Having had the opportunity to be a RWYM demo rider once, I was keen to attend this day. Mary Wanless should need no introduction, her work on rider biomechanics and her “Ride With Your Mind” books, DVDs and courses are very well known.
She always comes up with ideas and images to really help the rider to improve, and there was one in particular that she mentioned this time that has made a huge ongoing difference to me with my riding.
She had a lot of good exercises for us in the audience to do while sitting watching, which anyone reading this can try right now (or later when unobserved!) They are all described below.
The day was supported by Dressage Training TV, which is well worth a look.
During her detailed talk, Mary mentioned that in her experience some trainers deliberately hold back information. I don’t think that accusation could ever be levelled at Mary… she is eager to share every useful thing she has ever thought up or discovered. The fact that her first degree is in Physics means a lot too, I think!
I hope my notes will be of help in spreading the word to help us all become better riders and make things easier for our horses.
Mary said, that once someone becomes good at something, they forget what it was like to be unable to do it. This is Expertise-Induced Amnesia.
Talent = someone is really good at something but they/we don’t know how or why.
One particularly helpful idea:
When a future Elite rider first starts riding, probably as a child, if they are naturally gifted, then their A, B, C, D basics (e.g. neutral spine, good body tone, diaphragmatic breathing, light feet not pushing down etc) will probably be there automatically. They they will add on various other good habits, through good training over the years, call them E, F, G, H, I and so on.
Later, someone asks this Elite rider “How do you do ____” (say, left shoulder in) and they say “I do X”… forgetting that they have A, B, C, D all the way to X are already in place!
This is why a lesser rider might try to do X and it won’t work, because they are not doing it anything like in the same way, with the same body control and good biomechanics, as the Elite rider.
Implicit Knowledge = they can’t explain it. (Plus, a lot of it is so habitual by that point that they don’t even realise they are doing it).
e.g. “Grow Tall”. We all think we know what it means.
But “tall” is about the sides of the body, not the front and back. So a lot of people try to ‘grow tall’ (or ‘sit up tall’ and do it in a way that doesn’t really help their riding.)
She has a message for elite riders too: The laws of physics do not change!
Lesser riders get stuck on a plateau.
“Premature automation” = a pattern became automatic in the body before it had been totally honed. Then it is a habit/pattern that the rider can’t get out of.
Operant conditioning = the horse learning by trial and error.
We give a signal, the horse reacts, the handler releases the pressure.
So the horse does X to get you to stop doing Y. The better the rider’s body control, the better the training.
The absolute Basics – legs to go, reins to stop. Open the rein, the horse steps to the left or to the right.
An Expert – so much of what they are doing is presupposed, automatic, that they can just say “pull to stop, kick to go” and it really is that simple to them. (In fact this is exactly what Chris Burton said to us and seemed to be doing – more or less – in his lecture/demo at the Hartpury IEF this year. But of course his version of ‘just pull the reins’ or ‘just kick it forward’ is a lot more finessed than, say, mine would be!)
Biomechanics: the whole body is affected when you give an aid. Saying “do X with your leg or hand” doesn’t work unless you are already doing a lot of things correctly.
e.g. If you pull on the reins and lean back as you halt, that drives your seat bones down and forward, which drives the horse forward, the opposite of what you want.
We need to teach the rider to keep the body on axis, to be “organised in movement”, to be able to communicate to the horse reliably.
We hide behind talent, pretending that things are in place and understood.
We assume good biomechanics from the rider.
Once you become an expert in your field, you start presupposing more and more.
Shake hands with the person next to you, or with a stranger.
The first handshake you have with a person, you can learn a LOT about them.
Equally, the first time you put your bum in the saddle on a new horse, he is reading your “Bumshake”, he is learning a LOT about you immediately. (How balanced you are, how tense you are, how toned you are, how good your body control is, whether you are relaxed, etc etc).
Fold your arms.
Now fold them the other way.
How does it feel? Does it feel weird? (It did for most of the audience).
People go back to the usual, the comfortable.
Interlink the fingers of both hands, palms together, fingers on top. Now do it the other way.
Does it feel weird?
Exercise: (get someone to watch and check you doing this, if you can)
Stretch your hands out in front of you, and shut your eyes.
Raise one 45 degrees, lower one 45 degrees.
Keep them like that for a minute, then, keeping your eyes shut, bring them level.
Open your eyes. Are they really level?
When riding, make sure your chin is above the horse’s mane. Such a simple thing for straightness. Mary remembers galloping ponies as a kid and thinking “why do these ponies always have their necks off to the left?”
Cross your arms diagonally across your chest, hands flattened, fingers flat and touching your collar bone. Bend to your left, then bend to your right. Which way feels better?
Sit with both feet on the floor. Push one foot down harder. Can you feel that your seat bone goes up?
(This is why you should not push down hard on your stirrups!)
Stand up with your feet a foot or so apart. Sink down. How many joints bend?
Now lean back, and do the same. How many joints bend now?
Answer at the end!
Ideally the thigh bone should be at 45 degrees as you sit in the saddle. It works best as a lever at this sort of angle.
For every person: left leg or right leg might be angled differently, longer, used intermittently, more toe out, rotating more.
We were asked to look at the demo riders and analyse them.
Were they round backed or hollow backed, naturally? (Most people are one or the other. Very few have a naturally ‘neutral spine’.)
Also, were they:
Upriders – who grow really tall and sit as if the saddle is hot.
Downriders – Sit flumped down in the saddle.
Ideally be between the two extremes!
Think of the rider’s spine as a mast held up by guy ropes, at the back, the front, and the sides.
Ideally the sitting surface becomes the whole seat area of a suede-seated pair of breeches. Having more weight in the thigh is more horse-friendly. This is the best place for the horse to carry the rider’s weight, over its ribs.
Sitting, put the heel of one 1 foot on top of the toes of the other foot. Push down with the upper foot, try to lift the lower foot. Feel the tension. How far up your body can you feel it?
This tensions the chain of muscles down the front of the rider’s body, from the toes up to the sternum.
Sitting, with your foot flat on the floor, push your heel out sideways against resistance (a wall, another person’s foot). How far up your body can you feel it?
Feel it all the way down your body from your armpit.
Most riders are too floppy! This is the sort of tone you need in your body.
Stabilisation, not relaxation.
Cough, clear your throat, with one hand on your tummy and one hand in the small of your back.
Then, with one hand on each side of your waist.
Then, with your hands on your bikini line.
Then, maintain that tone.
That is what good riders do! That is how much stability they have.
Pull tummy in to make a wall and push your guts against it, the same feeling as when you are coughing.
Rising Trot: Think of landing your butt ahead of your feet, up the slope in the saddle, ahead of the weak spot in the horse’s back. Breathe down, shrink down.
Think of the thighs as if they are windscreen wipers.
Keep the feet light, heels back, more weight in the thighs.
A bigger rise, more reach of the windscreen wipers across the screen.
Think of the THRUST.
While Mary was talking and we were all doing the exercises, the demo riders were being worked with by two of Mary’s senior instructors. After riders were altered according to the RWYM way, both demo horses (a cob and a tb type, total opposites really) showed much more energy without the riders even trying to use more leg, it was a fascinating and instant change.
Demo rider: “I have always concentrated on what she’s doing, what I have learnt today is that if I concentrate on what I am doing, it has a profound effect on her.”
Mary Wanless: “We all do the best we can with the bodies we have and the words we’ve heard.”
Changing patterns for the rider and the horse. Finding things that work.
There can be shocks when finding what works.
Many are counter-intuitive!
For me, the Light Bulb Moment of the day was:
If the rider was a stuffed toy rider, how full of stuffing would they be?
Where would the stuffing be? Would they be well-stuffed evenly from top to toe?
Inner contents firm?
(I realised that I feel as if I really lack stuffing in the middle and have been concentrating on that ever since.)
Use the body with this in mind:
Have the strings under the right amount of tension to play a note.
When collecting the horse, think of “suctioning up”.
Exercises to do as you ride:
Put your clenched fist against your side, between the bottom of your ribs and your hip bone. Try this on both sides (to prevent collapsing at the waist).
Put your open fist (with thumb and little finger sticking out) on your sternum. Keep your thumb above your little finger, not ahead of or behind it.
Think of having a flat metal plate on your front and on the front of the horse’s chest. Line them up. Make sure they stay in line.
Are your armpits more closed at the front or the back? If you are round shouldered, close the back of your armpits, open the front. When one of the demo riders was doing (very good!) two-time changes, this was the thing that Mary concentrated on for her.
I have found this particular idea to be immensely helpful in my riding since hearing it.
This was a very useful session with lots of good exercises to help individuals to analyse their own body weaknesses and strengths as well as those of riders they are watching. The improvement in the demo horses’ way of going was astonishing.
In my opinion, anyone really struggling with their riding or their horse would not waste their time or their money if they went to a RWYM instructor (or ideally Mary herself!) for some fundamental help.
Answer to Exercise **
3 joints bend when you sink down into jockey position (ankles, knees, hips)
2 joints bend when you try to do the same thing when leaning back, because your pelvis won’t let you bend at the hips.
[This has huge ramifications, especially for dressage, obviously!]