"There is no secret so close as that between a rider and his horse"
(Robert Smith Surtees, 1808-1864)
Virtual Lessons - Awareness of the Horse's Movement
(Reproduced with permission from the copyright owners www.newrider.com)
Before you go for your first lessons, see if the school will let you watch a lesson first. This will give you the opportunity to see how a horse moves in walk, trot and canter. You will see that his back does not stay still or even move in one piece, but works in two halves. Watch his legs - you will see that as he picks up a hindleg and brings it under his body, his back and hindquarters will lower on that side Likewise, as his hindfoot steps onto the ground again, you will see that the hindquarters and back rise on that side as the foot pushes against the ground.
When you do get on the horse for the first time, try to feel this movement in walk, and become aware of it. Learn to recognise which side of the horse's back is dipping under your seat, and which side is rising up. You will feel one side lower as the other side rises, then vice versa. Try also to learn to feel the horse's belly swaying from side to side under your legs. Learn to feel when it is swinging to the left, and when it is swinging to the right.
Watch the horse's back and feet when he trots. You will see that unlike the walk, which is a flat pace, and which the beginner will find perfectly easy to stay on board, the trot makes the horse's back spring up and down, as his feet move in diagonal pairs. If the rider does not make a movement to compensate for this upward spring, he will bounce about like a cork on a rough sea. This is unnerving for the rider, and also uncomfortable. It is even more uncomfortable for the horse, who has to bear the brunt of the rider's weight thumping up and down on his back, worse still, often also hanging onto the reins to keep the balance.
In riding, we absorb the movement of the trot in two ways, either by rising to the trot, or by sitting to the trot. We will be looking at both in greater detail a little later. The sitting trot produces all sorts of variations on the way to stick the seat to the saddle, mainly because the only correct way is almost never taught. The same thing happens in the next pace, the canter, whereby the poor rider tries very hard to get his seat to adhere to the saddle, and in nearly every case is expending far too much energy trying to achieve it.
Nearly always, the rider ends up opposing the horse's movement in some way, which is rather like trying to canoe up a river against the current- but with one big difference. The river has no feelings, so doesn't object if we try to row against the current. The horse finds any movement uncomfortable which opposes his own. It prevents him using his own back muscles in the way they were intended, and makes forward movement difficult for him. Horses with a naturally less energetic temperament respond by slowing down, horses with a more anxious, energetic temperament often respond by scooting off underneath the rider, trying to get away from the discomfort.
Riders often ask me how a horse can feel all of this through a saddle. If he can feel a fly land on his back, and twitch to try to remove it, how much more easily can he feel our movements? So, if your instructor is making you do things to the horse that instinctively feel unkind, then they probably are. If we can make riders aware of the horse's feelings, right from the first time that they sit on his back, then we can start to make the world a better place for horses.