Riding lightly

The willingness to show up changes us. It makes us a little braver each time. ~ Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead

My recent riding lessons with Erin Murphy have transformed the way I shape my body, carry myself, and move when I am in the saddle. Which has also transformed the way Rocky shapes his body, carries himself, and moves, when I am in the saddle.

Now that we’ve felt it, we can seek it, and stay in that place for longer and longer periods of time.


Here’s how it happened.

Erin is particularly good at “separate, isolate, and recombine.” She can take all the things (ALL the things!) you are “doing wrong” and figure out the foundation piece that all the rest depends on. Fix that piece, and the rest of it falls into place.

In the first lesson, I told her that my slo-mo video shows my legs out in front, and that I feel like I get behind the rhythm and am posting from way far in back. Here’s a 30-second clip that shows what I mean:

If you don’t see the embedded video, you can see it here.

She asked me what my feet are doing, what happens to my feet in the stirrups, what do I feel in my feet, when I post. And then she stayed with me as I thought and posted a little and thought and tried and went through all the “not doing” (“toes aren’t falling asleep, weight is no longer on the outside of my foot, not clenching, not curling toes”). It took 15 or 20 minutes, but I finally solved the puzzle by discovering what I was doing: putting my whole weight on the balls of my feet, which pushed my stirrups forward, which pushed my body back, which put me behind the motion.

But it wasn’t my feet that were causing this. It was my thighs! Somehow I’ve carried the idea all my life that if my knees were “in” I would be pinching the horse and thus not riding with balance.

Erin showed me how to hug Rocky with my inner thighs in such a way that I am not pinching like a clothes pin but not missing half of my core engagement, either. With my knees in like this (which is not “knees in” it is more “thighs actually touching saddle”), I can keep my tailbone heavier than my pubic bone when I engage my core. Which allows me to round my lower back more. And which allows me to relax my ankles and feet and calves, so that my lower legs are available for cues but not part of my balance and not carrying all of my weight. And lo! my hips were more able to move with Rocky’s motion, up and forward, loose, even at the sitting trot.

I felt more “lift” and “lightness” in the saddle than I can ever remember feeling, and I felt Rocky move more freely under me. Erin walked beside me as I rode with this new awareness and she moved my lower leg around, back and forth and in circles and moving my toe up and down and showing me that lower legs are nice to have but not required for riding. (Which I knew, from reading about Barbara Adside, whose legs end at the knee and whose career includes stunt riding and paraequestrian dressage. But I didn’t know know.)

It isn’t entirely a matter of strength or stamina, though. Schleese saddles for women has a nice synopsis, with illustrations, about how pelvic anatomy and saddle shape can put women at a disadvantage. Dr. Deb Bennett goes into a lot more detail in her article “Who’s Built Best to Ride?” I’ve recently bought a book about exercises for riders, because reading about how it all fits together is helping me be better in my body in all of my activities.  And I might even integrate some of the exercises into my life.

Rider Fitness: Body and Brain: 180 Anytime, Anywhere Exercises to Enhance Range of Motion, Motor Control, Reaction Time, Flexibility, Balance and Muscle Memory in the Saddle

Reading about anatomy of human and horse has helped me engage my core and body differently, and find more physical harmony with Rocky, in all of our maneuvers. I recently discovered Gillian Higgins, who is one of the people who paint the insides of horses onto the outsides of horses — and humans! — and teach clinics in how we can work together better.

Horse Anatomy for Performance

How Your Horse Moves: A unique visual guide to improving performance

Categories: Freestyle | Tags: , | Leave a comment

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