All of this was done without removing my saddle from the tack room. No, I did not ride bareback and although Harley was still a part of the experience, the entirety of the lesson was conducted with my two feet planted firmly on the ground. Even just a few short years ago, I would have balked at the idea of not riding in a riding lesson. Ten years ago, I would have considered the notion a waste of time or for beginners only. It has taken me a long time to come round, but I am beginning to understand the importance of groundwork. It is not just for the horse. This is yet another paradox in riding. In order to improve one's riding, once in a while, keep your foot out of the stirrup.
With my teacher, I discussed the horse show, the judge's advice, and some of the things that Harley and I have been doing together. The cold, windy weather, and some family commitments were crunching my window of opportunity for enlightenment, but I was not about to miss another lesson. These non-riding elements contributed to the decision to keep the lesson on the ground. I am really glad that the lesson worked out this way. I feel like I was able to achieve a more focused understanding of where I should be in the saddle, because my teacher was able to give me instantaneous feedback and direction with my balance and position. While I was practicing an exercise or letting my body rest, she did some bodywork on Harley, asking him to release muscles which were holding, so that he could come into a better posture. She has an amazing way with horses. Her technique is somewhere between massage and equine yoga. Truthfully, I do not know how else to describe what she does, but horses respond to her and seem to tap into her intent very quickly. My tastes are for the scientific, rather than the mystical, but I think that my teacher caters to my interests and could just as easily please a person who was interested in Eastern medicine. Harley enjoys her company and communicates his approval with amiable mane shakes from side to side and a relaxed mobile jaw. I have watched her work on Harley and other horses before, but I have never been the subject myself. It was a very different learning experience.
I learned many things from this lesson. For example, when I am trying to find a centered upright position, I tend to lean back. I am sure that this stems from years of being told to "sit up" or "sit back". Standing on my own two feet, made me more aware that I was leaning back than I would have been in the saddle. I believe that this is true, because I have three points of support in the saddle (Well, six points, seven depending on your definition, but that is another discussion!), so I may not notice that I am rocking back on my heels. When I pull my elbows back to my sides, my upper body also rocks back beginning the dreaded hollow in my back. This hollow is not localized to my lower back. I can hollow my back all the way up to my shoulder blades. The judge had told me that she wants me to project my chest more, but my teacher does not want me to do this at the expense of hollowing my back between my shoulder blades or by squeezing my shoulder blades together. There should be a nice, soft channel between the rider's shoulder blades or scapula. The scapula should also be dropped, never raised, and never fixed or tight. I had to work my abs like crazy to figure out how to soften my upper back. I am coming close to mastering my lower back (although tension and trying too hard are the death of a soft back for me), but my teacher challenged me to engage the higher abdominal muscles in order to flatten my upper back. This was so difficult, that I had to assume a hunched over "C" position, before I could finally access my upper back. Then I had to ever so slowly uncoil the "C" while breathing into my upper back and keeping my abs active. Tapping my heel helped me feel the movement up my back muscles on either side of my spine. Without this motion, I could not "feel my back". That might sound strange. I was not aware of what my upper back was doing when it was static. I know from experience that I am able to hold this part of my position very rigid, but there is no feeling in rigidity. There were several times throughout the lesson when I asked out loud, "Why is this so hard to do?"
After I had some success with banishing the hollow and standing upright, I tried breathing into my chest to project with correct posture. I lost the correct feeling many times, and I would not say that I had a perfect spark of enlightenment, but I am getting closer to being able to control my body and my posture. The epitome of the lesson was trying to maintain my correct, centered posture, while walking. This was ridiculously difficult. I felt like I could not walk. One step and I might lose all that I had worked so hard to develop over the sixty minute session. Why do I put myself through this challenge? Why don't I just get on my horse and ride around and repeat to myself that I have been riding for 20+ years and I know how to do X, Y, and Z and Z+. Why? Because I do not want halfway understanding. I do not want to fool myself or pretend that I have accomplished anything short of mastery. I want to be correct. I want to be an excellent rider. I want to be an excellent trainer, even if Harley is the only horse that I ever own or train all on my own. So I put one foot in front of the other. I walked with stilted steps, trying to breath into my chest and stay over my feet. I raised my chin slowly, so as not to lean back, and moved my shoulder blades as I lifted each knee and pushed my foot forward. Are there other people out there who understand this? This type of patience and perseverance does not come without questioning oneself. Without wondering if it is worth the time, money, effort, risk of looking silly or looking like one still has a lot to learn. I have said this before and I will say it again. Learning to ride is learning to destroy the ego, over and over again. I am not learning to ride. I am learning to walk. And if I can walk correctly, then maybe, just maybe, I will be a better rider.
I would like to introduce you to my teacher. Her name is Diane Sept and she is a Connected Riding Senior Instructor Clinician. Wow! That sounds so official! She is also an awesome person and a truly horse-centered professional. Although not everything that Diane teaches is strictly Connected Riding curriculum (a lot of her stuff is uniquely Diane), you can read more about her and the Connected Riding philosophy at the Connected Riding website.