Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Physics 101: The Dressage Rider... Really???

When I took physics in high school and college - I may have had visions of dressage horses in my head but I certainly wasn't applying the laws of physics - angles, torque, power, acceleration, resistance - to the dressage rider! I might have gotten a better grade if I'd figured out its relevance to the important stuff in life - riding horses!

To backtrack a bit - in case you are new to my blog - in February, I had a physical therapist work with me in the saddle. It was a pretty enlightening experience that you can read about here. Shortly after that post I received a comment from someone (maybe it was an email!) - I'm so sorry I can't find their name - anyhow, this very kind follower of my blog suggested I take a look at the books of Mary Wanless. It took me a few months to get around to making a purchase and another few weeks before I sat down with a glass of wine and a Mary Wanless book, Ride With Your Mind (turns out, there are quite a few, all with the same-ish title) - ready to see what I could learn. I was less than a page in and I was ready to scream out 'Mary! Where have you been all my life?!' I have to admit that I haven't finished the book. But its already filled with sticky notes, dog earned pages, high lighted text, and notes in the margins. Reading is slow going when you're this into what you're reading!

But hang on - didn't I open this post talking about physics? What does 'riding with your mind' have to do with physics? Apparently, everything.

A few weeks ago I found an ad for a RWYM (as those who are 'in' the club refer to it) clinic here in Maryland at Great Strides. Clear the calendar! Sign me up! Although I was too late to get a riding spot in the 3 day clinic, I was able to clear my calendar to audit the clinic's first day (and drag Kerry along with me). It was everything I hoped it would be and more! And Kerry... she didn't really know what she was getting into, but she went on blind faith - and by the end, she was pretty much giggling over the enormity of what we had stumbled into!

Right, so what is this whole RWYM physics thing? Let me see if I can say it without appearing too ignorant, should Mary herself read this post some day (?!) ... its the awareness that every force (or lack of force) of the rider effects the horse in either a positive or negative way. Nothing exists in a vacuum. To influence your horse positively you must be an equal creator and master of the energy forces acting in all directions on horse and rider. Ok so what the hell does that mean?

Go buy a RYWM book. Or two or three. Or the videos. Series I, DVD #3 is "The Sitting Trot" - my Christmas wish list just got a whole lot longer.

I can't even begin to recount everything I learned in the 8 hours I spent on Saturday enthralled by Mary. There wasn't a dull moment - and this was 8 hours of dressage lessons. And, oh by the way, very few riders even graduated past the walk. 8 hours of dressage walk lessons. Not for the faint of heart. Actually, everyone graduated to the trot - for a few circles. One cantered. And almost every lesson ended with the riders nearly collapsing from exhaustion! Did I mention they were mostly walking?!

Mary's philosophy is that a trainer's job is to clone "perfect" riders. To assess each student by detecting how they deviate from the "perfect" rider. And, to guide them to alter their angles and forces until they become the "perfect" rider - whereby, they will also allow their horse to move to its full potential. Okay, simple enough.

At the clinic, we had a tremendous opportunity to watch all shapes, sizes, and experiences of riders - from beginners to FEI. The horses were just as diverse. One thing that really struck me was, with very limited exception, Mary never said a word about the horse. She taught the rider. So many lessons I've watched and dressage show warm-ups are all about demanding this and that of the horse - while ignoring blatant and gross defects in the rider. I feel like hitting my head up against the wall watching instructors talk "fancy" about asking the horse and his hind leg, and his vertebrae, and ... when the rider is so blatantly falling apart that its a wonder the horse hasn't just stopped and laughed at the instructor out of sheer pity! One of the things I enjoy about my lessons with Silva is that I feel they are a good balance between fixing the rider and fixing the horse - simultaneously moving us together toward a goal. But, never have I ever witnessed lessons that so excluded the horse (NOT counting group school horse lessons - that just ain't it). The most amazing thing was, when Mary got the rider's angles right, and their forces right, and the energy moving in the right direction - holy crap! You should have seen the horses! Pokey, ground bound, sway backed nothing horses suddenly floated on air, rounded their backs, connected to the bit, and looked stunning!!! I looked around to check for smoke and mirrors - but this was real!

Mary stressed that there is no single mantra for all riders (sit up, sit back, sit tall...) - it's about detecting the deviations from perfect. And about developing words, feelings, visual/mental associations that make sense for the individual. But, in watching all the clinic riders, I came away with 4 basic things that applied to almost everyone:

1) Foot back, foot light. Having your leg and foot under your hip and shoulder is a necessary angle for stability. Without this, you will not be able to rise to the top of the posting trot. If you cannot be responsible for your own body weight, your horse will either 1) slow down to match you (i.e., pokey school horses) or 2) speed up exuberantly to make up for your dead weight (drag you along). Transfer your weight to 80% on the length of your thigh and 20% to your foot. This gives you power. One rider said that to get to the right position, he had to move his foot back 7 inches from where he felt it was "right" (it was actually only about 2 inches, but as Mary said, it's all about perception!).

2) Rotate your thigh over your knee (like a windshield wiper), knee-cap facing down. Again, it's all about angles and power forces. Mary describes the posting trot as feeling like you are kneeling at the alter. The knee moves in two ways - it kicks out below the knee (which moves the foot but does not lift the body) or it rotates above the knee (lifting the body). If your lower leg is kicking out, you are not lifting your body.

3) Keep the water in your bucket. If you imagine a bucket of water as the pelvis, hips, and waist line. Don't let the water spill out. Keep the bucket (pelvis) level. For some riders (who rotate the pelvis under), that means thinking "tail out". For others (who rotate the pelvis down and forward), it means thinking "stomach short".

4) Push against me. To place the upper body and chest in the proper alignment, almost all riders had to think of pushing against Mary's hand placed at their collar bone. It's not about leaning forward, but rather about creating a back to front power inside you that matches the power of the horse.

I have about 20 pages of notes, so be impressed that I was able to pick out just 4 things to say. It was all so important and absolutely fascinating.

But perhaps the most fun part of the day was the hour-long discussion over lunch. Mary pulled out a bag of balloons and led us through breathing exercises - to learn how to create a box out of our body whereby we push all the contents inside solidly against the walls - not letting any edges crumple. Learning not just that "core" strength is important, but how to use it. Now if I can only apply that to my sitting trot!

Now go buy a Mary Wanless 'Riding With Your Mind' book!!



  1. I love Mary Wanless. My old trainer had trained with me, and when she showed me some of those basic elements you listed, it dramatically changed my riding. I felt like I was actually riding and working. It was brilliant.

  2. Great equestrian blog! Why not come along to hay-net.co.uk an Equine Social Blogging Network and post your blog there too for more to follow!