Really. It turns out that a good way to think about riding is to think about riding a bicycle. Especially jumping, but dressage, too. I was warming up last Wednesday, when J.H. commented to one of the students in the class that was just finishing up, that they needed to look up, not at the jump (a problem I struggle with) and used the analogy that one does not look at the wheel of one's bicycle when riding, one looks ahead, down the street and guides the bicycle around whatever dangers lie ahead.
It is a fact that one can hear the same advice dozens of times, in dozens of different ways, yet not get it until two factors coincide viz., that one has acquired and integrated enough knowledge to be ready to absorb said advice, and that whoever presents said advice does so in a way that somehow connects. In this case, the fact that I need to keep my head up has been one aspect of jumping that I've consistently failed to do. I keep looking at the jumps, Oakley keeps skidding to a stop in front of them. I no longer leave the saddle in a a spectacular somersault, because my legs have finally (!) become strong enough to grip and not come off, but he still hesitates given the slightest excuse, and I give him lots of excuses. Which is not to say that he doesn't balk even when I'm doing everything right, maintaining my position, head up, in balance, legs pressing against his side to the point where if I'm wearing spurs my heels hurt. No, he balks anyway, but his tendency is vastly decreased when I'm properly positioned in the saddle and definitely increases when I look down at the jump.
What makes this analogy so pertinent for me, is that a lot of the time I spend riding my bicycle, I am actually imagining riding a horse. So when I approach the curb between the road and the bicycle lane, there is a bump, and I imagine myself riding my horse over a jump. (I also wonder how cool it would be if I could ride my horse to work instead of my bike, but, well, it's the 21st Century and I'm in downtown Toronto.)
Anyway, the idea that I should ride my horse like a bike was like a light bulb in my brain. I picture myself riding a bike uphill, and that effort mirrors the effort to keep my calves pressing against his side as we approach the jump. The only difference being the motion of my legs, or, more accurately, non-motion of my legs. Instead of pedalling, I press against his sides, but the physical effort of getting a bike uphill and getting a horse 'uphill' i.e. collected, with his hindquarters tucked underneath him, lighter on his forelegs, and with his head tucked down yet not pulling on the bit, getting a horse like that requires my legs pressed into his sides for as long as I'm riding him. Even when I'm not applying any force, I still need to have my calves in contact and steady against his side. This is every bit as hard as riding a bicycle uphill.
Then the question of looking ahead. Whether doing flatwork or jumping (which I have heard accurately described as 'Flatwork with obstacles') it is vitally important to be looking ahead, and especially not down at the horse. There are two main reasons for this, first because dropping the head forward changes the weight distribution of my body on the horse, and can add about 5 Kg of force in front of the horse's centre of balance. This makes it that much more difficult for any horse to keep in balance while keeping collected. This is why so many of the "great" modern dressage riders have to haul the horse's head in using so much hand and arm strength to force the horse into a frame: because they look down at what the horse is doing instead of up and where the horse is going. The second reason is because my horse, like all horses, can actually see my head and see where I'm looking and naturally directs his attention to what I'm looking at. So if I'm looking down immediately to the front, if I'm looking at the jump, he can see that, and, being a horse, naturally assumes that I'm looking there because there is some danger there. Being a horse, he naturally shies away from danger. I take cold comfort in the knowledge that even riders who are competing at the highest levels also make this same mistake, with the predictable results that they drop poles and knock down fences, and take hard tumbles, if their horses don't simply refuse outright.
So, when I picture myself riding a bicycle, naturally, I'm unconcerned whether the wheel is going to negotiate the curb, or whether I'm going to run into a hole in the pavement, as long as I've noted the obstacle and have steered clear, my attention is focused on, and so my head is up and looking at, what's ahead and where I'm going. A similar analogy that I've heard is like driving, for the same reason: one does not look at where one is, one looks ahead to where one is going. But the analogy of the bicycle somehow clicked in my head better than driving. Consequently, in the past couple of days, as I go around a course, or do my dressage work, I keep coming back to the image of riding a bicycle uphill. The sense of effort keeps my legs in place against his side. The focus on where I'm going instead of where I am keeps my head up and chest out and torso erect. The image of keeping my hands on imaginary bicycle handles keeps my arms and shoulders loose and flexible and my hands always in the correct position so my release over a jump is vastly lighter and easier. In the past week, the jumping has felt noticeably smoother, more co-ordinated, and more energetic.