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You cannot influence the horse’s shape, gait, and cadence unless
you are in the right position over his center of gravity.

Riding Tree: Relaxation
Faith Meredith

Before you can clearly communicate to the horse what shapes you
want him to take at what gait and in what rhythm, you need to
have control over your own body. You cannot simultaneously
influence the horse’s shape, gait, and cadence unless you are in
the right position over his center of gravity to apply the right
sequence of aids with the right degree of pressure and the right
timing. To control your body to that extent, you need to have an
independent seat.

Relaxation is the basic skill riders must master on the way to
achieving an independent seat. It is the first of six skills that
build on one another to create what I refer to in my classes as
“the riding tree” because once students have mastered them, they
have the necessary foundation to branch out into any specialized
riding discipline they may choose. An independent seat is the
strong foundation that allows a student to successfully ride and
train a dressage horse or reining horse or higher level horse in
any discipline.

Riders need to be relaxed both physically and mentally.
Physically, all of the muscles should be relaxed and all of the
joints should be loose. The ankle, the knee, the hips, the
elbows, and the shoulders are the joints we think of first.
However riders need to be aware of tension anywhere in their
bodies such as their wrists or fingers, their neck or jaw. Scan
your body frequently while you are riding for any muscle or joint
that is tense.

A lot of riders carry tension somewhere in their bodies and it
commonly shows up as tension in the lower leg, a stiffening of
the seat so that you can’t follow the horse’s motion. So the
first thing an instructor should work on is relaxation. If you
have stiffness problems, your instructor might have you bounce
around without stirrups until your muscles and joints let go of
their tension and you can be as loose as a rag doll. Remember,
your joints are shock absorbers, especially your hips. Any joint
that is braced or tense makes it harder for your body to absorb
the shock of the motion of the horse.

Obviously, if you’re bouncing around on your horse’s back, his
attention is going to be focused on the pain or the discomfort
that your stiffness causes him. If anything about your seat makes
the horse him uncomfortable in any way, then any other
communication you are trying to give is lost.

You can empathize with the horse if you imagine that you are
riding around and suddenly develop a terrible pain in your calf.
Once that happens, nothing else really matters. What your
instructor is saying to you doesn’t matter because you’re dealing
with this pain that has to be addressed first. You don’t put all
the blood, sweat, and tears into developing an independent seat
because you want to look pretty sitting on the horse. You put the
work into developing that kind of foundation or seat in order to
communicate with your horse.

Eventually, you need to be relaxed at all gaits on all kinds of
horses. As you evaluate your own progress, however, you may find
that you can be relaxed at the walk on any horse but you cannot
yet be relaxed at the trot on some horses or at the canter on
others. What you want is to feel relaxed all the time but in the
beginning you are only going to experience it on some horses at
some gaits.

Mental relaxation goes hand in hand with physical relaxation. If
you are not relaxed mentally--if you are nervous about something,
if you are afraid of the horse, if you are in pain because of an
injury or because you are sick then relaxation is difficult. When
one part of your body really hurts, it is hard to relax another
part. If you are really afraid of the horse, even breathing takes
some concentration.

To relax mentally, you also have to be able to leave behind
anything in your life that is causing you stress when you are
working with horse. I teach my students that as they are putting
their foot in the stirrup, they should mentally picture
everything else that is on their mind then picture themselves
dumping it over in a corner of the arena. They will leave it
there for the hour that they are in their riding class and they
can pick it up again when they are through. During the class,
however, they are going to relax and focus their attention on the

Dumping your problems in a corner of the arena is guaranteed to
make your riding better. Every rider has had the experience of a
ride that started out badly and ended the same way because they
were already in a bad mood the moment they got on the horse. So
you have to learn to control that. Who wants to waste their hour
of riding because they are mad at someone who just said something
nasty to them or because they are allowing whatever else is going
on in their life to intrude on their riding time?

When you start practicing this visualization, you will find that
it not only helps you relax mentally, it also makes your riding a
wonderful escape from life’s problems. However, getting on your
horse and forgetting about everything else takes practice. Just
keep riding.

© 2001-2004
Faith Meredith

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