Exercises to Help Quiet Aids
A rider asks Expert Lynn McEnespy this: “Are there exercises to help me quiet my aids?”
Help! I own a beautiful green mare with a soft mouth. She requires a rider with strong aids to ride her but strong aids don’t mean heavy-handed. I’m also a one-sided rider; my aids are better on one side than the other. Going to the left is no problem. The right is a whole other story! How do I strengthen my seat on the right? Will this then soften my contact on the right? I have a tendency to lose contact or never achieve contact on the right. This is definitely upsetting my dressage scores and my horse looks ugly going around with her nose in the air. I had surgery a few months ago and during this recuperation period I seem to have develop this problem (actually the problem got worse). I want to stop but I’m not quite sure where to begin. I’ve been told I need to develop more bend. But bending isn’t a problem with the horse. It’s the rider!
Rider Needs Help
There have been hundreds of wonderful books and videos made to try explain riding and how to achieve the wonderful, but very elusive perfect seat. In addition, there are many very good instructors that deal only with how to sit on the horse and coordinate the aids as opposed to those who deal with training the horse. Like gymnastics, skating, dancing, etc., riding takes immense coordination, timing, balance and ambidextrous muscle control. I am an avid student of dressage and highly recommend serious reading in conjunction with lessons and videos.
You are wise to recognize your horse’s bending problem originates with the rider. However, I must add that horses too are asymmetrical and the right bend problem is almost universal with horses. Most of them will fall to the right on the inside shoulder and twist their heads left when turning to the right. They will also make things easy for themselves by putting the rider where they want. So, you may not be the total cause of the problem.
As a point of clarification that is frequently confused; on a horse that is well trained and supple on both sides, “bend” is actually comprised of several elements; the horse yields in his jaw and poll, slightly tucks his cheek in toward his neck (looking right in this case), the inside shoulder comes slightly back thus freeing the outside shoulder to make the turn the size required by the rider, and the ears remain level. Needless to say, in dressage, the hindquarters must also participate in this by propelling and carrying the horse in the figure in correct relationship to the forehand.
Many riders mistake “bend” for curve in the neck and try to achieve it by pulling the horse’s head around. Looking down from the saddle, it is easy to get mislead. The part of the neck where it comes out of the withers should always remain straight and not swing like a gate attached to a post. If you look at pictures of top FEI horses, you will see that the neck does not bend at the base but at the poll.
All that said – I would suggest you try a simple exercise that is very enlightening to help you evaluate your situation and also start to correct it. At a walk, take up the contact (not loose or looping reins) and hold both of your reins one to two inches from the side of the horse’s neck. Don’t worry about where he puts his face or where he goes, just walk around and try keeping the reins away from his neck and still on contact. You will probably find this difficult to do! Your horse will probably sway from side to side, twist his head, put his nose in the air, etc. all to avoid the simple concept of steady contact on both reins. Persist, and just sit there maintaining even contact on both reins away from the neck while he goes through his antics, even backing up. It is important to remember that he is allowed to experiment and not punish. His reward comes when he walks straight, balanced, and evenly into both reins of his own accord (generally what is known as “on the bit”).
You will find that you will begin to develop a better idea of where your body needs to be to have a straight horse and what corrections you need (with the reins away from the neck) to keep him straight. For now, don’t worry about “bend” or even counter-flexion if that is what it takes to keep the reins that little bit away from the neck. You are now learning to control and stabilize your horse’s shoulders, which will be the key to achieving your goals. As you progress, you will also find your rein aids to keep the shoulders positioned equidistant from each rein become quicker and much more refined. The trick is to be able to do this in trot and canter also.
During this process, your legs tell the horse only one thing, go forward. Don’t try to move the haunches sideways from your leg, even if the horse swings from side to side. Move the shoulders with the reins (still away from the neck) to where you want them to go. Assuming you can get your horse to go forward and accept the contact on both reins with them slightly away from the neck on both sides, you can then simply put the reins where they belong. From here, you can actually affect how the horse balances and subsequently – bends.
If you can get someone to assist you, or if you are at a wintertime horse party, you can try to develop better feel and following ability with the following exercise. Take the reins off your bridle (or use two pieces of baling twine) and have your partner hold the bit ends. Your partner is the horse that moves his head, neck, etc. in every which way imaginable. Your task is to keep the steady contact with the reins regardless of what your “horse” does. I will give you a clue – hold the rein with your thumb and forefingers, close your ring fingers, then let your elbow actually be the connection, don’t try to use your wrists. Your arms will hang like a dead weight from your shoulders and the “horse” will be moving your entire arm like a big elastic band.
I can recommend some books that have helped me understand the correct way to sit and what muscles to use, Riding With Kyra Kirkland (also in video), The Anatomy of Riding, The Art of Riding (by Baron Hans von Blixen-Fineke also in video), and the books by Sally Swift and Mary Wanless have also quite a following. There is no instant fix, however these sources can give you some very good suggestions for specific things to try.
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