The Alpha and Omega

{If you are reading this, it means this blog has been “released.” This is both exciting and terrifying, but I am so glad you stopped by. I hope you enjoy and keep coming back!}

I have survived my first week at the Pennsylvania Riding Academy! I thought we were goners when I was told the horses are hairsprayed before every ride to ensure it is neat; I have only cut Kelso’s mane once in our 7.5 year career. And it was in a stall at 11 pm the night before a show with scissors. Despite this, we haven’t been kicked out yet! It has been a week of drinking from the fire hose, and I have to thank everyone here for being so patient while I learn the ropes. The barn manager, Nikki, is incredible and deserves an award for teaching me everything. While there is so much to report that is new and exciting, I want to take this post to focus on what I will be working on for the next eight months; the seat.

Egon von Neindorff said, “the seat is the alpha and omega of riding.” For those who don’t know (like I didn’t before this week!) Egon von Neindorff proclaimed himself as a Servant of the Art of Classical Riding. He relished in the finest details of the sport and horse care, stating “that which is often overlooked, or possibly not taken quite as seriously as it should, is the considerable physical task of caring for the horse, which should be taken as one of our greatest personal responsibilities–just to care for the horse, and that first of all!”

But back to the point: Alpha indicates the beginning while omega is the end. Pertaining to the seat, if you don’t have it, you can’t even start; when you do, the rest of your training is immeasurably easier. The only training of the seat I have is all thanks to ponies I learned how to stick on, so I knew I would have some work in front of me upon arrival at the Academy. I underestimated just how much, though.

Lessons with Paul take place every Thursday morning. He has a standard first lesson he does with everyone that highlights different feelings you should have in the saddle by using simulations. A few of the simulations used an exercise ball, while others took place directly on a saddle on a rickety saddle stand (an important piece to the exercise.) They are covered below.

  1. The first simulation started by sitting on an exercise ball and bouncing in place, as if you were in a sitting trot. I would then stop bouncing in mid-air to see what muscles were activated. While you could guess you use ab muscles, what part of the abs? I discovered the lowest part of my core, below my belly button, were engaged (Note: Because your legs are at a 90 degree angle, you will use some leg muscle. This is not how you sit in the saddle, I hope, so ignore these!)
  2. I then rolled onto my upper back on the ball so that I was in a bridge position. I placed my hands right on the inside of my hip bones to feel the obliques, and then lifted each leg singly to work these muscles. Paul held on to my arm to avoid me falling, so have a partner if you try this one! You will quickly discover which side is weaker. When the weaker leg is on the ground, the leg in the air will come down faster in order to take the weight off the weak leg. This exercise is also much harder the wider your legs are, because your legs naturally want to be narrow under the mass to support the weight. (This is why horses will tend to be narrow in their hind legs while learning the passage; they are not strong enough to widen their legs while they are sitting, so the narrowing of their legs compensates for this weakness)
  3. During my clinic in MN with Paul in November, he kept telling everyone to imagine holding a beach ball while riding in order to open the chest. You really can’t pretend to know what it feels like unless you do it, so I definitely recommend actually getting a ball! Hold the ball with your chest open and scapulas back. Drop the ball and hold the feeling without the ball for a few seconds before you “pick up the reins.” Your shoulders should be back and down, with no room to put a finger between your scapula bones. Once upon a time I was talking to a figure skating friend whose coach would yell at her to keep her “Tits to the Wind” in order for her to keep her upper back straight. As I trot around the ring, this is a more literal and much funnier phrase to keep in the back my head than “shoulders back”, but I wouldn’t want to offend anyone…
  4. This is another partner exercise! Grab a lead line or lead rope and get in a riding position (can be standing or sitting in a saddle) in correct position, emulating the beach ball feeling and a strong core. With the lead line around your waist, have your partner tug on it. You should be strong and steady. Now, roll your shoulders forward a little bit and have your partner pull with the same force. They pull you out of position so easily it’s hard to believe they are pulling equally both times, but this highlights the importance of riding with your shoulders back.
  5. I then hopped on the saddle on the saddle stand. I imagined my hands were two disks, and placed these disks on my solar plexus and below my belly button. My job was to then keep these disks in the same plane while rocking the saddle stand back and forth. My head, shoulders, disks and seat all needed to move together, without “pumping” with my seat. After this was completed, I brought my elbows to a 90 degree angle and pointed my fingers straight forward. I was then assigned to rock back and forth again, ensuring my fingers kept pointing straight. This made sure my energy was going forward, and that I was not scooping with my hands or other monkey business.
  6. Finally, while in the saddle, he grabbed a lead line again and gave me reins. We discussed the importance of passive hands that are steady. It would be much easier if the reins were connected to the hips as people would be much less apt to pull. Sadly, we are handy little creatures and it is often easier for us to use our hands before our seat. Instead, it is important to have steady and strong hands that are there to support the horse, while keeping a solid core and back. Horses learn the steady feel of side reins to accept the bit, and your hands should feel no different. If your hands constantly move, this can easily confuse or cause them to disrespect your hands.

Another very big takeaway that was discussed in our lesson was the core and back being a cylinder. It is a cylinder that must always be strong, ready to correct, but does not move. The cylinder doesn’t lean in different movements; it is the job of the seat to give the directions while supplementing with half-halts. Paul also defines the seat as much more than just your seat bones; it encompasses everything between your ribs to your knees.

I will be spending the next week working on everything. And I mean everything. My lower right leg tends to move like a wild banshee, and as soon as I focus on that, my shoulders go. Then I forget to hold my cylinder while my hands start playing piano. Then Paul will catch a sight of my elbows and tell me to “cut my vest in half with my upper arm.” Or to point my toes forward. Sometimes, you get worse before you get better, right? At least now I am at the point of conscious incompetence. But ignorance was bliss.

In addition to the simulations, Kelso and I learned how to properly lunge a horse with side reins. The Wonder Pony took beautifully to everything I threw at him this week, and I am so excited to see how we shape up in the coming months when I learn how to sit (and do everything else) on him correctly. Here’s a million thanks to him for being my sacrificial lamb.

Until next time,

Erin and The WP


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