Saturday, May 26, 2012

Riding Reflection: Outside Aids (Riding, Articles, and Questions)

Harley and I had a short, sweet ride yesterday.  It was actually hot out, pushing the low 80's, so we took it easy since dinner time was on the horizon.  I remembered all the rides we used to do when he was younger and cantering was a bit too exciting and unbalanced to do every ride.  We had lots of productive walk-trot rides back then, so I decided that we were due for another.  There is much to be said for the benefits of practicing simple trot-walk-trot transitions with changes of direction and small circles.  Like everything in dressage, simple is a fleeting thought and usually hides more underneath.

Time to go ride!

Once we warmed up, I decided to move to sitting trot.  We were riding in the small ring so as not to disturb another rider's lesson (or eat excessive arena dust from two horses moving about).  The small ring is great for feeling straightness.  The fence makes an excellent reference point and also makes it easier to judge positioning for lateral work.  As we moved along in trot, I remembered a couple things that I have read recently.  One was from a blog author, Dressage Mom, and the other was a recent article in Dressage Today, "Ride Like a Pro", Part 1, by Christopher Hess.  Dressage Mom wrote about contact and described it as something that the rider and the horse make together.  The horse and rider must each take the same amount of contact from either side for a harmonious connection to develop.  The Christopher Hess article discussed the mindset of great riders.  Really great riders are always working to improve their way of riding.  There is no sitting back on your laurels if you want to be a great rider.  You must ride every step and you must constantly strive to ride correctly.

So armed with insight, I challenged myself to ride every step.  To feel every step.  This did not mean that I was harder on Harley or nitpicked his way of going.  It also does not mean that I chastised myself into riding better.  I just tried to be present for every moment.  I studied my aids.  I shifted my focus from my feet to my hands and my seat, the reins, my shoulders, and back again.  I felt how much I took on the reins and how much Harley was taking.  If he wanted more support from me, I gave it to him, rather than worrying about not being light enough.  If he started to shorten his neck, I could feel this as him beginning to drop the contact.  I encouraged him forward with a nudge from my inside leg and a gentle push from my seat.  If we transitioned up or down and the contact did not stay the same throughout, I repeated the transition immediately.  I wanted quality, not quantity.  The more careful I was about it, the less often we had to repeat something.  Harley got steadier, because I got steadier.  He paid attention more, because I was.  Giving your attention and concentration to something completely is difficult, even if it is something that you love as much as I love riding Harley.  That was the real challenge.  Keep the focus.  Don't lose it for a second.

I felt my outside seat bone in the saddle around turns.  The inside was a little more forward and lighter, to allow Harley to lift his shoulders.  I discovered that I could help us keep a super steady contact on the outside rein during a transition, if I focused on keeping contact with my outside seat bone and outside leg as well as the rein.  My outside leg actually initiated the downward transition.

Isn't that weird?  

My inside leg became active if we lost the bend or he started to back off the contact, but as long as my horse was honestly with me, the outside aids seemed to be more important for these "simple" trot-walk-trot transitions.  I noticed that I found this exercise much easier when my right side was on the outside.  I am right-handed, so this was not surprising.  When my left side was on the outside, I had to think myself through every single transition and turn.  At one point, I shifted my weight too dramatically to the outside, left seat bone, and Harley stopped.  He wrapped his head around to look at me.  Oops.  Apparently, subtlety is more difficult for my weaker side, too.  This was a meaningful discovery.

Once we were flowing along, I knew that I was getting better.  My legs truly hung down on either side of my horse.  I stretched into my heels and it actually felt good.  Usually, I do not want to stretch my calves that much in sitting trot, but this time it felt right.  My seat felt really glued to the saddle.  Concentrating on each seat bone separately had given me that "plugged" in feeling.  I had contact with the reins and the bit and contact with my seat and every inch of my inner thighs.  Harley felt straight as an arrow and totally in my hand.  I experimented with shortening the reins a hair and then letting them out.

Will my horse increase and decrease the contact as I ask him to?  

This was an interesting game.  Harley likes to play it from his side, too.  He will move along in a nice frame and reach forward with his nose to stretch for a stride or two.  My elbows open and go with him and then bounce back to their starting point.  I found myself wondering if that would be considered a fault.

Should I not let him do that or was that precisely the type of elastic connection that I was supposed to have established?  

I cannot wait for my instructor to return so that I can get out my list of questions.  In the meantime, feel free to help me with your thoughts and answers!


  1. My trainer always tells me that the outside aids are what develop contact and balance. This is super important with a young, green horse like Winston. I hardly do anything with the inside aids at all. You are on the right track. I like how you describe contact -- it is definitely a partnership feel.

    1. I know what you mean about the inside rein, Annette. A little while back, I misjudged a turn in canter and there was some "ring junk" in the way so I had to ask Harley to do a very hard left turn on his less balanced lead. In desperation, I hauled on both reins, really pulling his neck to the left. Every inch of me was screaming "NO!!! Not the inside rein! How dare you steer with reins!" I felt like I was breaking all the rules, but I also felt like it was the only way to avoid running into the pile of trot poles and jump blocks.

      Harley's response to the imbalance? He did a perfect flying change onto the right lead. Thank goodness for a handy horse! He probably wondered why I was trying so desperately to tip him over. The young, green Harley I used to know would definitely have panicked. Your trainer gives good advice! ;)

  2. We explored the outside seatbone today as well. When I had my outside rein contact right, and felt my outside seatbone just a bit more, we really rode into our corners.

    I'm still mostly in the realm of making sure both seatbones are actually on the saddle. This afternoon was one of the first times I've differentiated the seatbones. The results were undeniable.

    As to your last question, I vote for elasticity. :)

    1. Thanks for voting!

      I rediscover my seat bones and many other things in riding all the time. There is nothing like riding a really good corner. What do non-riders do to amuse themselves, anyway? They are missing out, for sure.

  3. Your ride sounds great and it is such a nice feeling to really feel 'together' with your horse. I like your idea of being plugged in!. Am envious of your summer weather. It's raining here!!!!

    1. Thanks, Sally! I remember drooling over your beautiful summer days while we were in winter. At least we can live vicariously through eachother's blogs. ;)

    2. You and Harley are making great strides in feel and connectedness. I think you and he make a great team. It's so much fun to discover new things and think about them. When your trainer gets there I'm sure all the questions you've asked will be answered. Have a great weekend.

    3. Thank you, Grey Horse Matters. You always leave such kind and encouraging comments.

      Have a wonderful holiday!

  4. I just tried to be present for every moment. I studied my aids. I shifted my focus from my feet to my hands and my seat, the reins, my shoulders, and back again.

    Just love that and I will be working with this idea in mind today. I don't have anything to add to help you, just to say I come here to learn from you! :)

    Thanks. And I am in love with dapples this summer as well!

    1. Hi Margaret. You have two beautiful boys to admire as their coats change! I hope you have fun riding your young Sebastian.


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