Why Novice Riders Get Hurt, and What We Can Do About It
In the previous article in this series, we completed the process of teaching the emergency dismount, the tool that gives the rider’s body confidence that it can get safely to the ground in virtually any dangerous situation, and also teaches it that gripping with the legs makes things worse, not better. (It will require much repetition before the body adjusts to these ‘new ideas.’)
I did not cover emergency dismounts from a Western saddle, since I do not consider myself sufficiently qualified to discuss it. But my opinion is that the same dismount that rodeo competitors use when they dismount at speed to deal with a calf or steer would be a safe and effective emergency dismount. There is one possible difficulty. While the dismount you learned in the earlier articles will nearly always cause the horse to stop or at least hesitate—since you are jumping ahead of his center, and his prey instinct tells him to avoid you-the-predator, in the Western dismount you land behind his center, sending him forward, which could make the landing rougher.
Now we are going to focus on moving forward with the riding itself. The ground work for this second should consist of a review of the previous lesson, perhaps introducing the curry comb and walking around the hindquarters. In these early lessons most of the grooming should focus on the horse’s body, perhaps down as far as the horse’s knees and only on the top and sides. Working lower, especially around the hind legs, can be threatening until the student feels really comfortable with the horse on the ground. The lesson finishes with the instructor tacking up the horse in his ‘bareback’ outfit, which consists of pad(s)—‘naked’ horses are too bony and too slippery, and the pressure of the rider’s seat bones can be very uncomfortable, even harmful, to the horse’s back. The pad is held on with a surcingle and the ‘grounding strap™’. The latter is a development of the neck or grab strap which aids in teaching balance, correct hand position and rein management skills. It also acts as a breastplate to keep the pad from sliding back.
Why pads instead of a saddle? The saddle is primarily a device to allow the use of stirrups because the tree keeps the saddle from turning when the rider’s weight gets in one stirrup. Sally Swift taught me that in order for the stirrups to be used correctly, the rider’s legs must be completely relaxed, so that the foot stays in the iron of its own weight. Since we have already determined that the rider’s legs are very tense in the early stages, using the stirrups would simply develop more bad habits. A saddle without stirrups is slippery and flat, making it difficult to maintain lateral centering. A horse’s back with the right pad is not slippery, and the rider can easily and comfortably feel the horse’s backbone, which marks his center.
Now the student is ready to mount. She should be given a leg up as before, and should make at least one partial mount to make sure that she follows the careful steps she learned in her first lesson. What we don’t want to see or encourage Is the panicky scramble to put her right leg over so she can use it to grip, in the mistaken belief that that is the safe way to sit. She should do as many partial mounts as she needs until her right leg will dangle passively until her body is centered over the horse, at which point she can pivot her body to face forward and bring her right leg across and down.
I cannot emphasize too strongly the importance in these early lessons of staying relaxed and centered throughout the mounting process. Any time the body is allowed to take over into panic mode is going to require many repeats of correct procedure to break the pattern.
The Grounding Strap
First about using one’s hands on the grounding strap to learn balance. Many instructors don’t want the student to hold onto something for balance, because they think it will result in the student hanging on the horse’s mouth when she uses the reins. Actually, once a person has her balance, it only takes the lightest of touches to maintain it. If you remember learning to ride a bicycle, in the beginning you clung to the handlebars like grim death, but once you found your balance with your center, you only needed a light hold, and often could balance without holding on at all. And a horse is nowhere near as hard to find your basic balance on (excluding spooks and bucks, which are a somewhat different problem.) By using the grounding strap in the same way she would use the handlebars, the student’s body is able to find true balance, and eventually the light feel on the grounding strap becomes light contact on the reins, enabling both rider and horse to maintain balance, or in quiet circumstances, no contact at all.
Before we start, I run the student through the Seven Steps—Growing, Shakeout, Breathing, Soft Eyes, Longitudinal Centering, Lateral Centering, Following Movement¹—and finish by having her wiggle her toes and ground.*
The next step is very important for maintaining longitudinal centering. The goal is to keep your weight on your seat bones, not your crotch or tailbone. Using the grounding strap will help you to do this, but only if you use it correctly. You want to pull so that your seat bones take the pressure and your center stays back, slightly behind the horse’s center.
Believe it or not, the way you hold your hand and wrist directly affects this. The hands are always held with the thumb on top, with the back of the hand parallel to the slope of the horse’s shoulder. But many riders are also taught to hold their hands cocked up from the wrist, so that the thumb is the highest point. When you do this, the line of pull goes up the top of your forearm to the back of your upper arm—the triceps, thence down the front of your body, pulling you forward onto your crotch—and over the horse’s head if he stops suddenly, but in any case your center is ahead of his, which tends to make him reluctant to go forward.
If instead you allow your hand to fall naturally from the wrist so that the thumb is lower, and points down towards the horse’s opposite nostril, the pull goes up the underside of your forearm—on a line with your little finger—thence to the front of your upper arm—the biceps and then down your back, bringing your center back behind the horse’s center and your weight on your seat bones, a far more secure position, and more effective in keeping the horse slightly ahead of your center at all times.
Next time we’ll talk about how to achieve this and apply it.**
* For a more complete description of the seven steps, go to http://whatyourhorsewants.com/resources/7-steps
**.also see Ch. 5 in The Gentle Art of Horseback Riding