It astounds me, as I comb through back issues of magazine articles, online articles, and books on equitation, the degree to which I now find myself adding a mental asterisk to almost every exercise and lesson, especially whenever it mentions "quiet seat" or "keep the hands/legs quiet" or some such: *if you have enough leg strength.
That little aspect rarely, if ever, get mentioned; it gets glossed over, in fact by almost everyone. Even Clinton Anderson, in his videos mentions only once about the need to build strong legs, which will develop from the exercises. Yet it's a simple observation that as my legs have become stronger, so all the techniques needed for proper equitation have become easier. Easier to learn, and easier to do properly. When I squeeze, my horse notices. As I approach jumps, I can grip with my legs so securely now that I can focus on all the myriad technical points that everyone who wants to jump well needs to learn and internalize.
It has taken me the better part of the year to finally acquire significant leg strength, to build up the tone and power so my legs stay calm and steady under all circumstances. And so, as my strength built up, I found I was able to perform the exercises much more accurately, and so internalize and perfect the lessons that have eluded me thus far. I was also able to get Oakley to start jumping much better than before, since my whole body can stay properly over his centre of balance, and so he can move with much greater ease and confidence. As I have become stronger, he has become more confident.
Now, as we approach obstacles, I think almost not at all about whether Oakley is going to refuse (but, honestly, it's always going to be in the back of my mind) and think entirely on those aspects of my form that are most obviously in need of improvement: keeping my head up (... no, higher... up! Don't look down at the jump, look AHEAD!) and keeping my centre of weight over his centre of weight so he can stay in balance and moving my hands to go forward, even folding over at the hips, so as to allow his bascule to reach further. These main issues are my focus because now my legs are finally clamped firmly in place and my legs are clamped firmly in place because I have developed the muscle tone to be able to hold them there.
The same applies to the flatwork while riding between jumps, fallen logs on the trail, and formally in the dressage ring. Because my legs are strong, and have developed the tone necessary to be able to keep them in place, just lightly wrapping around his girth at every pace, I can concentrate on allowing my fingers to close to remind him of the contact, and gently open to reward him when he gives to that contact, allowing my arms to move with his movement to keep that same light pressure on his mouth, on relaxing my shoulders and torso to flow with the movement.
All of this is described amply in countless essays and books, going back over the decades. But all of this only becomes effective with the eventual development of strong, powerful leg muscles, the kind that can only be achieved with work. For some lucky people, muscles develop quickly. In my case, years of training.
The net result is that we went to a schooling show at Wits End in Mulmur last weekend, and he only refused one jump. It was in the show ring and it's partly my fault. Because my legs have achieved the power and stamina that they have over the past year of riding without stirrups at the start of every ride, I was able to encourage him to move forward towards the brightly-coloured oxers with the fancy wings, towards the multi-striped poles, towards the hay-bales across country, towards the horse-eating flower-pots, and reassure him that I would be secure on his back and not jerk on his mouth as we went over them.
Even the times when he suddenly decided to make a very close inspection of the obstacle at the last moment, even the couple of times he stopped, then jumped from a standstill, the sensation was one of gracefully floating through the air.