So, now that you have the reins in your hands and all you can think of while riding your horse is squeezing and releasing the sponge, what other parts of the arm are important? It's time to focus on the other important parts of the arm – the elbows and shoulders. In fact, I believe it's helpful to think about the rest of your arm as more important than the hands in how you learn to connect with the horse’s mouth in a following and elastic manner. In dressage especially, the reins are actually a modifier, even though the first thing we do is 'pick up the reins.' We actually should start our horses by thinking and doing the action of 'picking up the horse with our legs.' We'll get to that in a future training tip! For now though let's think about the chicken dance at a wedding. You know the one where you flap your arms, clap your hands and move your head like a chicken. Now try to get that song out of your head! The same goes for the horse – they move with their heads. It pokes forward in back in the rhythm of the gait they are in. So, you should follow your horse's head like the chicken dance--only use your arms to follow and not your head.
Try this exercise. Either with someone holding your horse on the ground and you in the saddle, or--if your horse is quiet--come to a halt and drop the reins. Lift both hands to the sky, and then like a yoga sun salutation, softly bring them down to your sides on either side of your hips and let them hang without tension. Try to position them over your rib cage. Then, bend your elbows up and make your riding fists with the knuckles vertical and thumbs on top. Now post in your saddle while at a standstill on your horse. The idea is to feel your arms when you post without the horse moving. It's as if your muscles squeeze themselves and are 'set' in place. Now drop your fists down so the bottom of your hand touches the saddle pommel and post again while at a standstill. Your elbows should open and close. Now try posting again (the horse isn't moving yet) and open and close the elbows but also slide your hands a bit forward and back about an inch while still touching the pommel and letting your arms come forward at the shoulder in tandem. You've practiced 'following' your horse’s head! Congratulations. Now pick up the reins and try following the horses head at the walk, trot, and canter. I like to hum the chicken dance song to remind myself to move my shoulders and open and close my elbows with the horse’s head in each of those gaits. What's funny is at first this movement will seem so large, but it's actually really small and subtle.
In this 30 sec video you will see me following my OTTB mare's head as she trots on a circle. She's learning connection and the 'chicken dance follow my horse’s head' is working well at the start of the circle near M. There's some bracing near the approach to H and I help her a bit with my inside leg. You'll notice the arm movement doesn't look all that big but it can feel it like it is, at first. You'll also see what happens to our connection when I braced a bit in the last turn to the right near M - her head pops up a bit and the trot tempo gets a little off, and then it improves again when I start following correctly again. The walk transition stays forward thinking because I am following in the downward even though I lose her back a little. Stay tuned for next week’s Two-minute Training Tips! You can always email me questions at email@example.com or check out revelationfarm.com for upcoming events.