I have been stuck in my house this past week because of the snow and ice that fell earlier this week. Unable to get to the stable and ride I have had to content myself with reading my horse books, a poor substitute for the real thing to be sure, but better than nothing, especially since I have some position faults that I still need to fix.
The past few years Debbie, my riding teacher, has been yelling at me to raise my head and stop looking at the ground. I would get into the two-point position, Debbie would yell at me to get my head up, I would try raising my head, my neck would stiffen, pain would radiate down my back, and my whole position would stiffen up and I was no longer in unity with my horse's motion. Then my head would look down which relieved the pain in my back but would completely ruin my position. I could not seem to figure out HOW to get my head right and ride pain free. I did not have this problem decades ago. However I have noticed that ever since I started riding again that if I saw a picture or video of a person in a bad position I would replicate their faults in my riding, and in the past few years I have seen A LOT of pictures of people looking down at the crest of their horse's necks, people riding dressage, western, and hunt seat. So Debbie keeps yelling at me about my head and I keep on suffering.
So during this week of enforced inactivity I decided to concentrate on what equestrian authors wrote about the rider's head. Surprisingly there is not that much written on this important part of the rider's anatomy. Most of the dressage writers speak of the importance of keeping the head balanced on top of the erect spine, however many of these same authors recommend looking BETWEEN the horse's ears to keep the head in the proper position. When I look between my horse's ears my head inclines downward to the front, my back develops a hump, I feel like I am driving my horse's forehand into the ground, and Debbie yells at me. Mia is not very happy with me either. And my head most definitely is not balanced on top of an erect spine!
Finally, in Sergei's Kournakoff's "School for Riding" I found something that should help me. On page 30 he writes
" Legs back....Heels down....Hands low....Back straight....And a new thing--head straight with the profile vertical. This is very important, because a head which is bent to one side makes the spine crooked, and a head which is held too low makes the back round. A head which is kept too high stiffens the whole body."
I had never thought of keeping the profile of my face vertical, in fact my attention was everywhere else, not on my face. When I ride in two-point my head tends to look down and when I lift it after I am in two-point my whole neck stiffens. So lacking a horse I practiced standing on the ground, going between a pretend two-point position and an erect spine, concentrating on keeping my face's profile vertical as I moved the angle of my upper body. My neck remained relaxed and supple, the movement was smooth, and pain did not radiate down my back. I also noticed that my front to back balance improved and I no longer felt like I was diving head first into the ground.
After studying what Kournakoff wrote a few minutes I vaguely remembered reading something like it in one of my dressage books. Diving yet again into my dressage books I finally found the passage I remembered. In Alois Podhajsky's "The Complete Training of Horse and Rider" on page 213 he writes
"The head should be carried with a firm but not stiff neck. The chin should be slightly drawn back. It should not be pushed forward and the head should not look down. The result of this would be a round back which would disturb the balance and and annul the back aids. The rider should look straight forward OVER the ears of his horse (emphasis added.) If the rider looks down when he gets absorbed in his work, he would lean his head forward and drop his chin."
And on page 229 he writes
"The instructor should see that the rider's head is carried with the chin slightly drawn back. A man can walk straight by keeping his eye on a mark ahead, in the same way he will be able to ride his horse straight...if he keeps his head up and his eyes on a mark straight in front. As the rider progresses in training and becomes more absorbed in his work, he will be inclined to look down at his horse's ears, a fault that will make it more difficult to keep straight and have a bad influence on the balance of the rider as well as on the application of his aids."
And you know what? The majority of the pictures in Podhajsky's book show riders with the profile of their faces vertical, looking straight ahead OVER the horse's ears and not with the faces slanted downward looking down onto the horse's ears, contrary to what I see in so many of the modern dressage books. In Podhajsky's books I see several riders with erect backs (no humps between the shoulders) and forward looking eyes, on horses with the weight transferred correctly to the hind quarters and who have the polls as the highest point of their bodies. AND none of the horses carry their heads behind the vertical either. I am now wondering if the dressage riders, by looking down to the horse's ears, are hopelessly handicapping their horses and PREVENTING THE HORSES FROM MOVING PROPERLY, by driving the horse's forehand into the ground. Of course all these photographs are from the 1940's and 1950's, and they are nothing like modern competition dressage horses and riders. Maybe, just maybe, it is the RIDERS whose faces' profiles sould be vertical, not the horses!
This is a widespread problem nowadays, in fact as far as the riders are concerned it is the biggest change I've seen in position from when I started riding over 40 years ago. Back then riders were always taught to look ahead, and except for brief glances were never allowed to look down onto their horse's necks, heads or ears. I find it amazing the differences in rider's positions that come from looking BETWEEN the horse's ears rather that OVER the horse's ears. When the riders look between the horse's ears their heads look like they are bowed in prayer, the riders look like they have humps between their shoulders and often (not always) the riders have to ride with POUNDS of pressure on the horse's mouth in order to feel secure in the saddle.
At least now I have hope. My body seems to have no difficulty with the idea of keeping the profile of my face vertical and seems to be able to do it easily no matter what the rest of my position does. Now all I have to do is stop riding the horse's neck which drives the forequarters into the ground and look forward which gives the horse all the room it needs to move its forequarters properly, forward and upwards. Debbie might even stop yelling at me about my head! I am also sure that Mia will move better under me. And hopefully my back will stop hurting too.
Have a great ride.