Notes from the RideSmart Lecture Demo. These were produced by Sarah Barden.
RideSmart Representatives for the South West: Gemma Barry and Abbie Hughes
“How you can better use your body to balance and control your horse.”
“The RideSmart system is designed to help you form a strong connection and bond with your horse.”
There was an enthusiastic turn out for this evening lecture. The spectators’ gallery at Bicton College’s indoor arena was full of riders of a wide range of ages and approaches, from pony clubbers upwards, pleasure riders to competition riders!
The evening was fronted by Jon Pitts, whose brainchild Ride Smart is, alongside Paul Tapner, 4* rider and RideSmart ambassador (who I’m sure needs little introduction). The two were an effective double act with Jon explaining the programme and his approach to training and Paul providing: a) some light relief in the manner of his interventions and illustrations of how the system works; and b) some excellent hands-on coaching for the demo riders.
Jon Pitts has a background in working with elite athletes from many sports including riding. As a performance coach, he helps them to optimise their performance through a mix of techniques using biomechanics, body awareness, core stability training and self-analysis. He believes these techniques can help riders at all levels to enhance our understanding of how we communicate with our horses. In the past he has focused on rider specifics including balance. Now, with the launch of RideSmart, he is seeking to expand into a more holistic programme exploring “what makes these guys (i.e. elite athletes) good” and helping riders of all levels to develop some of the skills exhibited by elite performers.
JP – The athlete is the horse underneath. But have you noticed how different riders – even if they appear to be of similar skill levels – can produce radically different effects on a horse, even though to the untutored eye they seem to be riding in a similar style, using the same kit and there is no noticeable difference in factors such as the way or extent to which they use external aids like the whip or the spur. The lecture demo assesses and explores some of the reasons behind this, looks at how we influence our horses through the way we use our bodies and how we can be more effective in doing so.
JP – “Everyone can ride like Paul Tapner!”
JP – The human body is not designed to ride horses so we need to learn to use our bodies a bit differently when we ride so that we remain balanced and effective. The ‘correct’ riding position is not something that we teach simply because of its aesthetics or because this is the way it has always been. Rather, the position itself has been developed over hundreds of years and reflects our accumulated knowledge as to what is the most effective position from which to control, influence and communicate with the horse.
1st Session – Working on the flat (with Charlie Harwood and Apples)
JP introduced the first demo rider, grassroots eventer 17 year old Charlie Harwood and her horse Apples (Borneo Spotty), who were going to do some work on the flat.
- Theme 1 – “Feel”
Elite riders are often described as having this elusive quality, but what is it?
PT provided a definition – “knowing what your horse is doing underneath you without having to look”.
JP – feel is something that can be learned, can be developed. Elite riders are not just born with ‘innate feel’. Instead, all riders need to work on getting their sensory systems engaged with what is going on underneath them. Feel comes from the rider working hard to develop his or her understanding of: a) what the horse is doing and b) how the way the rider sits influences this.
Exercise – To demonstrate and to begin the process of developing ‘feel’, Charlie was asked to put her horse onto a circle in walk – roughly 20m – and to say ‘now’ each time Apples brought his outside hind leg up. This was initially tricky. PT noted that Charlie looked down a bit at first (a natural reaction but one to be avoided given the objective of the exercise!) and was saying ‘now’ when Apples’ outside hind when down on the ground. She persevered and after sitting a little deeper and concentrating on trying to ‘feel’ this particular aspect of the movement, was able to do so more accurately and predictably. JP then asked her to identify “the bit of the body” that was telling her what was going on. Initially Charlie mentioned that she could feel Apples’ back – she was focusing on the horse, his back, rather than on which bit of her body gave her the information she needed. JP urged her to change this focus as “we need to focus on ourselves (not our horses) to build the skills we need to improve our riding” [and enhance our ‘feel’].
JP asked Charlie to describe what was happening to her right hip as Apples walked (which was surprisingly difficult to vocalise!) so that she really concentrated on her own body awareness and what her body was doing at different points in the walk stride. PT told an anecdote about how one of his instructors in the past had used to give him the direction when e.g. changing pace, riding different exercises etc, to “think it and it happens” meaning that if you think about what you want to do, your body will adopt the necessary posture in order to bring it about. All very well perhaps when you know what you are aiming for, but if you are developing new skills this sort of direction is not so much help as you need to know what something feels like before you can “think it” to make it happen. So with RideSmart the focus is all on the rider. JP “it’s funny how often they do what you want, when you focus on yourself.” Awareness of what is happening to your body when you ride is key to understanding what works and being able to replicate it. The movement of the pelvis at walk was likened to pedalling a bike.
We returned to the theme of ‘feel’ at various points throughout the lecture demo alongside evaluating a number of other different aspects of riding and how these impact on our horses.
- Theme 2 – An “independent seat”
Question – What is this?
Suggestions – A seat which does not rely on your hands or legs. The ability to use your pelvis as both a shock absorber and to communicate with the horse.
The development of an independent seat is enhanced by good core stability. But the idea of core stability in a riding context is different than for participants in any other sport. For riders, maintaining good balance on the ground doesn’t matter, it’s balance and poise on the horse that counts. A rider’s core is his/her midriff area. A stable core assists the rider to balance the horse and ensures that the rider’s head and torso (which together represent around 2/3 of a human’s body weight) remain still.
PT outlined his understanding of what we mean by the seat. It is not simply a rider’s bum and pelvis, but actually goes from the knee upwards to the bottom of the ribcage. This is because the inside of the thighs are weight bearing on the horse and likewise the stomach, e.g. when ‘bearing down’. The lower back, hips and thighs all influence how you sit as regards the spread of your weight and the way you communicate with your horse.
Exercise – PT and JP asked Charlie to concentrate on using her seat to influence the walk pace and ground coverage of her horse. To walk out she was urged to ‘act as if she was in a pony club walk race’ (PT), lean back, relax her knees and move her hips more to encourage Apples to open up his stride. All without using her legs at all. Then, to close him down, to try to resist the movement a bit, move her hips less and use a little bit of inside thigh pressure. PT really pushed Charlie to work hard on this and the difference was marked.
JP – “We learn (physical) skills by exaggerating”… but bear in mind that our bodies have the ability to deceive us! PT kept urging Charlie to lean back, lean back. Charlie said she felt as if she was practically lying on her horse’s back, but it did not look that way to the watching audience.
JP noted that the human body is not designed to do anything behind it. We are forward facing and if we feel out of control or anxious, our body’s instinctive response is to move or lean forward. When we feel out of control or uncomfortable our bodies don’t like to move backwards so even when we are urged to do so and feel as if we are, often this is an illusion.
In anxious situations our bodies lie to us that we are sitting back or leaning back when in fact we are not. This is important information and we need to compensate for it in what we do as riders because if we hunch forward on a horse, we are putting 2/3 of our body weight over the horse’s front legs, encouraging them to be on the forehand when in fact we want the horse to transfer more and more of his weight to his hind quarters, lighten the forehand and become more uphill.
Exercise – JP then asked Charlie to move into trot and to do some work in sitting. Once again, he asked her to vocalise what she was doing and what happens to the pelvis in this pace. Her response: that she was trying to relax and absorb the movement rather than fight against it, with her hips moving together in a straight line rather than left to right.
PT – an approach to sitting trot: think about the way you ride rising trot, but when you go sitting, be aware that to absorb the movement effectively you’ll need to move your pelvis twice as quickly and half the distance for each stride. I must admit, I have already found this little nugget enormously helpful. It just seems to make sense!
As Charlie was riding the trot, once again she was encouraged to exaggerate her movements in order to absorb the trot as best as possible. The instruction to lean back (but not to let go of the contact) was repeated and also, if you bounce up in the trot, use your stomach muscles to try to push your hips forwards instead. Lean back and push your hips forward with each stride to counterbalance the bounce – this tends to help the horse to relax and then you get swing through the back and the sort of softly swinging tail which is apt to make the dressage judge purr!
JP – “It takes a lot of concentration to change our balance and sitting trot is a very difficult job for our bodies.”
As is so often the case, when we concentrate really hard on one aspect of our riding, we forget what is happening elsewhere. Our bodies however, have their own way of dealing with difficult challenges. One way a rider’s body will try to counterbalance loss of balance is by sticking the elbows out, thereby giving the rider a wider profile. This, along with tensing and bracing of the upper body – and holding your breath – are classic defence mechanisms of the body, its response to anxiety and loss of balance.
Pilates was highlighted as being very good for riding as teaches you how to use your pelvis and promotes independent movement. However, upper body posture also plays an important role. The instruction to “sit up” often equates to an arched back, but this is uncomfortable, a weaker position for the rider and the horse can’t move freely forwards. So, rather than arching your back when told to “sit up”, instead think about ‘closing your shoulder blades’ i.e. bringing them back, down and together, for a stronger, softer position.
- Theme 3 – Canter … and the half-halt
Continuing the theme of assessing and verbalising the way the body moves when riding each of the paces, we then moved on to canter. Here, the movement of the pelvis in canter was described as a circular motion and likened by PT to an ice-cream scoop! (He observed wryly that this analogy tends to resonate naturally with an Aussie audience; more accustomed, as they are, to ice-cream appropriate conditions than we Brits!)
PT noted that there tend to be 2 main problems with riding the canter: 1) creating the scoop; and 2) finishing the scoop. Riders need to work on developing a smooth ‘scooping’ action and stay in contact with the saddle throughout.
So to summarise:
- at walk the pelvis moves backwards, forwards and sideways (pedalling the bike!);
- at trot, backwards, forwards, up and down; whilst
- at canter it moves in a circular motion (scooping the ice-cream!),
all useful analogies and – in my view – highly effective!
Charlie worked on going forwards and backwards within the canter, using a ‘dimmer switch’ approach. PT urged her to slow the scoop and make it shallower to compress the canter and then open it up as large as she dared by taking bigger, more extravagant scoops!
Discussion then turned to the half-halt. The very essence of subtle, rebalancing aids, we all think we know what the half-halt is, but the description of it is likely to differ from person to person. PT talked through the classic definition: a give and take on the reins (but softly!!! – an aspect which is crucial, but all too often forgotten!); a squeeze and hold of the seat, coming through the lower back and hips; and a counterbalancing application of the legs, to ensure that impulsion is not lost, energy is maintained and transferred into greater push and collection in the movement.
Charlie was asked to collect Apples’ canter using half-halts and the ‘dimmer switch’. PT gave further instruction on the half-halt: use the muscles in between your shoulder blades to stabilise your top half without moving your hands; squeeze with your knees, – just a little; and bear down with your torso, by pushing your belly out as if you were trying to make yourself look pregnant. This braces the hips forward a fraction and tucks your bum underneath you. He noted that holding and releasing by adopting this stance ensures that the rider is in a position of strength. In fact, so much so that Charlie was able to hold up PT’s full weight when he took hold of the reins and pulled back against her. Charlie was then asked to apply this to her canter, take the horse to the point where he’s about to trot, hold for a couple more strides of canter, then move on and come back again, using subtle, but consistent half-halts to rebalance and collect him.
And so, we arrived at the end of the flatwork stage of this though- provoking lecture demo. Simple work on the flat, made fascinating.
Before a short break JP introduced some of the other aspects of his RideSmart concept. His aim is to offer a programme of activities which help to teach riders how to accommodate changes in the horse’s body movement to ensure we stay confident and in balance. There are 3 aspects to it:
- Ball skills – an unmounted programme of core stability exercises (1hr a week for 6 weeks) using large inflatable exercise balls. The ball skills courses, which are already in operation, aim to improve balance, flexibility and symmetry. They are run by RideSmart’s regional representatives, who for the South West, are Gemma Barry (BHSI) and Abbie Hughes (UKCC2 – Eventing).
- Safety and Fall Training – a 2 hour one off unmounted course, again using exercise balls, exploring both the mental and physical aspects of falls. This course focuses on prevention (i.e. teaching your body and tuning your balance to respond better during difficult moments, helping you to stay in the saddle!) and response (i.e. considering how to respond to falls and practising what to do in order to maximise your chances of walking safely away from a fall).
- *New* Ridden skills – a new enterprise, it is currently envisaged that this part of the programme will comprise a 6 week course during which riders, riding their own horses in groups, will build and develop skills such as those exhibited in the flatwork demo session. Dates, location and prices are yet to be confirmed, but the concept is an intriguing one and I for one, will be keeping an eye on the RideSmart website (ridesmart.me) to see when and where these courses will take place.
After the break the focus of the evening would shift to jumping, with Helen West and Eebay (winner of the high jump competition at Blenheim International Horse Trials this year, jumping 6ft 1inch!) as the demo combination.
To be continued…
2nd Session – Tactics and techniques over poles and fences (with Helen West and Eebay)
Maintaining balance was a recurrent topic throughout the lecture demo and the jumping session started by reminding us of that focus. JP noted that the horse’s centre of balance is just behind your calf, so essentially we sit on it! We all need to develop the ‘pro skills’ of balancing our horses so that we can get them in the best place to jump from.
- Balance (1) – opening and shortening the canter over poles
Helen was asked how many gears Eebay has in his canter.
At the moment she said she thought 3, (although this is something she is working on): basically a short ‘coffin canter’, a normal working canter and a more open kick-on canter.
JP – “The key is to know what canter you need where, and how you are going to get it.”
PT commented that he worked towards a greater number of gears, say 5 or 6 in the canter and 3 or 4 in the gallop. Riders need to train to get their selected gear in an instant, and change in body balance is the quickest and best way to get a horse to respond (if done well!)
To work on versatility and adaptability in the canter Helen rode Eebay over 2 poles on the ground, getting 6 strides between them. Initially these strides were not entirely consistent so the exercise was repeated on both reins until they were.
Once the ‘basic’ (in this case 6) stride pattern is consistently in place, riders can play with strides, lengthening and shortening but always seeking to maintain smoothness, regularity and balance. Helen was asked and delivered everything from 4 up to 8 strides between the poles, although Eebay was softer and more regular when asked to lengthen and cover the ground in a more open canter than when he was asked to collect. PT noted that a quick fix that might help him to collect in a softer way is to step into the stirrup irons more to shift the weight placement off the back a little.
PT – “whatever we do to the left we must do to the right.”
Horses are not naturally ambidextrous. Like us they have dominant sides/legs so we need to train them to equalise (as do we riders!)
JP discussed how we identify our own dominant leg. It is not the one we kick with, but the one we stabilise with, so for most people, this is our left leg. Similarly, most people sit slightly more on the left seat bone of the saddle. Everyone is crooked. We need to get our brains to be aware of our crookedness and how, where and to what degree it manifests itself. Which rein do we naturally incline to?
- Balance (2) – riding over poles and fences on the curve
Helen put Eebay into a fairly collected canter on a circle with a pole placed at one point on the circle. PT stressed the importance of the rider’s hips being on the curving line of the circle so as to allow the horse a freer use of his hindlegs and to ensure the canter stays the same over the pole and the pole ‘melts away’, as it is simply incorporated into the regular, consistent canter stride. Eebay showed a tidy hoof over the pole and Helen was encouraged to commit a little more weight to her inside seat bone and to allow her shoulders to go with the curvature of the circle.
PT then put a small cross pole up in place of the ground pole, still on the circle. He asked Helen to stand up over it, thereby avoiding leaning too far (initially she was still in a fairly forward position 1 stride after the fence). That mastered, PT then asked her to stay standing after the jump and continue round the circle in that position. This was in order to test her balance further.
A common rider issue is that the upper body goes a little too far forward over fences. We need to focus on this and on trying to keep control over our upper bodies to improve our balance and stability. The standing up exercise is a good way to focus on what our bodies are doing over a fence so we can understand our strengths and weaknesses better. PT suggested riders should think about landing *in* to the stirrup irons, keeping the weight there – and on no account thumping back on to our horses’ backs!
- Stars in Their Eyes?? … aka the impersonation round
Seeking to delve further into the influence our jumping position has on the way our horses’ jump, PT asked Helen to pop Eebay over the cross pole in 3 exaggerated and contrasting styles: 1) as Vittoria Panizzon (i.e. plenty of upper body movement bending forwards at the waist, with exaggerated crest release); 2) as Ben Maher (i.e. standing up very much vertically in the stirrups over the fence); and 3) as Mary King (i.e. adopting a safe but defensive posture, legs forward, body leaning far back and slipping the reins). The aim was to demonstrate the extent to which our position affects our horses; how and how willing they are to jump for us. Certainly Eebay made his feelings pretty plain, looking less comfortable and running away from the jump a little when Helen adopted styles 1 and 3, but rather more happy and consistent in his response to style 2. PT noted that this was probably because Helen’s upper body stayed much stiller and closer to the horse’s centre of balance when applying this option.
JP noted that we need to ensure a balance between comfort for the horse and safety and security in one’s position if our horses are to perform optimally.
- Seeing a stride …aka The Quest for the Holy Grail
The bane of many a rider’s jumping life is their ability (or inability) to predictably, consistently ‘see a stride’ to a fence. This is a visual system, which improves over time and when paired with sufficient skill to quickly adjust the horse’s canter, can help riders to imbue their steeds with the confidence that goes with consistently meeting fences correctly and being asked to take off from a good spot.
The good news? There are drills to help to teach the brain to see a stride!
PT asked Helen how far out she normally sees her stride. Helen said about 7 out. (I suspect that this is much further than the average bear, but the principles of the exercise work for different distances too, so fear not!) She was asked to call out when she rode past that point on her way into a simple individual fence. A jump wing was placed next to it as a marker. PT said that one trick with striding is for a rider to identify his/her individual “decision making point” – i.e. the spot where you know what [stride] you are on and can adjust your canter accordingly if need be to ensure you meet the fence right. Alas, this decision making point is not always a fixed or constant notion. Various factors including the amount of recent practice and the level of fatigue a rider is experiencing will also play their part. PT asked Helen to ride down the long side of the arena to the fence again, deliberately sitting quiet when she got to the marker she had designated as her decision making point and then simply to maintain from that point. The canter stayed the same and the jump came up naturally and evenly.
PT – Ensure that you can do this ten times in a row before you make the risk element (i.e. the fence size!) higher!
JP – The wing is used as what is known as a ‘peripheral marker’, helping you to test your skill of spotting the stride and your responses to what you see!
As Helen and Eebay had found that exercise straightforward, PT was able to make the risk element higher and raise the fence (and he was clearly keen to do so!) Helen was told to ignore the change in the fence itself and keep everything else the same. Provided the canter and everything else feels the same, the jump should also, even if it is noticeably bigger than before. Eebay showed his class and pinged with aplomb. This in turn launched a discussion as to another crucial (and often rather vexed) question, being:
- “When is the right time to move up a level?”
PT said that this is the question he is most often asked in lessons.
He was fascinating – very clear and entirely unequivocal – on the issue. (So much so that he said it thrice (!) – but as it is a message which really bears repeating I will follow his lead and do likewise.)
- “The time to move up is when you and your horse are bored of the level you are riding at.”
- “You need to be bored to tears because the level is SO easy and straightforward!”
- “Repeat until SO confident that a level is boring.”
You certainly can’t criticise Paul for sending out mixed messages or for lack of clarity – & this was ‘nugget of the night’ for me (!)
- Taking lessons home – how to repeat and retain the progress made in lessons
Sometimes we struggle to repeat the progress made in a lesson when back at home. JP said that the key lies in thinking for ourselves. He advocates a facilitative approach to learning – that means learning by doing and by coaches encouraging riders to think actively and analyse their own performance. You take in 30% less information when sitting on a horse than not as there is so much other stuff going on. Therefore, coaches need to ask questions of their pupils, get riders to engage their own brains and experiment with different techniques in order to develop their appreciation of cause and effect.
- Balance (3) – rebalancing and maintaining equilibrium when coming from a more open canter
Technical ability must come before speed, i.e. can you pick and get the right canter for each obstacle, time and again?
When riding cross country, the set up point is when you shift from your gallop between the fences to rebalance and bring the forehand up in preparation for a fence.
10 strides = PT’s optimal distance for setting up the horse for a fence out on the cross country. To simulate this, Helen opened up Eebay’s canter round the arena as far as (reasonably!) possible and then when passing a marker several strides out slowed down for a couple of strides before allowing Eebay to ease forwards into his fence. He did this exuberantly and well, but was smoother in the rebalance when subtler aids were used. His open canter was closed down a touch and then the throttle was eased open and a little ‘creep forward’ allowed into the fence, resulting in a good jump.
- And finally; a mini meditation on quality v quantity!
To close the session, the team turned to a matter close to the hearts of many amateur one or two horse riders: how best to improve when time in the saddle is at a premium…
Helen has gone from being a full time rider to a one horse eventer with a full time ‘normal’ job, who only gets to ride a few times a week. She said that she is probably a little less ‘tuned in’ now than when she was riding many.
PT – “ride smarter then”!
The example of Hinrich Romeike (the Olympic Gold Medal winning German dentist with his super horse Marius) was given to substantiate the idea that even in the modern era you don’t have to be a multi-horse über-pro to excel in eventing.
PT – It’s not the quantity that makes you excel, it’s the quality. So make what you do with your horses as high quality as you can.
JP – RideSmart helps you to focus on the things that help you to ride with more confidence and be safer. Skills aren’t static. You are not born with particular skills or capacity for skills, they can be grown. For example, you can tune up your balance (e.g. through ball skills). By repetition we teach our bodies to respond and operate differently.
With these words JP wrapped up an interesting and entertaining evening. My thanks to Jon and the RideSmart team for allowing me to attend and cover the event. For more information on Ride Smart, see www.ridesmart.me