Dawn, Red, Pie and I have been doing some beach riding the past two days. No, no warm oceans or even cold lakes - just a cold indoor arena with new footing. All the old sand was removed and new sand put in. The new footing is deep and somewhat slippery - just about like walking on a sandy beach in an area the tide doesn't usually reach. It's a bit better today - more settled - than it was yesterday, and after our day off on Sunday it might be time to trot - right now I'm not happy with the deepness and don't want any injuries.
This isn't a problem, since there's always something interesting and useful to do at the walk. It's a great place to work on getting fundamentals right, since if it isn't right at the walk, it won't be right at the trot, and so on.
And as usual (Dawn, Red and Pie would say "what else is new?") we worked on me. We worked specifically on my head, shoulder and hip position, both when tracking straight and when doing turns. There's a bit of background to this. I have a long history of lower back trouble and poor posture, and still have to be careful about how I move and how I lift. But my increased level of exercise and core strength from riding have helped a lot. But I still didn't move or stand quite right due to my history of protecting my back.
Then, at the Mark Rashid clinic in June, 2012, Mark got me to let go in my lower back, and allow my hips to move - amazing difference. I was actually moving through my seat with the horse, rather than blocking the motion - and even more amazing, it didn't hurt. Mark also pointed out that a relaxed lower back makes your seat much more secure in the event the horse makes a sudden move - bracing tends to pop you up out of the saddle.
Heather had also been working with me on keeping my eyes and head up, as a proxy for improving my posture, and it did, although it was a partial improvement. I like it that both Mark and Heather don't give you all the answers - they give you a start, and help you acquire the mindset to figure things out on your own. So that's what I've been doing for the past year and a half when it comes to my body position. When I took my lesson with Mark last June, he asked me if I'd had any lessons or coaching since the last clinic - my answer was no, but my horses had been my teachers - and he was delighted with this answer and said that the horses are always the best teachers.
One side effect of letting go in my lower back was that the tense area - and some pain - moved up to my mid-back. So next I had to work on letting go there, and so on. By last summer, the area of tension had moved up to between my shoulders. The final piece was to fix my head and neck position, together with the top area of my back just below the neck. I'm not 100% of the way there yet, but Dawn and Red and Pie and I have made some very good progress in the past two days towards getting things fixed up. Our two days of walk rides have allowed me to practice and begin to make these correct behaviors more automatic - and the walk can be pretty unforgiving in terms of showing up flaws - that's one reason I'm a big fan of work at the walk.
I think I've mentioned the concept of mirroring before - it's a concept Mark introduced me to, and I've found it very powerful. A related concept is "the horse goes the way you ride" - this essentially means that if a horse is having a particular issue or difficulty doing something (and the horse is sound, not in pain and understands what you want because you're clear and consistent), then the problem is almost always with you. What this means in practice is that what you do with your hips, seat and legs has a direct impact on how the horse moves its hindquarters, and what you do with your upper body, neck, head and arms and hands has a disproportionate effect on the horse's shoulders, front legs, neck and head. But Mark says, and I've found it to be true, that the effect is much more direct than just a general correspondence - there can be a remarkable degree of one-to-one correspondence between a particular issue you have in your body and something your horse does. I've actually seen Mark at clinics ask a rider if they have a problem with, say, their right hip, or their left shoulder - an old injury, say - and when the rider is very surprised and asks how he knew, he says he could see it from how the horse was moving - the horse's right hip, or left shoulder, wasn't moving normally.
Perhaps describing what Dawn, Red, Pie and I have been working on in our walk rides will make this "mirroring" concept more clear. Now, horses often manage somehow to compensate for our defects in posture, or for our bracing and blocking, but sometimes they don't. Pie, right now, is my "tell" - he's the one of my three who, if I'm not doing things correctly, will mirror pretty exactly what I'm doing (wrong). Dawn and Red attempt to "read in" what I'm asking them to do, even if I'm getting in the way of a clear signal because of something I'm doing with my body. Pie, on the other hand, is a literalist - if I'm not doing something correctly, well, then, he says he can't do it correctly either - and he thinks he shouldn't be expected to - "so, there" I can hear him say.
So here's what's been happening. Pie can fall on the forehand, and dive with his head and neck - and I will be looking down, dropping my chin or leaning forward with my upper body. He can fall in with his inside shoulder around a turn - and I'll be dropping my inside shoulder and leaning my head to one side. He can fail to step under with the inside hind in a turn - and I'll be failing to open my hip. My issues are far more when tracking right than when tracking left - and lo and behold, all my horses, but especially Pie, have had more trouble moving correctly when tracking right.
And compensating with aids, or fussing with the horse's head and neck position, usually gets you precisely nowhere - all it does is focus your energy down instead of up and out (it's this focus of energy up and out that really creates forward, not leg and certainly not seat) and introduce blocks and braces.
So our work today was about my sitting fully upright, allowing my whole body to move with the horse, while keeping my chin and eyes high and head over my spine - no leaning forward or looking down. On turns, my job was to turn my head - while continuing to look up and out - move my inside shoulder back slightly - without rounding or dropping it - and slightly open my inside hip angle. That's it, that's all. It was very hard tracking right - that head wants to tilt rather than turn - my head doesn't turn to the right as easily - and the right shoulder to drop, and oh boy, opening my right hip is hard. Pie told me when I was doing it correctly - all three did but Pie was the strictest judge. I was sore through my neck and across the top of my shoulders last night, but it felt much better today.
We did lots of circles and figures to give me a workout and lots of practice. Every time I do it correctly - just turning my head, keeping focus up, slightly opening inside shoulder and hip - the horses all responded just beautifully. I also worked on getting more or less bend/turn by varying how much I turned my head and opened my shoulder and hip. No other aids needed - no reins, no leg, no pushing with the seat. Just beautiful, fluid walking - and I noticed that both Dawn and Pie, who can tend to fall on the forehand, felt as if their forehands were marvelously elevated (Red did too but he's more naturally uphill), which isn't that easy to get at the walk. It was just fabulous. Now that the last bit of locked-up-ness in my shoulders and neck is breaking loose, the horses say they're much happier - and I am too.
So remember, your horse will mirror you - if you're having trouble, say, with the horse's right shoulder - look to what you're doing with your right shoulder. If your horse falls on the forehand, are you leaning forward or looking down? If your horse isn't stepping under with the left hind, look at what your left hip is doing. And keep an open posture, head up and focus up and out, with relaxation in your whole body so you move with the horse. And no leaning forward, back or to the side. Your horse goes the way you ride . . .