Resolve Balance and Straightness Issues
Rider biomechanics expert Susanne von Dietze critiques Hayley Baker on Oliver.
In the picture below Hayley Baker is riding Oliver, owned by Heather Howard. I have no information on the horse’s age or what level they are working, but my first thought on this picture was: Wow, what a cute Haflinger! He looks forward and willing with a very good hind leg moving well under the rider’s weight. He looks like a fun horse to ride. When I look closer, I notice some balance issues that are hidden (and compensated for) by Oliver’s forward attitude. Balance is always easier when moving faster. This is best explained when comparing it to learning to ride a bicycle. It is more difficult to balance when you are moving slowly.
In this phase of the canter, Oliver has just landed on his outside hind leg. The next legs to touch down will be the diagonal pair of the inside hind leg and outside front leg. While his inside hind leg is lifting in a nice angle, his outside front leg is already stretching straight down toward the ground. This detail tells me that Oliver is speeding up his shoulders in this moment, and that can make him a little heavier in the front. More self-carriage and longer “air time” for his shoulders would be on my wish list for him.
If you look at Oliver’s backline, you will notice that his croup is lower on the left side and, at the same time, his left shoulder appears a bit higher than his right shoulder. Hayley can address this little twist inside his body by riding more shoulder-fore and many changes between straight and bending lines.
Looking at Hayley, I notice that her left shoulder is carried a bit more forward, too, and this twist in her seat makes her shoulder appear somewhat tense. If I imagine her shoulder a little farther back and more relaxed, I can see a more harmonious and supple picture.
Hayley’s seat looks upright and she is very concentrated on riding correctly. She counterbalances her forward left shoulder by moving her left leg slightly too far back. Her inside leg should be on the girth, which means you should not see the horse’s hair between the girth and the rider’s leg.
Because of this, I probably would list straightening as one of my goals for Haley and Oliver’s lesson plan. To start, I would ask Haley to ride in walk with a long rein on a straight line and
take her feet out of the stirrups. I might even ask her to close her eyes to enhance the feel within her body. A little awareness check can be very helpful to understand the complex interplay of movement.
Hayley’s task is now to try this: Turn your whole body to the left and to the right and feel what this rotation triggers in your body. Concentrate on what happens to the weight on your seat bones when you turn. Ideally, there is a little shift of weight toward the side you turn. If your weight shifts to the opposite side, it creates instability in your seat during turns and lateral movements.
Notice: What happens to your legs? Can they stay supple in the same place or do they involuntarily move? Do your shoulders stay level or does one shoulder want to drop down lower? Does your head (eyes) want to turn more than your body to one side? Do your ears stay at the same height when turning? The answers to those questions would become a guideline for refining the lesson plan.
The key tool to address straightness is working in rhythm. Rhythmic movement of the shoulders can help you find a better shoulder position without tension.
A nice exercise here can be performed in rising trot. Try this: Start to shrug one shoulder up and down, then switch and move the other shoulder. Then move both shoulders together up to your ears, release to a middle position and then push them farther down toward your hips. Keep each position for the same number of strides and get into a rhythm. Think: up–release–down–release. This will help you move your shoulders independently of your seat.
Now, take the same idea and ap-
ply it to the next exercise. The only difference here is that the direction that your shoulders are moving will change. First, bring your shoulders forward, in front of your chest, and feel them become more narrow in front, stretching over your back, and then release. Next, open your chest and widen your shoulders while moving them back. Here, it is very important that you do not move your elbows back. Move between these positions in rhythm as you did in the first exercise. Think: narrow–release– widen–release.
After you free your body in all these directions, you can change the exercise and do only release–down, or release– widen. This will help you softly correct your shoulder position without allowing tension to creep in.
To help Oliver’s shoulders in the canter, I recommend working him on a diamond. Change the round 20-meter circle into a diamond shape with corners and straight lines. It is best placed in the center of the arena with corners then happening at E, B and when coming across the centerline. Of course, this can be ridden first in trot before advancing to canter.
Hayley should remember that once the horse is in the air, it is already determined where he will land. Any interference from the rider during the landing phase only disturbs the balance. The rider‘s task is to give the direction for future strides. Thinking and riding forward is, again, of prime importance. By changing the circle into a diamond shape, Hayley should picture where both of Oliver’s front legs will be landing on the next and next and next strides.
Sometimes the diamond can also become a rhythmic game: ride three strides turning through a corner to three strides straight. This interplay of turning and straightening will help Oliver to achieve a better coordination between his pelvis and shoulders and improve the self-carriage of each canter stride.
Once this is established Hayley may feel that she can influence the direction of Oliver’s shoulders merely by starting to turn her own shoulders. Then it becomes a rhythmic balancing-and-straightening task for both of them.
I hope these ideas will encourage Hayley and help her and Oliver to discover more secrets of balance and straightness in movement.
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