Monday, June 7, 2010
The importance of a weight shift
The ease with which our horses can feel the shift of our weight - even the turn of our head, I think is often greatly underestimated. They most definitely do feel everything up there from the saddle and can become very responsive if taught to respond to such weight shifts - our training will either desensitize and dull them to such weight shifts, or teach them to be even more sensitive and responsive. The thing is that if you are constantly shifting around up there with absolutely no intent, your horse will learn to ignore your weight shifts. Sit up straight and still in the saddle however (develop your core as a rider!!) and they will start picking up on your weight shift cues when you do go to use them. Another point to keep in mind is to never use your reins to stop your horse. Use your reins if your horse doesn't stop. That goes for your other cues as well - work in phases. That means if you are going to ask your horse to change direction, go through phases of 'ask': look in the direction you wish to turn, turn your shoulders in the appropriate direction, bend your rib cage (do in your own body what you are asking of your horse), then shift your hips, weight your stirrup, and start applying your leg (apply thigh, then knee, then calf, then finally heel). Don't just automatically pull back on the reins or apply leg. At first, ask in long phases and allow your horse time to respond, then as your horse understands, quicken your phases to demand more of him. Count in your head if you need to as you go through your phases, particularly initially.
Where can weight shifts play a role? Halts: release a deep breath, suck in your abdomen, tilt your pelvis rearward, and relax into your seat. Upward and downward transitions: your weight can shift slightly forward or slightly back as you tilt your pelvis appropriately to ask your horse for the transition. Turns: if you want your horse to keep its shoulders up around the corner, lift your own and slightly shift your weight ever-so-slightly to the outside to mimic what you want your horse to do so that your horse can follow.
One way a rider might choose to use a horse's responsiveness to weight shifts to their advantage is to use their weight distribution to 'unbalance' their horse and to encourage her to move back under them when initially teaching certain maneuvers. What do I mean? When you're teaching a leg yield, shift your weight to the side you want your horse to move towards. By weight shift, I don't mean lean in that direction, but weight that stirrup slightly more. It sounds rather contrary; ultimately we want to take weight off the inside as we ask the horse to lift that shoulder and move freely in that direction, so that the horse can balance itself beneath us and push off the outside leg. That is still ultimately correct, but if you weight that inside stirrup a little while keeping your seat straight and correct when initially teaching the leg yield (for example), your horse will naturally move over in that direction to center you back beneath her so that you are balanced again. An extreme example is when you ask a horse to do a one-rein stop from a higher gait (ie. trot or canter). The Arabian mare I was on would continuously circle and circle in that one-rein stop. When I re-assessed my position, I found she was throwing my weight to the outside with her turns (it happens naturally, be aware of it!). Then because my weight was on the outside, she would continue to circle, to try to balance my weight back beneath her because now I was throwing her off. When I re-centered my weight to the inside (which can be difficult, particularly if the horse is turning quickly), she would immediately stop, because my weight was balanced. Another example is the hunter or jumper rider who throws themselves forward over the pommel of their saddle at the base of a jump, who jumps ahead of their horse. Often when a rider excessively weights the forehand, the horse will refuse in response because countering the rider's weight thrown forward is both difficult and confusing. The same can follow and be applied when asking for leg yields or sidepass initially. Weight your inside stirrup slightly, though less so as your horse progresses. With the Arabian mare mentioned above, initially she would resist being asked to leg yield - she wanted to go forward, she did not want to 'try' to respond to my leg by moving sideways, she did not like the leg pressure, etc. When I started incorporating weight shifts into my leg yields with her to put her slightly off balance and encourage her to move back beneath me to re-center my weight, she did the leg yield naturally, without questioning me. It was something she wanted to do because it felt so natural - she wanted to re-distribute my weight. Ultimately, you use the weight shift less to the point where later you actually shift your weight as more appropriate, as you want the horse to reflect. In the leg yield, you ultimately sit centered but lightly weight the outside and lighten your inside thigh - imperceptibly. This frees the horse's inside so he can effectively lift the inside shoulder. None of these cues should be obvious to an observer, these are very minute cues.
Overall, the rider needs to sit straight and correct. Your seat must be independent and must never interfere with the horse's movement - this is CRUCIAL. Keep in mind the distribution of your weight MATTERS to the horse. A rider may use this to their advantage when teaching a horse but even this must be done very judiciously. Ultimately, the rider must always be aware of his or her position and always maintain the correct position that best enables their horse freedom of movement and that is reflective of what they wish the horse to reflect back to them.