The past two months have improved my abilities at an appropriately glacial pace. Winter came, snowed, thawed then froze, then snowed, then thawed and froze again, leaving a thick layer of ice covering everything. After the glacier subsided and the mud was something less than thick enough to suck the hooves off the horses, we have been continuing on with the task of subtle repositioning in the saddle, which is much harder than it sounds.
The best way to describe it is to stand up, then pull the chest up and out, as if being drawn upwards and forwards on a string. A movement of a couple of centimetres (about an inch), and either the pelvis goes back to compensate, or one rises up onto the balls of the feet striving to maintain balance. That's how subtle the change is, and yet, Oakley responds obviously to that little amount of difference when I'm in the saddle.
As Sally Swift talks about balanced riding, I am remembering and re-discovering her explanations and advice, yet again. This time, however, it is different, because I am not so concerned with myriad other aspects of staying, quietly, in the saddle. I am now able to concentrate on my upper body because my lower body has achieved a comfortable and continuous contact with the saddle. This comes from riding without stirrups, which I began again and which I have increased again to almost an hour, including rising trot without stirrups and jumping over low obstacles.
What has happened has to do with training muscles. Without going into lengthy details, muscles contract and can go in one of two ways: either to do a single maximum effort, like a weight lifter heaving a massively laden barbell once, or repeated light effort, like a marathon runner going on and on for hours. What happens is with increased tone and specific training, my legs are staying in position for longer and longer periods, using a continuous light contraction to hold in place, punctuated with occasional increased efforts, like when I rise from the saddle, or increase the pressure to give him a signal or really increase pressure to go over an obstacle. My ability to keep my legs in place and quiet for longer and longer periods means that aspect of staying in the saddle is no longer of primary concern.
It is quite difficult to absorb and put into practice all the good advice about how to hold one's upper body when one is seriously concerned about the very real possibility of an unplanned, graceless, involuntary dismount because the horse is nervous, spooky, or excited. It is all well and good to advise riders to have 'quiet, light hands' but when the horse sticks her nose up in the air and starts to bolt, good luck getting a message through the bit with subtle twitches of the fingers that work so wonderfully when quietly doing a shoulder-in along the side of the arena.
Once that concern goes away, because even when jumping up and down, one's legs are toned enough to keep a grip, stay in contact, and stay in the right place, while the pelvic bones keep in contact with the saddle, then it becomes much easier to remember to sit upright and stay in balance. We were coming to the end of a trail ride and something made Oakley excessively eager to get back to the barn. It felt quite wonderful to simply increase the pressure of my legs, to feel them wrap comfortably around his barrel, to feel quite confident that, even though he was jittering around underneath me, that my seat felt glued into the saddle. The effect was that my signals to his mouth were independent from the need to hang on. Typically, a rider about to come off grips the reins for dear life, and any communication with the horse's mouth ceases. But in this case, my legs and pelvis were able to handle the question of staying in the saddle and so my hands were able to focus on communicating to Oakley the need to not bolt. The result was he did a lovely collected canter and and an almost piaffe that would have made a dressage judge weep with joy through the cornfield. He also calmed down very quickly and came back to behave.
My job now is to now focus on keeping my upper body soft and fluid, while remaining in good posture, no matter what we are doing. With a soft, fluid shoulder movement, I get a smoother trot, better collection going up and down hills and through draws, my release as he bascules over jumps remains lightly in contact, and I can get him back into an organized canter much faster after we land, so we're ready for the next jump. We are getting better, but the differences are subtle and hard to explain.