Monday, February 20, 2012

Myth Busting

There's some dogma out there that occasionally needs to be challenged.  First is the myth of the bent horse. 

Despite all of the manuals out there depicting diagrams of horses bent nose to tail along the circumference of a circle, this is simply not the way it happens.  Horses cannot bend their vertebral columns!  This has been scientifically proven by several studies by folks in the know of all countries, including Deb Bennett, Phillipe Karl, Harry Bolt, and a litany of others.  I have witnessed it first hand myself during equine dissection while in vet school when I had access to a defleshed vertebral column.  Even with several strong students and anatomy professors we were unable to cause any discernible flexion, either laterally or longitudinally.  So, when we talk of a horse raising his back, it is a bit of a misnomer.  The horse can't raise his back, but he can lower his neck and croup, thus causing a relative raising of the back.  (This does not account for the relatively extreme raising of the back in rolkur; see Dr. Gerard Herschmann's writings for more detail.) In such a position the horse must engage his abdominal muscles, therefore using himself better.  The region between the shoulders and the pelvis is largely fixed, with only a degree or two of flexion.  Think of it this way...if the vertebral column was flexible, how could a horse bear our weight?  This is not to say that horses cannot be trained to better use their backs and become stronger and more supple, and when people feel a horse soften around the inside leg it's due to the horse relaxing the overlying musculature on the inside rather than actually bending his body.

We've all seen horses performing amazing gymnastics on their own, such as carefully picking up a hind foot and scratching behind an ear, so how is this possible if the horse doesn't bend his thoracic (back) and dorsal spine?  The neck as we all know is amazingly flexible, in little toads such as Owen it is positively snake like...
Nor can a horse collapse his rib cage, so how is this bend accomplished?  When you have the opportunity to watch a horse fold himself up like a cheeto watch the angle of his body.  By flexing the SI joint, the horse relatively raises his and tilts his back and ribcage to the outside.  If you are adventurous, take a piece of masking tape and run it along his spine from withers to tail; then have someone turn him around sharply in the stall while you stand on a mounting block to get an aerial view.  That tape never moves.

I wish I had some nice illustrations of this, but Deb Bennett has some really good stop action photographs in her books, Principles of Conformation Analysis, which shows this very thing.  The thing is, how does this apply to sidesaddle riding?  For those of you who are interested in dressage aside, this can affect you greatly.  Tack up a horse with a well fitting sidesaddle, being sure to leave the balance girth either unfastened or very loose.  Then turn your horse into a small circle around you and watch the saddle; what do you see?  The saddle tilts to the outside of the circle.

For most aside riders this tilt while on a volte never affects them, since few need to ride such small circles, but for those of us who will insist on beating our heads against the dressage aside wall, it can create a real problem.  During either a volte, pirouette, half pass left I find myself battling not only the centrifugal force to the outside by the movement, but also this saddle tilt.

When riding dressage astride we are told to step into the inside stirrup and weight the inside seat bone during lateral movements to the left, but what has been drilled into our sidesaddle psyche?  DO NOT WEIGHT THE STIRRUP LEST YOU PULL THE SADDLE OVER!  Here we come to myth #2. When riding aside I find myself saying to myself, "I must not weight the left, I must not weight the left..." when in these rare instances, I should be stepping down into the stirrup to counteract that arcing of the saddle to the outside.

This has taken me years to learn, and for some reason it became apparent to me while riding my western sidesaddle at USET.  Owen just wouldn't halfpass left, until for some reason I shifted my weight to the left side and he obligingly stepped over.

Here is an illustrative shot that I cringe to display to the world, but it is educational.  First, I must point out that this saddle was custom made for Owen and gets reflocked regularly twice a year.  But in this zoomed in shot, taken from behind during a steep halfpass you can clearly see the offside tilt of the saddle. 

Owen is rather bent left, and it's tilting
my sidesaddle right; I need to counter
act it by stepping into the stirrup.

While my body appears to be tilted as well, the entire photograph (which I accidentally deleted...grrrr) shows that my spine is straight and perpendicular to the saddle.  What I want to scream at myself is "step into the stirrup and pull the saddle upright!"  But for some reason, there is a mental battle going on inside my head between common sense versus 20+ years of sidesaddle instruction.

But as I mentioned in an earlier post, my lay up has given my plenty of time to analyze my own riding, and when I rode aside for the first time a few days ago I found I was able to break that particular rule.  When I asked for the halfpass and pirouettes left I forced myself to step into the stirrup and weight the saddle to the left.  I must admit, it was a scary if the entire saddle was going to slip under Owen's barrel but the ease of the halfpass was amazing.  It was effortless and did not require my constant niggling at Owen with the stick on the offside to move left.  And, lo! when I straightened him before the corner the saddle magically returned to its centered and level position, not requiring any shifting or tugging on my part.  By allowing my saddle to sit to the right, I was giving Owen conflicting aids.

And yes, the saddle will try to tilt left when I halfpass right, but it's been so ingrained into my head to weight the right seat bone that it is counteracted.

Last year I longlined Owen in the Manorgrove so that I could see for myself this tilting phenomenon while asking for extreme bend with no weight in the saddle.  But while this maybe more demonstrative in dressage, it can have relevance to any sidesaddle discipline.  Despite excellent flocking and fit, it falls ultimately falls to the rider to keep the saddle in its proper position.

Today I was finally able to ride again, since Owen had very considerately removed a shoe and I was waiting for Liam to come and pull the other one.  Owen once again was a candidate for the "free to good home" section of the classified ads since he was not terribly cooperative and was very tight in the back as well as resistant in the lower jaw and neck.  Possible reasons include:

1. It was his first time being ridden barefoot all round for many years, even tho' I was working him on grass.
2. He resented the extra long in hand whip I was using so that I might reach his hocks.
3. He is suffering from cribbing withdraw courtesy of the new cribbing collar I put on him last night.  Boy, does it work like a charm, but he's not happy about it.

Owen belied his advanced training and absolutely refused to canter correctly.  I had been hoping to work on the tempi changes, but if the canter isn't of good quality I'd only be setting him up for failure.  In the past I'd have confronted him head on about it, but today I decided to abandon the canter work (except for the pirouettes, which for some reason came fairly effortlessly) and focus on improving his trot work.  One thing about Owen and tension is that it gives him a fabulous passage so we started working on difficult stuff like shoulder in during the passage (mind blowing to Owen) as well as confirming my new theory about stepping into the stirrup during the left lateral work.  Once again it was confirmed, and I was all too aware when I was sitting too heavily on the right hip; I suppose Rosamund Owen would shudder to hear me talk this way.

What Owen really needs is to do some cross country long and low work at the lengthened trot and canter, but trying to stay forward on my right knee in the sidesaddle for a couple of miles was a bit trying so for the rest of the week I'll work him astride and ride in two point or rising trot (no, I'm not about to ride 3 miles of rising trot aside!).  This should really be good both for his cardiovascular fitness as well as suppling his back.


  1. How interesting! I wonder if this could be the root of the problem I had with right bend. I'll bet I was unknowingly sitting too hard in the right seatbone, preventing the right hind stepping more under. I'll definitely play with this...

    Although I admit I'm not as meticulous as you with maintaining the flock of my saddle and already have a problem with the saddle rolling left. We shall see how this goes. :)

  2. OMG!!! I keep wondering why Bonnie doesn't like our smaller circles left (we don't do true voltes much, but hey). Must try this. Nice anatomy lesson, thanks!

  3. THANK YOU!!!! I just had my first sidesaddle lesson ever and though I rode approx 2nd level dressage a few years ago I have a green horse and have had a son and gained more weight than I want to publicly admit to since then. This blog post kept me from having almost any saddle slip on my first lesson and I was able to leg yield and get a lovely collected sitting trot with impulsion on a 20m circle! All I had to do was stay out of the horse's way and in balance :). Thank you thank you thank you!