By Jalene Amling
The key to good riding is feeling. Many riders are all too dependent upon their hands, eager to balance their weight on their arms, or correct their horse with the bit. Still others are dependent upon their saddles, for comfort, stability, and position to name a few.
As a person who spends her life trying to break every norm, I rescued an Arabian horse from the county and am currently shaping him into my dressage performance horse. For equestrians this seems an unattainable, almost laughable goal. But I am here to tell you with a solid relationship, good riding, and correct training principles, even an Arabian can (and has) win high point awards at dressage shows.
One of my favorite training tips is bareback riding. Now, let’s get one thing straight. This is not your cliché bareback ride through a meadow of wildflowers (not that there is anything wrong with that!). What I am talking about here is intentional schooling of your performance horse without a saddle.
Now at this point, I am sure there are a lot of you reacting with one thought: “I’m too young to die!” For this person I want to challenge you to open the door to bareback riding with your performance horse in order to deepen your relationship with him and build your trust in him. We ask our horses to trust us in incredible ways, as a prey animal a horse should never even allow us on their backs. Furthermore, at ten times our size and mostly muscle they certainly should not listen as we ask them to trot sideways or on three tracks at one time. Yet, by some mind-blowing mystery to us all, they do. They want to please us.
There are many trainers that have built full curriculums on how to teach your horse to trust you. But, on the other side of the coin you have us, the people who are naturally controlling creatures and would rather rely on our own “strength” than on a one thousand pound animal with a mind of its own. So throw off your safety net and free yourself up to listen to your horse.
To sit on your horse without any muscular tension, while still being able to impact his movements is the ultimate goal. Your seat must first learn to follow, then to impact and enact change. The rider must be careful not to use their hands for balance, but rather find and to relax into their pelvic floor between the seat bones to establish balance. From here free from tension the rider will feel every muscle of the horse contract and release, they will be able to feel when tension enters the horse’s body and when he relaxes again.
The rider should feel the engagement of the abs that pushes the shoulders and back up as the horse brings its hind legs under his body. If the horse loses impulsion from his hind end or tension in the rider’s body blocks the flow of energy over his topline he will hollow out his back and his head will come up. This is where bareback riding will really help the rider to feel the biomechanics of his horse’s body. Instead of the most tempting fix, using the rein to bring the head down, apply leg to get him to step under himself, engage his abs and lift his back filling your seat. When this happens, he will naturally lower his head.
As you apply leg, be sure that your seat is loose and relaxed, otherwise you will not be a welcoming place for the horse’s energy and you will cause tension in his back and neck. Through this very simple example, hopefully you can see how bareback riding can change your outlook by helping you connect with your horse on a deeper level, trusting him, while learning and impacting his biomechanics.
Once you learn to listen to your horse’s body the sky is the limit. As you practice listening and making corrections to your own body as well as your horse’s you will learn what it feels like to dance.
“Every breath, every step we take as one.”