The sensitivity of the horse has never ceased to amaze me. How it is possible for our tiniest movement to have an effect on a body as large as that of our horse. If this were not the case, however, we would never be able to command them as we wish. Riding would become a struggle between the animal and the rider – and it is not difficult to foresee who would win this confrontation.
A good rider is one who, when riding, knows how to use the various parts of his body, applying subtle amounts of muscular pressure, in the exact quantity needed and at just the right moment, knowing in advance what the effect of these interventions (aids) will and should be.
Here we shall be looking at the effect caused by the different parts of the rider’s body on the horse, knowledge which must be mastered by the rider in order to determine what techniques of equitation are to be applied.
I often ask my pupils which part of the rider’s body they consider the most important one. The correct answer is: “the brain.” Without the use of our mind, we are not capable of analyzing the horse’s behavior, nor can we decide which aids to apply, nor are we able to send the required signals to our muscles so that they can act. Another function in which our brain is significant is in the creation of energy. Our state of mind influences the horse telepathically and through our adrenaline. Just as animals are able to transmit their thoughts to us through body language or mental power, we can make the horse understand our intentions by touch or by telepathy. To achieve this mutual understanding, the rider must have spent a great deal of time handling horses or have a natural gift for communication with them. Thus we distinguish between natural riders – these privileged people are few – who by intuition know which aids to apply and how to use their body to achieve the desired effect upon the horse, and those riders who have reached a professional level through hard work over a lengthy period of time.
The mind is responsible for creating sufficient will power to back up the application of each aid, in order to obtain the correct result.
No effect is possible without a cause. Impulsion, the desire to move forward, which forms the basis of every movement and exercise, is created by us and is transmitted to the horse by the use of our body. Generating impulsion is not so much a matter of physical effort as a mental state
Our hearing and eyesight do not influence the horse other than through the signals we perceive from our surroundings, such as the horse also receives them. We may detect factors which could cause our horse to be alarmed or alter its behavior; thus this information will influence the aids we apply. By hearing his footfalls, we can draw conclusions about his movement. Our vision determines in which direction the horse will travel. Our voice can be used as a complementary aid.
Dealing with horses over a period of many years teaches us to think like them. That is, we grow to understand and interpret the workings of their minds and can thus anticipate their reactions to a certain situation. This capacity helps us to choose the appropriate work techniques.
By communicating through touch, sight and hearing, we receive signals from the horse which tell us about his state of mind and enable us to deduce whether the animal is tense or relaxed.
The position of our head is important because of its influence over our center of gravity. We know that the horse will always try to place his center of gravity under ours, in order to distribute the weight of his body on his extremities in a balanced manner. The expert rider often uses this factor to influence his horse’s body, without the intervention of other aids.
The spine of the rider represents an important aid. Each of its various parts has a distinct effect upon the movement of the horse. It is important for the rider to attempt to stretch his spine to the maximum, thus gaining greater flexibility, which will enable him to follow the horse’s movements more easily. How straight the spine is will depend upon the muscular power of the rider. In order to strengthen his muscles, he therefore should try to maintain an upright posture all day long in all kinds of activities. When in the saddle, the rider should attempt to stretch his body from the waist upwards, as well as from the waist downwards, in order to obtain a greater control of the horse and to unify their bodies to the utmost. The action of the spine is essential to the application of a half-halt. This effect retains the forward movement of the horse, by putting his hind legs further under his body mass, without loss of impulsion. The horse then readjusts his balance. For this, the rider uses a combination of leg and seat aids, which will generate impulsion, and a combination of aids from his spine and hands which will limit the amount of forward movement.
We must always remember that, to achieve any effect on our horse, the aids must be applied in combination and not individually.
Of great importance is the effect of the hand on the movement of the horse. The hands are a link in the contact between the mouth of the horse and the upper arm of the rider. The support which the arm gives to the hand prevents it from lying heavily upon the reins with a consequent loss of impulsion. The forward movement of the horse can be maintained by the “closing of the hand” through a pressure of the fingers, while the impulsion is maintained by the action of the legs. The fingers can move freely, as only the thumb exerts pressure on the rein in order to hold it. Thus the rider can use the other fingers to encourage the horse to mouth the bit, while the stability of his arm will guarantee that the reins are kept taut.
The position of the hands has a great influence on the effect of the rein aids. In some schools of equitation, such as the French school, many “rein effects” are used – that is, the influence of various positions of the hand. In other schools, such as the Austro-Hungarian, this technique is used less. A hand which is “as light as a feather” will guarantee obtaining the best results with a horse. However, this ideal is so difficult to achieve!!
The joint action of the hand and arm can sustain the contact, check the forward movement, or yield. All of these variations must be applied without losing the contact between the hand of the rider and the mouth of the horse. A true art.
In order to be able to support the arm and the hand well, it is indispensable for the shoulders to be held well back. This will also ensure that the spine is straight and thus descends well into the saddle, which will cause the rider’s seat to have a greater influence on the horse. Bringing one shoulder slightly farther back than the other at times will also influence the distribution of the rider’s weight and have an effect on the rider’s hand.
The tilting of the pelvis, accompanying the movement of the horse, determines the length of stride. The further we advance the pelvis the more the horse will be able to lengthen his stride (as long as the rider’s hand also allows the nose of the horse to come forward sufficiently). We must insist that it is not the pelvis which generates impulsion; exaggerated pushing with this part of the body does not result in an increased forward movement of the horse.
The muscles of our buttocks also must work hard, which never ceases to surprise and amuse my pupils. Depending on the direction in which we focus the muscular force, we can vary the effect it has. Thus the buttocks can exercise a lateral influence, moving the horse towards the opposite side, or they can apply a movement from back to front, with the aim of creating impulsion. An upward action assists in obtaining the half-halt, etc. Within a combination of aids, each buttock can have a distinct action. In order to perform a half pass, for example, one buttock can influence the horse to move laterally while the other assists in the supportive role of the inside leg against the mass of the horse. Like all muscular pressures of our body, the aids of the buttocks can be applied in a constant manner, or intermittently, and once again the results will vary.
The seat bones receive our weight. We must sit in a vertical line over them and not upon the soft part of our buttocks. We distribute the weight of our body according to the desired intensity we wish to bring down on each seat bone, the effect of this aid helping us to obtain the bend through the horse and lateral movements. We can graduate the amount of weight we let down onto the back of the horse through our seat bones by exerting pressure with our calves and /or thighs or by leaning on the stirrups with varying intensity. The combined action of the legs and the seat bones has a particular influence on the engagement of the horse’s hindquarters.
The calves can have different effects upon the horse. Increased pressure will achieve more impulsion; inward pressure against the body of the horse will move it toward the opposite direction; and a holding pressure against the body will support his weight, etc. In a combination of aids, each calf can have has a distinct action, but can also carry out two simultaneous functions (for example, moving the horse sideways while generating impulsion, or supporting the body mass while generating impulsion.) The positioning of the calves will also vary their effect. Situated slightly behind the girth, the hindquarters will be influenced (either to cause lateral movement, or to support them). If the calf is placed directly below our shoulder and hip, it will influence the entire body of the horse.
Depending on the rotation of our leg from the groin, the thigh will lie either well or badly. It is correct when the knee is pointing towards the saddle without being forced. Accordingly, never force the musculature of the inner thigh, for it is very difficult to heal injuries to this part of the body.
Also dependent upon the position of the leg is that of the feet. When at rest, they are placed parallel to the body of the horse. Their position contributes to obtaining the distinct effects of the calf aids. The more the foot points inward, towards the horse’s body, the more the leg acts as an axis around which the horse can bend, or as an inside support to hold the horse’s weight during a lateral displacement. The leg must stretch in its entire length, pushing down toward the stirrup so that the muscle of the calf is tense. Thus we avoid movement of the leg and contribute toward the rider’s balance in the saddle.
The positioning of the heel depends upon the type of equitation. It varies from the slight downward inclination, for dressage, to a very acute angle for jumping. However, the downward pressure of the heel must not cause the calf to slip forward, and consequently the body of the rider to fall backward. This observation results from the fact that the posture of one part of our body affects the position of the rest (like a chain reaction.). The action of the heel against the horse reinforces the influence of the calf for both generating impulsion and directing the horse. We can apply it in a repeated manner or with a constant pressure. (The latter must always be the deliberate intention of the rider and not merely the beginner’s subconscious desire to increase safety.)
The functions of the rider’s body thus can be divided into three parts.
The arms, through the “link” formed by the hands, maintain the contact with the mouth of the horse.
The legs and seat maintain the impulsion and indicate the direction.
The pelvis, in combination with the spine, follows the movement and determines the length of stride.
These three factors always act simultaneously, both for lengthening or for collecting, and even in the halt. In this case, the horse is held between the rider’s legs, which activate, and the hands, which impede the forward movement – as it is said, “between leg and hand” – while the pelvis does not move and thus the horse cannot advance.
The manner of sitting in the saddle, and following the horse’s movements, is called “the seat.” This is a balance which the rider must achieve, normally through much training, in which he remains in coordination with the horse without obvious muscular effort. A rider who has “an independent seat” is able to remain in balance on the moving horse and is able to deliberately use particular parts of his body, for the application of aids, without this interfering with the action of the rest of his body.
We say that a rider has an “electrical” seat when he is capable of generating and transmitting energy to the horse without apparent physical effort. This quality is not quite the same as the interpretation given by a lady of British high society as “an innate ability to run off with any horse”!
Copyright Miriam Frenk 2023– these texts are not to be reproduced without permission from the author.