Why Novice Riders Get Hurt and What We Can Do About It
We continue from Part 8 with the detailed description of the all-important first actual riding lesson, in which you will learn a few ‘tricks’ which will have your student sitting correctly—that is, effectively, comfortably and safely, on a horse wearing a pad and a grounding strap.
First I want to mention that the pad should not be one of those pads that have an attached surcingle and a small grab strap. These are almost impossible to sit on correctly, and are often uncomfortable for the horse as well. My preferred set up consists of a fairly thick rectangular pad, with a saddled-shaped pad on top. The latter come with straps near the top, used to attach the pad to the billets of the saddle, and a girth loop to hold the bottom in place. The shoulder straps of the grounding strap are fastened to the upper strap, preventing the pads from sliding back, and the surcingle is held in place by the girth loop. If the horse is very bony, additional pads can be added.
A surcingle can be easily made by using the horse’s own girth and two one inch stirrup leathers, all of which you probably have. Simply pass the stirrup leathers through the buckles on one end of the girth and pull them through until the stirrup and girth buckles are touching. Place that side of the girth on the horse’s off side, passing the girth and/or leathers through the girth loop. The stirrup leathers will pass over the horse’s back, on top of the pads, and buckle to the girth buckles on the near side. (Don’t forget the girth loop.) You may have to punch more holes in the leathers, but my experience has been that, provided they are evenly spaced, you can’t have too many holes in stirrup leathers!
Now for the grounding strap.* I developed this over an extended period of time, and believe it is the essential tool for creating good hands and a good seat at the same time, and at the very beginning of learning, so that bad habits don’t have a chance to form. If you read nothing else I have written, read about this.
First, when learning a balance skill, you must have a secure handhold. Without one, it is virtually impossible for your body to relax and find natural balance, especially when, as on a horse, the idea of falling is very frightening. Once your body has developed the necessary reflexes and has learned how to balance, the handhold becomes just a steadying light contact.
However, there is a right way and a wrong way to use your hands for balance on the horse. This has to do with the way your body transfers contact from one part of the body to another. You want the hold on the grounding strap to be transferred to your seat bones without pulling your upper body forward. This helps you to feel secure, and at the same time helps keep the horse in front of your center, which makes it much easier to keep him going forward.
Have the student try both right and wrong hand positions standing on the ground. This begins with having the student let her arms dangle loosely by her sides. Then, telling her to relax and not try to move anything, you pick up one of her arms just above the wrist and bring it up so that her elbow is bent and hangs just in front of her shoulder, with her hand and wrist hanging loosely, her thumb on top, lying lightly against her index finger, and her fingers lightly curled. This is the desired position.
Now have lift her hand up from the wrist so that the back of her hand is vertical, the joint in her thumb is the highest point, and the wrist is locked. She should move back and forth between the two positions so she feels and understands the difference.
Next you show her the difference in the way her body responds to the different hand positions, using reins and having her hold them between her thumb and forefinger, while her other fingers curl softly around the reins without gripping. For this exercise she should use only the first two fingers around the reins, which makes it easier to feel and to learn. She should stand up straight and grounded, with her knees slightly bent, while you crouch in front of her so that you are pulling from where the horse’s head would be. With her hands in the cocked up position, pull the reins steadily with moderate strength, so she feels how it pulls her forward. (Don’t pull so hard that she feels she is going to fall.)
Now have her return to her original body position, then take the correct hand position described above. Pull against the reins just as you did before, and she will feel that instead of pulling her over, it actually helps her to center and ground.
Now for the riding part of the lesson. If at all possible you should have an assistant who controls the horse and steadies the student on the off side. Go quickly through the Seven Steps,** with special attention to longitudinal balance and following seat.
Begin with a mount and dismount, once slowly to check for errors, and once more quickly, to learn how much extra effort dismounting from the pad will take. In addition the student is shown how to rotate her body, as soon as it is all on the near side, so that she lands facing forward in the direction the horse will be moving.
When that is done, the student is remounted, and helped to loosen her legs and find the correct upper body position. Her weight should be on her seat bones, not her crotch or tail bone; her lumbar spine should be straight—neither hollow nor rounded. Now she is ready for the grounding strap. If it is correctly placed on the horse, the line of contact will be very close to that of holding the reins, i.e. straight line from elbow to bit. For this first lesson the instructor places the student’s hands on the strap just as though she were holding the reins–except that she uses only two fingers–and adjusts the length for her so that she has a light contact, with her arms in correct position and her weight on her seat bones.
When this is complete, the student’s elbows will hang slightly in front of her rib cage, the backs of her hands will be parallel with the horse’s shoulders with the thumbs lying softly on the top of the grounding strap to hold it In place, while the two fingers are softly curled around it. Have her pull gently against the grounding strap to feel how it deepens her seat without making her tense.
Now ask her to just think her way through the Seven Steps. When she is finished, start the horse walking slowly forward in a straight line, going left hand around. Ask the student to keep her eyes soft and feel how the horse’s back is moving under her left seat bone. She should try to keep the pressure steady as the horse moves, by allowing her seat to fall as his back falls (it will come up by itself.) When you come to a corner, make a smooth wide turn, pulling gently down on the student’s inside leg to keep her centered. When she seems to be following with her left seat bone easily, ask her to think about both seat bones and see if she can keep even pressure on them, but continue to help her stay centered on the turns.
After walking around the arena perhaps once, you might notice that your student is beginning to lean a bit more forward than she should. This happens because the horse’s movement causes her to rock forward and back slightly. She can see the horse’s neck out in front of her, which her reflex brain tells her makes that a safe place to be. Since she can’t see behind her at all, her reflex brain tells her that leaning back even a little bit is dangerous.
We need to change that thinking! And there’s a very simple trick that makes the situation plain to her body. Your assistant should have some horsey treats in her pocket for this exercise, and a horse that likes treats. With the horse standing still with his head in normal position, and with your hand on the student’s knee, have her let go of the grounding strap, hold both arms extended out in front of her, and lean as far forward as feels safe to her.
Now have the assistant use a treat to get the horse to drop his head quickly, and as low as possible (the way he might do if he stumbled badly.) The student’s reflex will cause her body to tense up. It will certainly take note of the fact that the horse’s head and neck are not to be depended upon! “Forward’ is scary. The next step is to teach the reflex that ‘back’ is not a bad place to be, in fact it’s quite safe. You do this by supporting the student with your hand behind her back, letting her reach back with her hands or elbows, and carefully lie back on the horse. She should lift her knees slightly to take the strain off her back. (Need I say you have to use a horse who is accustomed to this?) The student will be very tense at first, until she gets all the way down; then, I find, very often a smile appears, and she says, “Hey, this is comfortable!”
Let her lie there for a minute, then help her to sit up and find her position again. Now start the horse walking as before. If there is time, have her try a couple of gradual halts, explaining that she will tend to fall forward, and needs to keep her head up and shoulders back to keep from doing do. Most people’s bodies tip forward the first time, but after a couple of tries they can stay fairly centered longitudinally throughout the transition. Step one in how not to fall off!
One more dismount, and we’re done. Next time, lateral centering.
* Information about purchasing grounding straps coming soon.
** Go here for a complete description of the Seven Steps.