My glutes are getting work again. They need to be reminded that they have a job and are subject to regular work appraisals, but I get the idea that they don’t really give a rats ass. Getting them to work properly for riding when they have been stretched and de-activated by years of bending over trimming horses, is in my experience a case of literally kicking ass until they activate and then working them a lot more than you might think. Luckily for me though I have this dead critical inner PE teacher, who warns me that if I’m not careful my legs will drag me towards the sofa and I may never move again unassisted (until the fire brigade have to take down the end wall of the house to get me out in one piece).
So on days like today when the day stretches ahead like a smooth, clean page, when I can decide to spend hours doing things, and what kind of fun I can have, I still start with a workout. Why? Because I like to move and I like to move as well as I can. You can keep your duvet days. By about 3pm I’d need tenderising with a mallet. If I haven’t got all my bits flowing and talking to each other, then when I go to RIDE and I want to PRACTISE and get into something NEW, or go out on the trail and have the best FUN possible ever, some bits won’t work properly and my horse will have to compromise on my behalf. A workout makes the rest of the day the top half of the first division.
These days as my body is feeling a bit battered by years of trimming horses feet and other stuff, being supple in the morning without even a short mobility session and regular chiro treatments is rare. Still cool, but also crrrr…unchy. Restoring my mobility after sleep can take from fifteen minutes to forty five, depending on how stiff I am, how much time I have, and what I am prepared to put up with for the rest of the day. As I progress from not being able to put my socks on to intense full body stretches, I start to feel the layers of stiffening melting away from my muscles and fascia. To be able to impact on it in just fifteen minutes with the right kind of mobility activities is brilliant, but it also means I can’t not do it, if that makes sense.
My helpful friends include a spiky massage ball, a foam roller, a yoga mat, a mirror, lots of water to rehydrate, and guidance from some fantastic bodyworkers and body thinkers. My helpful labrador Katy coaches my mobility sessions, and adds a few shoves and a bit of a wrestle to test me. She has graunchy days too, and her favourite thing is to roll about on warm dry grass, or in front of the fire, and I wonder why we don’t follow our bodies and do more of this ourselves. Why do we have sofas even? I sometimes just want to lie on my back in a deep shingle bed and wriggle all of myself mobile. I get into deep practise as much as I can during mobility sessions so I can focus on making improvements and stay in the moment.
Dr Kelly Starrett in his very useful book Becoming a Supple Leopard agrees (although he does go into lots of specifics as well):
“Don’t feel like you have to overcomplicate this mobilisation by targeting specific muscles. People like to say, ‘Hit your glute med or short hip rotators’. If your last anatomy lesson involved dissecting a frog, this advice might leave you a tad clueless. What’s important is that you find your business and put in some quality work, staying on the tight area until you make change. Fundamental stuff.”
Dr Kelly Starrett (2015).
Today in my horse life it was right for Lad and I to have some ‘us’ time. Also fundamental stuff. There is a lovely depth of snow on all the trails, so we went for a perambulate round the loch in the late afternoon. Now himself has been babysitting for a few weeks, which has been necessary for young Oro, but not Lad’s favourite way to be with me. We walked across three fields together on foot first. Walking for the first part with your horse helps you tune in to each other safely, and warms your body up in movement before you ride. He paused a couple of times en route, and made one fairly determined suggestion that we turned left and Went Home Now Before we Got Too Far. If you turn left long enough however you end up pointing where you started, and as I took the executive decision not to join in with his going home ideas, and I had positive feelings about getting out on the trail, we got on reasonably coherently. On board I received a few further questions from him about my personal commitment to the trail (a subject I will write about again) for the next 100 yards. I must have answered them convincingly enough for him, he relaxed and said OK he was ready to start Enjoying Himself and maybe It Wouldn’t Be So Bad. (I know it sounds anthropomorphic, but I hope appropriately so).
“Anthropomorphism is making judgements about other species based on our own human way of experiencing and interpreting the world… [It] allows us to use, as a starting point, what we know (because of who we are) in our interpretation of what other mammals, at least, do and how they are.
But we must be very critical of making judgements assuming that equines are ‘just like us’. We must understand where the differences lie, in both what we perceive and how we analyse this information.”
Marthe Kiley-Worthington (2005).
In Lad’s terms enjoyment means a jolly kind of ride somewhere he knows well, with a lot of blending and togetherness. Happily that is my definition of enjoyment as well. Snorting means ‘I am ok now’, trotting up and down gradients, and some decent fast canters on good going, a heathery snack here and there, confidence giving from me when necessary with scratches, cheerleading, rubs and food and lots of blethering. As it was a ride out for him today, my job was Riding Technician rather than Horse Trainer. This is a road many horses never get to explore, but it can seriously help trust and connection in training to travel both roads separately.
As Riding Tech it is my job to ride as well as I can, to establish his mindset (see this blog post for mindset ideas: Seven useful concepts for really satisfying training sessions with your horse), to accept challenges, ideas, problems and conundrums without argument and find agreeable solutions or alternatives, to anticipate what my horse needs before they know they need it, and to generally maximise my horse’s pleasure.
“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,And sorry I could not travel bothAnd be one traveler, long I stoodAnd looked down one as far as I couldTo where it bent in the undergrowth”Robert Frost – The Road Not Taken
The difference between Riding Tech rides and Horse Trainer rides is that as Riding Tech you are working on your intrinsic toolkit, and measuring your effectiveness by their responses. Letting them be them without asking for a lot of extrinsic changes. It doesn’t mean you don’t influence the horse, you surely do, but you are not going to ask for anything very complicated, difficult or new, and it is your job to ride as well as you can. Leave the other stuff for another day, this day is about enrichment and giving them a good ride.
Three of my biggest performance measures for Riding Tech rides are:
- The quality of the walk home. On good rides when I have done my job the homebound walk is balanced, blended and beautiful to ride, and can go down new trails at the drop of a hat if I look down them.
- Having a horse who stays with me for more ‘us’ time when I turn them out again.
- Looking at the horse’s back and body after the ride it looks smooth and elastic, as if he hasn’t been ridden.
In my explorations into the business of what the rider’s seat is and does, the anatomy of the human fundament and associated domains looms large (did you see what I did there?), and has a significant influence on ‘a good ride’. Studying the physical interface between the human body and the horse, or more accurately the human body, the saddle or ‘sitting on’ technology, and the horse’s body beneath is surely very critical if you want to use it as well as you can. After all unless you flutter above your horse like a butterfly the connecting place between two bodies is a fundamentally physical, rather than solely an energetic connection.
This is the place where the Riding Technician work is most immediately effective. Today my ‘big picture’ jobs were to keep my body centred, connected, quiet and aligned over the upslope of Lad’s withers and his centre of gravity, and to help him keep his back lifted going up, down and over things, through transitions and at different paces. To do this I had to find a place where I could become a receiver more than a transmitter.
To do THIS we must attach as much of our seat – thighs and underneaths, to the horse’s longitudinal back muscles, and the layers of muscle that connect the shoulder into the ribs. We also have to find the right tone for our muscles, too high and the horse may find it alarming or feel pushed down, so will shorten and hollow, too soft and they may be too saggy and lose their own tone.
Scouring my book collection it seems that many equestrian writers find it difficult to distinguish the ‘seat’ from the entire body in trying to describe the ‘how’ of seat work. I can understand their position, in practice yes bodies are integrated systems, but if we are going to work on our seat skills, we need to start to adopt a shared and specific vocabulary from the bottom up so to speak.
To find the right tone for Lad today I first blended with, then adjusted the slightly tense tone in his long back muscles by bring the tension in the muscles in my inside thighs and butt down a little to create a lovely springy movement. It took about fifteen minutes of focussed riding to start to work. This picture is a great image to look at when thinking about the seat – most of the muscles shown are important in your seat attachment and you need to know them up close and personally. Look how many connected structures there are. I can clearly feel my semitendinosus today, and my sartorius was tight on the foam roller earlier.
There was a lot going on in my torso upstream of my seat, but we will leave that for another day. If you want to start your own investigation into integrated riding, I strongly recommend Mary Wanless’ Rider Biomechanics An Illustrated Guide: How to Sit Better and Gain Influence.
Up and down steep gradients today in a seat tech bareback pad I have designed particularly to help amplify the rider’s seat, it was possible to stay blended and aligned and not slide forward or backward. In a good trot and in canter uphill and cornering, it was easier to find length along my thighs and underneath, to centre myself and maintain the right tone in my muscles and therefore in his back muscles, maintaining his vertical balance and helping him move safely and calmly on snow and icy trails. Letting him move with the aim of giving him freedom and agency within the stride, we belted up one hill straight through a snow covered broom bush that had fallen across the path. Fully in the moment he shut his eyes, reached his nose forward so it didn’t hit him full in the face and cantered straight through it without breaking stride.
I forgot something, the other sign of a ride well done is dirty fingernails.
Frost, R. (1916). The Road Not Taken. Sourced from: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44272/the-road-not-taken
Kiley-Worthington, M. (2005). Horse Watch – What it is to be equine. J. A Allen: London.
Starrett, K. & Cordoza, G. (2015). Becoming a Supple Leopard – The Ultimate Guide to Resolving Pain, Preventing Injury, and Optimizing Athletic Performance. Victory Belt Publishing: Las Vegas
Thankyou for taking the time out of your day to read my blog. If you are interested in further writing, here is a link to my book Barefoot Horse Keeping – The integrated horse. (Co-authored by Jane Cumberlidge).