By: Natalya Gryson
I have always been good at inspiring forward energy in a horse. I have been referred to as having “electric buns” or a “hot seat.” When students ask me, how do I inspire my horse to be more forward, I rely on the same go-to advice as many trainers give-
*Lengthen your leg before you use it and don’t use it so strongly that your leg shortens during the aid.
*Apply your ideal aid, reinforce with a correction level aid (should be strong enough to surprise your horse), reward and return to your ideal aid.
*Change line of travel, tempo, and directions often to keep your horse’s attention.
But what happens when this advice doesn’t work? And why might this advice not work? Because on some days, with some horses and riders, it doesn’t. On those days, I am reminded of a lesson I learned as a young professional trying a horse.
A fellow professional in my area was offering a “training project” horse free to a good home. The pro had acquired this horse from a client who wasn’t properly matched with him, and was trying to re-home him. She told me he was quirky and took a special kind of rider, so naturally I couldn’t wait to sit on him!
She rode him first for me to demonstrate. He walked and trotted pleasantly for her. He needed to build strength in his canter, which was a bit rushed. She explained as she rode him that he was trained to stop from the leg. If you use any leg at all he will decelerate, add more leg and he will stop. The more pressure you put on him with leg, whip, spur, the more of a statue he will become. But as long as you don’t use your leg and just ride him with your seat, he is pleasantly forward she said. And he demonstrated to be so with her on his back. So then it was my turn, and we were off to a good start. I focused on keeping my legs relaxed and riding with my seat and we walked and trotted around. I was surprised actually by how easy it was. I began to pay attention to my own riding, asking myself, “how am I keeping this horse forward without any leg?” He began to decelerate and wanted to break to a walk. I told myself to stop thinking about what I was doing and just ride, and he was off and thinking forward again.
So what was my seat doing on this horse to communicate forward completely and necessarily without use of any leg? What is my seat doing on a daily basis to support my leg in achieving easy forward energy? The first thing I would say is key is maintaining my center of gravity low, specifically in the area between my belly button and my pubic bone. This is the area the rider needs to be able to fill with energy to communicate effectively with her seat. This area is called the dantian in Traditional Chinese Medicine.
Secondly, psoas engagement. The psoas muscles, our internal abdominals, are how I fill my dantian with energy. Too much engagement of the external abdominals interferes with freedom of the rider’s seat. Psoas engagement creates a lively seat that can communicate in both a strong and free way without restriction.
Third, the rider needs to be able to direct that energy outwards in the direction of travel. While your seat is interacting with your horse’s back in its normal way (connected but neither shoving tensely down nor lightly sliding back and forth on top of the saddle) the energy from your psoas engagement is projecting forward from your dantian in front of your horse in the rhythm of the gait. I have heard the analogy of throwing a ball of energy out in front of you from your dantian. Keep in mind, you have to throw this ball from your dantian with loose hips and without shoving or sliding your seat. Another analogy I have heard is imagining you have a big beam of light shining out your dantian in the direction of travel. Experiment with what feeling of engagement makes the light brighter and your horse more forward. What feelings make the light dimmer and your horse less forwardly motivated? Is it possible to over engage and “flip the breaker,” shutting the light and the forward down completely?
For me, key to finding this feeling is to always maintain focus on the feeling I am getting from my horse through my seat. As riders, we have to be able to think about more than one thing at a time and prioritize. My number one priority is taking in feelings (information) from my horse. My second priority is my application of aids to inform my horse. In order to do this:
*My center of gravity has to be low all the time.
*My seat as to have plenty of positive engagement.
*My seat has to have plenty of freedom (If I am blocked in my body, that blocks my perception of my horse’s feeling).
Additionally, it helps me to breathe through my nose. Through my nose I take deeper breaths. This helps my center of gravity stay low and to find the right amount of psoas engagement, where my core feels enlivened by psoas engagement but still allows the breath through.
Back to my story, I did not take the horse. I was looking for a training project for resale and I thought, “I’ll never be able to sell this horse because the average rider doesn’t ride this way!” But let me tell you, if you do develop this skill with your seat, you will be more effective in so many ways!