moved by the horse's motion, your brain doesn't learn to send the messages to your muscles to move with the horse and you end up reinforcing tension, bracing and imbalance in body and brain. But we can change natural responses to the horse's motion by challenging ourselves in small increments, slowly learning to "go with" rather than resist.

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