Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A Rideless Riding Lesson

After many attempts to reconnect, I have been anxiously waiting to see my riding teacher since June.  Some of these attempts were interrupted by good things, like our trip to Hawaii, and others were not so merry, like 100 degree weather, high winds, and Hurricane Irene.  I finally had my long-awaited riding lesson on Friday.  I worked my core, I tested my balance, and I pushed the boundaries of my awareness as I tried to coax my body to a new understanding of centered.

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.

Bodywork:  This is my description of one of the exercises Harley practiced during the lesson.  Squeezing the brachiocephalicus muscle allows the horse to release his underneck and lengthen his topline.  My teacher asked Harley to release or telescope his neck while simultaneously asking for a belly lift.  Harley can perform a belly lift with impressive range, if I do say so myself.  This allowed him to learn the coordination and sensation of a supportive posture without compression.  This was basically the equine equivalent of what I was attempting to create with my posture.  Afterward, he spontaneously performed a neat "cat stretch".  Should we call that one "Downward Facing Horse"?

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.


  1. Your lesson sounds wonderful. Reading your exercises reminded me yet again of how beneficial yoga is (for me) to riding. It's those things like "finding" your upper back - or for me finding my shoulder blades and keeping them dropped away from my ears. Yes, it is hard. Yes, it is not for those who have huge egos. But, yes, I'm with you -- it is so worth the work.

  2. The human body can be a very frustrating thing, indeed. I frequently hear myself ask, "why is this so hard?" And I don't mean the riding. I mean control my own body. And as you said, for Heaven's sake!, how can I not know what certain parts are doing (that's YOU right hand!)?

    For many years, especially doing endurance, I kept all of my tension between my shoulder blades. It got to be so painful that at the end of 50 or 100 miles I would just lie on the ground to get some relief from the pain. Once I started riding dressage, that tension just melted away. I wish I was able to offer an explanation that might help you, but alas, I don't know where the tension went. Oh, wait, but I do. It's now in my hands!

    It sounds like you have an excellent teacher! I am glad you were able to finally reconnect with her. From personal experience I know how frustrating it is to want to improve, but without "help" it can be a much slower process.

    Karen from www.

  3. So I was reading this post and mentally linking it to Peggy Cummings and the Alexander Technique- when I got to the end and found out she's a Connected Riding instructor. Of course! Sally Swift did a lot of work with the Alexander technique and Peggy Cummings extrapolated on Sally Swift's work. Your teacher is a lucky find!

  4. Annette- Totally worth it. My homework was to transfer our exercises to the saddle. I had an amazing ride and hopefully I will be able to show Diane what we have learned next month.

    Karen- I think that not having to worry about finishing 99 more miles would melt the tension away! Maybe it was also starting a new discipline without the pressure to be the experienced endurance rider anymore.

    smaz- I suspected that you might have been somehow connected to Connected Riding in one of your posts a while back. I met Diane somewhat by accident and now I am so, so glad to have found her. I do feel lucky.

  5. What an interesting lesson. I thought it sounded a little hokey at first, but your description is pretty cool. Lucky you to have such an instructor.

  6. SprinklerBandit- A little hokey? How about a lot! ;)

    Just kidding. I am firmly grounded in science and do not subscribe to "magic". This lesson was about building new muscle memory. It is much easier for Diane to adjust my posture when she is right next to me than when I am on Harley. Of course, the rider's posture is always in motion, so I still must go to the saddle to test my ability to remain truly centered.

  7. I had one Alexander technique session bedore the practitioner mover out to the PNW - it took place in my saddle on a horse dummy. (Non mounted lessons are super helpful!) It was nothing short of mind blowing. The chronic hip issues I have seemed to melt away. I had a mounted lesson the next day - my seat had never felt so connected and my horse moved out so freely.

    You are very lucky to have found your trainer!

  8. Hi Calm, Forward, Straight!
    That sounds like an amazing experience. Dissolving physical pain is always a sure sign that you are on to something very good.

    To be honest, I have not read much about the Alexander technique, even though I have attended a couple Centered Riding clinics. I should probably do some reading...


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