Following, part 2, by Courtney King Dye
I wanted to do a Part 2 to last week’s article on following in order to focus on some things that aren’t commonly talked about. One of those things is following in the trot. In the walk and canter, the horse’s neck stretches forward and back so the elbow must do the same, but in the trot the head is basically still. The movement comes from the horse’s back going up and down, so the elbow must absorb in a different way. In the walk and canter, the elbow opens and closes with a similar movement to rowing a boat. In the trot, the closest activity I can come up with to describe the movement of the elbow is doing biceps curls, but I hesitate to use that as an example because in no way does it feel the same. In a bicep curl, the elbow bends in order to bring the hand closer to the mouth thus tensing the bicep, but in following, the opposite result is achieved with the same motion: the elbow opens and closes to allow the hand to stay in one spot while the body moves up and down, thus eliminating the necessity for the bicep to tighten.
It’s not only a difficult motion to describe, it’s difficult to put the rider in a position that this will happen naturally to give them the feeling they’re after. The method I’ve come up with is off the horse. I have the rider place their hands on a table top as if they were riding. Then they must squat down while not moving their hands. Then stand up while their hands remain unchanged. When they can squat up and down properly without affecting their hands, I have them go up and down in the rhythm of posting thinking only of keeping that bicep loose, and when they do that well, I tell them to memorize that feeling and get back on the horse.
Now the rider knows the feeling they’re after, so it’s more possible to put them in a position that may create the feeling naturally and cause them to think, “Ah, ha! There it is!” and fight to keep it or recreate it. One position that requires this shock-absorbing elbow is the 2-point, so I use that to make the feeling happen. The rider must make her reins short enough that her hands are half-way up the horse’s neck while maintaining contact. She must also have her seat honestly out of the saddle to be in real two-point, and what often happens when I tell a rider to get her seat out of the saddle is that she stands up more, thus straightening her hips and elbows–the opposite of what I want. To prevent this reaction, I tell the rider, stick your butt out and put your chest on the horse’s crest. This necessitates the elbow to bend, and keeping her hands on the horse’s crest while maintaining her balance out of the saddle will cause the elbow to open and close naturally. Then I have the rider ease herself back into the saddle with her only focus being on keeping the same looseness in her elbow. It’s much easier to maintain a feeling than to create it, so each time she loses it, I simply have her go back into two-point for however long or short she needs to get it back.
At first we go around solely working on this, but often when we add other tasks, the elbows lock up again. My first goal is that the rider can just trot around on a circle with loose elbows, and when she can do this, I gradually increase the demands while still keeping our priority and focus on her following. For instance, first we’ll go all the way around the ring, change direction, volte, serpentine, etc. When she can do all of this without tightening her elbows, we leg-yield. But maybe in the leg-yield the shoulders are leading drastically. I don’t care. All I care about is that her elbows remain supple. Training is all about priorities. Perhaps that’s another article, but in this instance the elbows are my priority, not the quality of the leg-yield. Yes, we want following elbows and a good leg-yield, but we need to tackle one detail at a time–to make it so that the rider doesn’t need to think about following anymore–so that her mind is free to focus on the next issue.
Another part of the body that’s seldom talked about but is extremely important in the ability to be still relative to the horse is the hip joint. The hips are shock absorbers; they’re the connection between the horse’s moving back and the rider’s stationary body, so they must absorb the movement of the horse to allow the body to appear still. Tightening in this area is often the most obvious at the trot. Usually when people are struggling to sit the trot, they tighten their hips to try to stay still, thus increasing the jarring feeling. I ask them to think of it like holding a glass of water in a moving car: the arm must be pliable in order to absorb the bounces in the road and prevent the water from spilling. So must the hips be pliable to absorb the bounce of the horse and prevent the body from being tossed about.
The most effective way I’ve found for dealing with this issue is putting the rider on the lunge line. On the lunge line, everything that may distract the rider’s mind away from what we’re trying to accomplish, like steering, is eliminated, allowing 100% of her focus to remain on her hips. Unlike following with the arms where I try to take the rider’s mind off the task at hand, this task needs 100% focus. The reason for this is that the motion we want is completely unnatural. The hands will naturally be pulled forward and back if we don’t think, if we simply let our hands be dead weight, but unless we tell the hips to be loose, they’ll tighten as their natural reaction to concussion is to brace.
At the walk and canter, following hips are easier to find, both because the lack of concussion prevents the body’s instinct to brace and because it’s easier to describe and imagine swinging the hips forward and back than absorbing up and down. The way to convince a rider’s body to properly release her hips varies from rider to rider; it’s totally dependent on what image helps that particular rider understand what she wants her body to do. I find that at the trot, telling the rider to think of keeping her tailbone in the saddle without leaning back is generally quite effective, but I’ve found no magical exercise to help as I have in arm following.
The way to make following hips simply the way a rider rides is to have 100% consistency. Yes, we need to do it and do it some more, but the key is to always do it correctly. I never let a rider continue if her hips tighten up. If they tighten, I have her go to canter, or walk, or post. I have them sit the trot often, but not for very long at a time at first. The body learns by doing, so if a rider has hip swing 100% of the time, the road to making hip swing instinctual will be exponentially shorter than if they have it 80% of the time.
I spend a ton of time stressing the importance of following to students, but I always remind them that the purpose of following is to make quiet aids matter, that once they achieve doing nothing, it opens the door for them to do something. If they are able to simply have honest contact with the bit and follow completely with the horse’s head wherever he puts it, then they can insist that he stay on the bit. Following must be the norm, but corrections are often needed.
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