The Seven Steps are the way you teach your body to release tensions when you’re riding, and prevent them from building up in the first place. I offer them in the order that works the best for most people, but you can do them in any order, or just do one or two, or whatever works or you feel you need. They should be practiced not only on the horse but also on the ground and driving the car and waiting in line at the grocery store etc. etc. They’re good for all kinds of situations, and the more you practice them the more likely they are to be there when you really need them. For the standing ones, stand with your feet comfortable apart and your knees unlocked but not bent. Ground your feet as best you can (as described in another post.)
1) Growing. Start with the left arm. Bring your hand up so your thumb is in front of your nose then continue up, following it with your head and eyes until your arm is straight up. Drop your head until your face is vertical (‘looking over granny glasses’) and reach up higher with your hand until you feel the pull in your side. Bring the arm down, repeat with the right arm except, instead of bringing it straight down, bring your hand to the center of the top of your head–between your two ears, lined up with your nose. Tap the top of your head and bring your hand down. Then imagine you are hanging suspended from the top of your head.
This exercise frees up your whole body and makes room for it to move and do the other exercises. Makes you feel elegant, too.
2) Shakeout. Start with left arm. Let it dangle and shake your fingers as though you are shaking water off them. Very loose floppy motion. Then shake your hand, wrist, forearm, elbow and arm in that order. Shake out the right arm. Let your arms dangle and shakeout your shoulders and shoulder blades. Then do your legs: feet, ankles, shins, knees, thighs. Drop your upper body so it flops down from the waist and shake out your hips and whatever else needs it.
Gets rid of small tensions. Good just before competition. Some of it you can’t do safely on a horse. Use a little discretion.
3) Breathing. Most important, most used. Short inhale, then loooooong exhale using the diaphragm. Human equivalent of ‘blowing out’. If you have lots of time, lie on floor and imagine the air is a beautiful color(s). Fill every corner of your body with the colored air, then breathe it all out again.
Proper diaphragmatic breathing helps your brain to feel confident and relaxed. Also your horse. Be sure exhale is loooong and slow.
4) Teeter-totter. (Longitudinal centering) Standing, rock forward and backward on feet; sitting, rock on seat bones. Hold hands out in front of you. Grow, then lean slowly forward until you feel tension in legs or inner thighs. Object is to see how quickly you can spot the tension, not how far you can lean forward. Then rock back and look for tension again–in lower back and buttocks. Rock back and forth slowly several times, ending leaning back. Come slowly forward just until the tension disappears.
When there is no tension, you have found your longitudinal center over your base. You are perfectly balanced, so there is no tension to upset you or your horse.
5) Soft Eyes. Another very important one. You can do this at the computer. With your head level, stare at an object directly in front of you and no more than 10 feet away. Try to block out everything else. This is ‘hard eyes.’ then without moving your eyes allow yourself to see all around.This is ‘soft eyes’
Reach back with one arm well behind you. Wiggling your fingers, bring your arm slowly forward until you are aware of it with your eyes (don’t turn your head). Stop when you can see your hand, turn your head and see where your hand is. wow.
Soft eyes help you with your awareness of your body in space, so help your balance during sudden movements. Also turn on your right brain so you can act holistically (getting it all together.)
6) Lateral Centering. Stand with feet somewhat apart. Raise your left hand over your head, reaching across your head so that your right shoulder drops. Feel how your hips go to the left and your weight goes onto your left foot. You lift your arm to make a space so that your hips can move to the left. Your center is contained in your pelvis, so your center is moving to the left, over your left foot. As your center moves left your shoulders tip to the right.Keeping your left arm up, bring your right arm up as well, then reach both arms to the left, allow your hips and center to go right and feel your weight shift to the right foot.
Drop your arms and try to get the same weight shift by lifting your left armpit and imagining a big ball in your stomach rolling out the ‘door’ you opened in your left side. Try it also to the right, making sure that your hips come through as well. They have a tendency to get stuck on the left side.
Lateral centering is used to follow the horse’s body as he turns. You actually have to move your center in the direction he is turning in order to keep him underneath you. Notice that if you lean your shoulders in, that is, drop your inside shoulder, as most people do, it moves your center to the outside and then you have to grip with your thigh, which makes you even more insecure. If you lift your inside shoulder then your hips and center can move to the inside, following the horse around the turn. Your weight stays even on both seat bones and your legs stay relaxed
If you are using stirrups, press on the outside stirrup and straighten your leg, which will push your center to the inside until your weight is even on both stirrups. If you are without stirrups you have to give a little wiggle with your hips to move your pelvis to the inside. As you move your hips to the inside of the turn to stay over the horse, don’t let your outside seatbone slide past (to the inside of) the longitudinal center of the saddle–or the horse’s spine if you’re bareback.
This is a very neglected concept that causes a lot of tension in both horses and riders. Unless you are very confirmed in lateral centering, as soon as you start using your aids you lose it. Because the horse’s lateral axis is quite short he can be unbalanced laterally very easily. The ubiquitous ‘cuttting in’ that most horses do in arenas is caused by lack of lateral centering.
Next time you’re in the car, feel how your weight shifts to your outside seatbone on the turns, and your shoulders tilt/lean to the inside to compensate. That’s what you *don’t* want to do on the horse. What you want to do is what an experienced subway or bus rider does when they are standing up. As the subway zooms around the curves, the rider shifts his weight (center) so he stays evenly on both feet, rather than falling onto the outside foot (or someone’s lap<G>)
(If you’re having real problems, or for more in-depth work on this, see also the Lateral Centering Addendum on Centering to the Right, at the end of this page)
7) Following Seat. This is easier to feel on the horse first. Bareback with pad is easier than saddle. Slide your hand waaay in under your buttocks until you find your seat bone, which is quite far forward and almost in the middle. It is also quite sharp. (You can find it sitting in your office chair by wiggling back and forth from one bun to the other, then sliding your hand under to feel it. (Hoping no one is watching<G>)
Imagine that there is velcro on your seat bones and on the saddle or pad. As the horse walks, think about the left seat bone and that it is velcroed to the saddle/pad. It will follow the horse’s back down, then back up again. You have to be really long and loose in the waist, so grow again if necessary. When you have the left seat bone going, add the right one. You should feel even pressure on both seat bones nearly all the time. ‘Even’ as in constant, and ‘even’ as in being the same as the pressure on the other seat bone.
Following seat is what allows you to sit the gaits without bouncing, assuming the horse will allow you to sit. (Horses who are very tense backed and fearful of pain from sitting may not allow you to sit.)
It is easy to confuse lateral centering and following seat since they both involve the seat bones. Lateral centering is what allows your seat bones to follow with even pressure during turns.
I should mention that for public practice you can just do a bare minimum and imagine the rest, like growing by imagining your head being pulled up by a string, for example, instead of going through the arm bit. While the exercises described above are important for learning, once you know how things should feel you can get pretty correct without going through the whole routine.
Seven Steps Addendum: Centering to the right.
Stand in front of a full length mirror with your feet a little apart. Reach up with your left arm as high as you can, so you really feel the stretch on your left side. Then reach over your head to the right and at the same time swing your hips to the left so that your body makes a smooth bow shape. Your center will be over your left foot which will be more weighted than the right. This is left centering, and is easy.
Now, keeping the stretch on the left side, and letting your hips straighten out, bring your right arm up as well, bringing it as high as possible and kind of stretching one side and then the other until your body is equally stretched on both sides and your hands are side by side over your head. Now, keeping both arms up, see if you can get the same smooth bow shape to the right, by bringing your hands over to the left and letting your right hip swing out. Now your center is over your right foot, which is weighted. Notice especially that your hips are well to the right of your shoulders.
It’s fairly easy when you’re watching yourself in the mirror and holding both hands up, but unless you keep the left side long, instead of getting a smooth bowshape you get kind of a hitch in the middle, and your shoulders stick out to the right more than your hips. Since this is what your body does naturally, it feels right, but it creates some tensions that lead to all kinds of problems for both you and the horse.
I do hope that some of you take the time to experiment with and study this. You’ll be glad you did.