Dressage training- Where’s the focus? Horse or rider or both?
I work with hundreds of riders all over the country from intro to Grand Prix and if I were to calculate the percentage of riders taking care of themselves in terms of physio, massage, fitness training etc and the horse equivalent, I can tell you that the majority of horses get the full works of treatment and very few riders dedicate the same to themselves.
We are often injured, we work long hours (usually to pay for the treatments of said 4 legged friends!) often work is physical, we get thrown off – we get back on! We break a bone or pull a muscle- what’s the first question- when can we ride again?!
I started assessing my own riding much differently after breaking my back for a second time. I couldn’t do sitting trot without crippling pain and my horse who I was desperate to compete at PSG was tight through his back. I changed my focus massively to concentrate on me. I got fitter, attended weekly Equipilates classes and found a good sports massage therapist. The results were huge. I look back at pictures and think “poor horse!”
Following my own improvements I changed my teaching focus too. I trained to become an Equipilates instructor, then a biomechanics coach and Pilates instructor. I’ve developed a style of teaching that hopefully improves horse and rider and I have to say every day it makes me smile to see the difference in the partnerships I work with.
When we break things down the horse is only actually doing what we are asking them to – we just don’t realise what our bodies are asking! If you think how your horse reacts to a fly touching him, imagine the signals you are giving him if you are sat slightly one way. It only has to be a slight imbalance but it’s enough.For example people will come for a lesson and explain they struggle with left bend and turning left, so they’ve tried every technique they can think of to ‘make the horse bend left’ their instructor hops on and ‘they are much stronger so can get him to do it!’
I look at things slightly differently here – I see the rider sat slightly to the right so their whole body weight is telling the horse to turn right (remember the fly and how sensitive they are!) so the rider then starts to pull the left rein so the feedback is the horse is heavy in the left hand. We straighten the rider – the horse is much more even from left to right and the contact improves.
I help riders in the same way struggling with the correct canter lead, sitting trot, lateral work right through to 1 x changes, focusing on the rider always improves the horses performance.
Things can be taken even further than this – is the saddle now sat to the right too? Quite possibly. So is it the saddle slipping causing the rider to sit right or is it the rider sitting to the right causing the saddle to slip? I guess this we may never know the answer to but as latest research shows a saddle out of balance can cause lameness in the horse, it’s vitally important we work as a team to ensure that all elements are covered.
The riders straightness, suppleness and core stability is of equal importance to the long term soundness of the horse as correct saddle fit, correct farriery, equine physio, correct training etc etc.
So Rider straightness is key, but also rider fitness. Research shows the maximum weight your horse can carry comfortably is 10% and that includes your saddle. A very wise man (a certain Mr Hester!) once said in a demo ‘you can’t expect your horse to be in self carriage if you as a rider aren’t in self carriage’ how true this is. If we aren’t physically fit we aren’t able to maintain balance independently of the reins.
Try it – it really works! Pilates is fantastic for core strength- an essential element for horse riders. I also love to teach HIIT Pilates – High Intensity Interval Training interspersed with Pilates exercises. This is short blasts of exercises that will improve your cardiovascular fitness, your stamina and core strength.
Once you get on a horse you’re an athlete- train like one and you will reap the rewards. Your horses will love you for it
Written by Jo Titterton of MCF equestrian
call her today to book your session based in Staffordshire!