Yesterday was a beautiful day for riding. Mid-eighties and breezy. I felt like we had all the time in the world.
I have been working towards a riding goal without really stating it. I want to use my legs less. I find that when I apply pressure with my legs, it disrupts my seat which compromises my ability to communicate with my horse. Leg pressure also interferes with his freedom of movement. Harley also hates (HATES) legs that go too far back. I used to put my leg way too far back to ask for the canter. He would buck or kick or just stop dead. He was frustrated with me.
"How do you expect me to balance myself for the canter with your leg blocking me like that? Do you want to canter or don't you?"
So I learned to move my lower leg back to a more agreeable degree and found that swinging my inside leg forward is often enough to initiate the canter. Moving my legs into a position for canter or lateral work does no real harm, but applying pressure definitely does. Every rider knows the expression "put your leg on" or "more leg". I really dislike these expressions and using my legs to keep a horse going.
I audited a Jane Savoie clinic before I met Harley and she spent the beginning of every lesson training the rider to make her horse responsible for gait and tempo. Everyone. From the teenager on the 19-year-old thoroughbred to the advanced rider on the baby (his first time off the property) to the riders with the expensive tack and well-bred horses. Ms. Savoie's message was that if your legs are keeping your horse going, they are not available to communicate with him.
It is okay to change the position of your legs and apply a leg to ask for engagement or a lengthening, but then your aids must go back to neutral. Most riders did not have a neutral gear until she showed them the light. Every rider was smiling after those lessons! Jane Savoie is as cool in person as she is in her instructional videos. She talked to the auditors, answered all questions, and even ate lunch with us. She is a class act.
As I have been working towards my goal, Harley has become more and more rideable. Although I do have to spend a little time each ride reminding him that tempo is his territory, not mine, he has been moving with more freedom and reaching to the bit. My revelation yesterday was in the walk. As part of our warmup, I like to incorporate some lateral work. Leg yield and shoulder-in are always first as they are the gentle, stretching exercises of the lateral world. You can gather a lot of information about how your horse is feeling by asking him to try these movements and listening to his responses. I spend more or less time in the warm up depending on how limber my horse feels that day. It is just like me touching my toes and relaxing into a couple lunges before a run.
So what I noticed on this day, was that I was sending my horse sideways completely from my inside seatbone. This was only possible, because my seat was open and my legs were absolutely silent. I looked down at my inside leg to confirm what I was feeling. Yup, my leg was just hanging there. Not pressing at all. If I tried applying my leg, my seatbone disappeared from the saddle. As long as I kept my leg slack, my seatbone was available to gently nudge him over. He stepped over with lovely fluidity. The shoulder-in felt especially easy. I tried it in sitting trot, which strengthened my revelation.
I was not using more seat. It was just that my seat was available to use, because my legs were silent. My horse could only listen to my seat if it was the primary aid. I had to trust Harley to listen and resist the temptation to use my legs. He rewarded me by not only listening, but focusing intently on our ride. More seat does not mean more!