THE ELEGANT RIDER PART 3: FOLLOWING MECHANICS
Over the last 2 parts of this series you have learned about the key components to achieving the elegant rider position we all desire. Here, in Part 3, you will learn the final critical piece, gait following mechanics of the rider’s body.
When we see a rider that looks really elegant on their horse, they appear to be holding completely still despite the gait they are in, or how powerfully their horse may be moving. That illusion of stillness comes from the coordinated movements of the rider’s body so that it moves in time with the horse’s motion: Following Mechanics.
JOINTS MAKE MOBILITY, MUSCLES MAKE STABILITY
Remember that the concept of tensegrity from part 2? Having the right tensegrity is critical to being able to execute following mechanics to each of the horse’s gaits. Our isometric whole body engagement creates the stability in our muscles so that our joints can do their job of moving the parts of our body that follow the horse’s motion. Without tensegrity the rider doesn’t have control of the movement in their joints, so they will be “at the mercy” of the horse’s movement rather than choosing how to move in time with the horse.
HIPS AND ELBOWS
Following mechanics are done primarily by the rider’s hip joints and elbow joints. The knees and ankles have small supporting roles in helping the rider to match the vertical forces put on their body in sitting trot and canter. The hip joint has many possibilities for movement due to the nature of the ball and socket joint. In order to follow the motion of the horse’s back, the hip joint must be able to open and close like a hinge, as well as facilitate forwards and backwards movement of the seat bones. The motion of the elbow joint allows the rider to keep a steady and light connection with the rein as the horse uses its neck for balance in the walk and canter, or as the rider’s body moves up and down in the trot.
HOW TO FOLLOW CORRECTLY IN EACH GAIT
When a horse walks, there is a large amount of motion in its body for the rider to follow in order to look still and elegant, as well as to not impede the gait. The slower rate of speed can make it a much simpler task than the other 2 gaits. The rider’s elbows have the biggest job in the walk in order to follow the downward forward motion of the horse’s head with each landing of a foreleg. The motion of the rider’s arm will be as if they are sawing with a hand saw while their hands hold the reins. The rider’s hip joint flexes at the same time that the rider’s elbow opens. It will feel as if the hands and seat bones move away from each other, and then towards each other. The easiest way to find the right timing in the walk is to watch your horse’s shoulders, the hands go forward each time one of the shoulders moves forward.
In the trot, the horse’s head and neck position is stable, while there is an up and down motion of the back as the horse leaves the ground in the moment of suspension and then lands on each diagonal pair of legs. The degree of the trot’s vertical dynamic depends on the horse’s natural movement, strength of the topline from correct use of its body, and soundness (a horse who has pain may guard its back in trot, causing a more jarring feeling to the rider). The vertical nature of the trot forces mean that the rider’s elbow does not make the horizontal motion of sawing to follow the neck. Instead it must open and close while the upper arm hangs stationary next to the torso. The degree which it needs to open and close depends on the horse’s movement, and whether the rider is rising or sitting. If the elbow doesn’t make this motion, the reins will pull up on the bit every time the rider is in the up phase of rising trot, or the hip joint open phase of sitting. The hip joint makes an opening and closing motion that is the same degree and timing as the elbow: open when the horse is in the moment of suspension, and closing as either diagonal pair of legs is grounded. When sitting the trot, these mechanics happen twice as fast as in rising trot, which is a common reason why riders often struggle with it. Remember bearing down from part 2? Having stability of the trunk from bearing down allows the rider to keep their torso stable while their hip joint does the work of moving to follow the up and down motion of the horse’s back in the sitting trot. Without bear down, the rider is apt to ride the trot with a significant “wiggle in their middle” in an attempt to absorb the movement. This way of sitting is not only not elegant, it is bad for the spine. Our spines work optimally when they are in neutral, and not being subjected to whiplash type forces such as wiggle in the middle sitting applies to them.
The following mechanics of the canter are the same motions of the hip and elbow joints as the walk, but in the opposite timing, and with greater range of motion of the hip. That means that in the canter, the hip and elbow joints will open and close at the same time, unlike in the walk. It will feel as if the seat bones and hands stay the same distance apart throughout the phases of the canter stride. It is critically important to have clear following mechanics of the arms in the canter to allow the horse to use its neck for balance. When the horse is in the 3rd beat of the canter with the leading leg grounded, the rider’s elbows will be open with the hands forward following the horse’s head. This motion of the arms not only gives a fluid appearance to the rider while in canter, it preserves the purity of the canter’s rhythm and can improve the horse’s balance.
Over the three parts of this blog, you have learned about the skills of the elegant rider: Neutral spine and balance of the hip flexor/extensor system, tensegrity, and following mechanics. I hope that this understanding leaves you feeling better educated and equipped to ride with grace and greater clarity to your aids. Every rider, no matter their body type and years of experience has the potential to sit elegantly and in harmony with their horse. I know your horse will thank you!