Region 9: USDF Symposium – Through the Levels

Judge Janet Foy and Olympian Steffen Peters inspire the auditors with their wisdom and talent. ⓒEmily Austin Photography

Janet Foy and Steffen Peters transform riders and auditors alike.

By Sandra Adair Daugirda

On a crisp, cold Texas weekend in February, more than 250 Houston Dressage Society auditors gathered at Tex-Over Farm in eager anticipation of what they might learn from this year’s first USDF Symposium. FEI 4* Judge Janet Foy and Olympian Steffen Peters did not disappoint; they educated, encouraged and entertained. They wowed everyone as they made a dramatic difference in each of the 21 demo riders and horses. Although the  philosophies they presented may have been familiar to some, watching them in action was inspiring to all.

Janet and Steffen have a mutual commitment to correct training and partnership with the horse, as well as a passion for dressage and improving the sport in the USA. Having done clinics together for the past seven years, they have such rapport with each other that they put the riders at ease with camaraderie and a sense of humor. Janet had riders perform important movements from their level as she commented from a judge’s perspective, and then Steffen worked with them to address their issues. Without exception, they had each rider:  1) simplify their lessons, 2) raise their standards, 3) use mistakes as training opportunities, 4) make their horse adjustable, 5) clarify his understanding of contact, and 6)  encourage his cooperation.

KEEP IT SIMPLE

“What is often seen by the rider as resistance in the horse, may actually be his lack of physical or mental understanding of the rider’s aids.”

A simple task is easy to understand, uncomplicated, fundamental and straightforward. Simplicity was the common thread throughout the work done at every level. Steffen reminded us that there are only 3 types of aids: leg, seat and rein. “Our task as a rider is to understand the aids, know how and when to use each, and then teach our horse to understand them, mentally as well as physically.” For example, to simplify the turn on the haunches, he had the riders keep turning on a slightly larger circle. By calmly addressing each component of this movement, one step at a time, each horse had the chance to learn what was expected of him now and later for canter pirouettes. For more on information on understanding the aids, go to: http://www.equisearch.com/horses_riding_training/english/dressage/eqsteffen1114/

Janet emphasized the importance of using the Pyramid of Training to keep your riding simple. (See: The Big 10, Dressage Today, August, 2012) “If you work on the basics, the movements will take care of themselves!” Janet was adamant that every rider would improve their performance by actually knowing the definitions of the terms found in the tests. (See: the glossary of judging terms). She also stressed that riders should know the purpose, and therefore the expectations, of the level they are riding, as well as the directives for each movement within the level (all of which are found on the test sheets). To illustrate: if a horse is a 6 mover, but all the elements of the training scale were really good, the score for the movement could jump to an 8, which is then modified by the fulfillment of the directives (or lack thereof).

If a movement is complicated, it can become too much to handle for both horse or rider. Training can be simplified by breaking it down and working on smaller pieces, and then putting it all back together again. For example, when training the trot half pass, one could work on cadence in the shoulder-in, regulate the rhythm and regularity of the collected trot, and improve the bend and obedience to the inner leg through circles or leg yields. Steffen insisted, “You can’t do a thousand things during a flying change. You must have an adjustable, uphill canter with the horse straight and in front of your leg before the change. Your aids have to be obeyed without question. If you can’t do a quick canter depart on the quarter line, you can’t do changes.” Visuals can also make a tough movement easier to train. Janet had a great tip for the canter pirouette: picture your horse’s hind legs in the center of a five pointed star, and move his shoulders from tip to tip.

By keeping it simple, you will have consistency in your work, lightness in your contact, and your riding will look and feel effortless, as Axel Steiner says, “Like dancing not weight lifting.”

RAISE YOUR STANDARDS

“Every moment we are with our horse, whether on the ground or in the saddle, we are teaching them; right or wrong, we are always teaching, so don’t put things on your training blackboard that you’ll have to erase later.”

When Steffen Peters is in the warm-up ring, he asks, “Is this the feeling I want to take into the show ring? Am I in charge?” Because your horse adapts to our standards, high or low, you must  consistently teach him that the only way is the right way. Train every day for a good marching walk, a cadenced trot, an uphill canter. When something is not quite right, don’t accept it. Quickly make a correction and do it again, so the lesson is clear. If the horse goes against the bit in a transition, redo it. If he runs off like a race horse, yanking on the reins, stop him. Say, “No, sir!” Don’t punish him, teach him something!

Nowhere is this concept more important than in the horse’s response to the aids. Say you lightly close your calf for the horse to go forward and nothing happens. Immediately add more leg or spur, if necessary, until you get a true reaction. Then try again with a light calf, and repeat the process until they learn to respond to the invisible aids we desire. Don’t worry if they overreact as even a bad reaction is better than no reaction. Steffen encouraged riders not to struggle with the horse by constantly kicking, but to just remind him when necessary. “The most important part of your body is your brain!  He’s stronger, but you’re smarter.”

Tracy Zaidenweber and her Training Level 5-year-old imported Danish gelding, Hampton, display the lightness that can be achieved when a horse mentally and physically understands contact. ⓒEmily Austin Photography

Don’t be happy with even a 7 or 8. If you go for more pizazz in the trot and the horse canters, it’s ok, go big in the canter. “If you don’t test your horse, your horse will test you.” Make a difference, help him learn. As Janet likes to say, “Why not a ’10′?”  Don’t tell yourself less quality is ok for now because your horse is young or only at Training Level.  Always strive to up-level. In the show ring, high standards mean not only quality work but accuracy as well.

Janet has seen everything from 24-meter ovals instead of 20-meter circles and riders who don’t seem to know where a movement begins or ends, to tempis and zig zags not centered over X. “Riders lose so many stupid points from careless corners, sloppy figures, messy transitions and crooked positions.” (For tips from Janet on maximizing show points, go to this link. She urges riders to watch videos of great rides and implant that quality in their mind. Then come down centerline sitting tall, shoulders back, with a proud look that says, “Here I am!”

Raising your standards is another step in achieving the ultimate, harmonious ride where even your grandmother comments, “That looked so easy, why do you need more lessons?”

CLARIFY CONTACT

“Contact is the most misunderstood concept for both the horse and rider.”

Steffen was adamant about improving contact. He said that by 4 to 6 weeks under saddle, a 3 year old needs to be engaging his hind end and accepting the bit with a consistent contact and frame. He must learn to carry himself, and respect this job description for his muscles early on. This will help him to stay supple in his topline and more through from the very beginning of his work. “Not only does a horse not get better at contact as he gets older, some will spend their lives fighting the bit.” Janet pointed out that the stretch circle in Training Level is meant to test the horse’s true understanding of contact. “Judges want to see the horse stretching out and down, evenly into both reins as those are lengthened, not speeding up, staying in the contact, with his nose between his shoulder and his knee.”

Every day, guide your horse into the frame that is correct for him, one that uses his muscles. Steffen instructed,”Each horse is unique. If he wants to go low, keep him up, and vice versa.” Your reins should be equal, holding about 3 to 5 pounds of weight. Lightness refers to the elevation of the shoulders, not having little weight in the reins. “If a horse is fussy in the contact, you can be sure it is 100% mental, so you must patiently but consistently ask for his cooperation. A light tap with your whip will encourage more engagement, and thus more contact. If he is leaning on your reins, you must create a reason for him to let go. Two or three taps with your whip say, ‘This isn’t ok. I’m in charge. You must cooperate.’”

Janet gave us a great visual of contact. “Supple tension in the muscles of the back are like a well-flowing freeway carrying the energy created by the hind end over back onto the bit. If those muscles get rigid, that freeway is now in rush hour when an accident happens!”

USE MISTAKES AS TRAINING OPPORTUNITIES

“Only repeating an exercise or movement doesn’t really teach the horse, but catching his mistakes and correcting them quickly certainly does.”

Steffen encouraged the riders to not only try to avoid problems with their horse, but to relish them. While working on the collected canter, one rider kept kicking her horse to keep him from breaking into the trot. When Steffen had her stop struggling to maintain the canter, and immediately re-ask for it when he trotted, her horse was able to figure out what she wanted, and in short order. A horse’s memory is short. When something goes wrong, you only have about 5 to 8 seconds to make a correction that he will associate with the error, and that same short time span to reinforce the correct response with verbal praise or a pat on his neck. Steffen urged, “Don’t wait for a training issue to become overwhelming. Catch it early on, say, ‘This is a trouble spot, let’s work on it now.’ Don’t punish your horse, help him understand what you want.”

Janet addressed how to handle mistakes at a show by admonishing, “Train at home, not in the ring! Don’t battle or create a fight as it only makes it worse, and every sin drops your score down a bit. Try to address tension issues early in your warmup.” Although you don’t want make a big deal of disobedience, you don’t want to ignore it either. A mistake used to be an immediate 4. Now judges take one point off the score they would have given if the mistake had not occurred, so still ride for quality before and after the error. You can also make up points later in the test. If you lose your lead in the canter pirouette, change back so you can still show the required flying change. Know the beginning and end of each movement. Janet encourages, “If you blow one, make the next one great! Take advantage of non-brilliance movements like the halt or rein back, whose scores depend only on excellent training.”

Don’t miss the wonderful training opportunities mistakes provide you to clarify your aids.

MAKE YOUR HORSE ADJUSTABLE

“Because the pendulum between them is balanced, you can never have more extension than you have collection.”

Marta Renilla and her 9-year-old Pure Spanish stallion, Presumido, gracefully demonstrate the the pendulum of adjustability at Grand Prix. ⓒEmily Austin Photography

From First Level to Grand Prix, the horse is asked to show increasing adjustability in the length of his stride. Janet finds that many lower level riders often show only a modest lengthening. A huge extended canter can be unsettling even for a seasoned pro. She coaxes, “Get in touch with your inner eventing self!” Every horse can go, it’s bringing him back in a timely, balanced manner that can be a bit daunting. But judges score both the transition up and BACK. They also want to see a clear difference between the medium and extended gaits. Janet exclaimed, “It isn’t just ‘go big’ vs ‘go huge’! The medium is the most off the ground, whereas the extended is the most over the ground.” If you count your strides between the letters, you can be sure you have fewer in the extended. The collected gaits should have the  shortest strides of all the paces, but with nearly the same tempo. When judging the collected canter, Janet looks for a strong topline and a good separation of the hind legs, the horse staying up in shoulders with lots of suspension in an uphill balance.

As far as Steffen is concerned, “Adjustability is so important, you must test it!” He asked the riders to tweak the tempo or the length and height of the frame. He had them regulate the tempo, and go a little forward, a little back. He asked them to lengthen the canter, and then bring it back in 9 strides, then 7, then 5. The strength this work develops is an additional benefit for all horses, especially for young ones. It also improves obedience, and the quick, correct reaction to the aids. With mastery, it would allow a horse to move from the height and intensity of piaffe to the length and relaxation of the extended walk.

Ultimately, the control that adjustability provides the rider makes his horse so rideable, he can perform every movement, every moment, with the utmost accuracy and excellence.

DEVELOP COOPERATION

“If you teach your horse to understand your aids in a simple but exacting manner, letting him learn from his mistakes, then submission will evolve into cooperation, and he will become a more reliable partner.”

Throughout the weekend Janet gave comments to the riders such as inconsistent tempo, angle varying, loosing bend, medium fading and other evidence that we must raise our standards of reliability. Steffen shared that for 45 minutes daily, he expects his horse to be a respectful partner. Even in the warm-up, he works intensely for about 5 minutes, giving him jobs that address his mind and his body. “If your training is inconsistent, your horse will be unreliable. You must make a point every time something is not quite right.” If during a transition to halt, for example, your horse is obedient, but out behind and against the bit, let him know that’s not ok. Clarify your aids and repeat until you get a balanced halt, then reward him by relaxing your leg and hand. “Always teach square halts, even to young horses.”

Janet also wanted to see the riders use more invisible aids, especially in the upper level movements. She quoted Olympian and International Judge, Jennie Loristan-Clarke, “To excel at the difficult canter zig zag, your aids must be so respected that you only have to worry about the amount of bend!” Steffen concurred, “I never want to struggle. I teach my horse to offer the movements. When he’s good, I remove my leg and say, ‘Now you do it!’” For example, he never kicks a horse into piaffe, but tests him, correcting as needed. “I don’t train for a better piaffe, but for a more dependable one.” For passage, Steffen simply sinks into his heels, adds his calves and closes his thighs, using his spurs only as a momentary reminder.

“I want him to offer everything: collection, extension, transitions, straightness, even corners.”

A horse that understands what is expected of him, and offers it out of a sense of cooperation,  is a truly reliable partner, and the rider can achieve the ultimate goal in dressage: harmony.

After a ride with Steffen, 13-year-old imported Hanoverian gelding, DJ Black, becomes a more reliable Fourth Level partner for Leslie Fan. ⓒEmily Austin Photography

Clinic Report: A Canadian Equestrian Trains with Anja Beran

By Susan Sellers

Roz Moskovits is well known throughout Atlantic Canada and beyond for her dedicated twenty-eight year involvement in the horse industry: as teacher, rider, and judge. About four years ago, a student in the Equine Health and Fitness course which she teaches at Nova Scotia Agricultural College showed her the video If Horses Could Speak by veterinarian, Gerd Heuschmann. Although his findings that certain practices in competitive, modern dressage are detrimental to the horse were not a revelation to Roz, Dr. Heuschmann’s ground breaking research made her want to learn more. Here was the science written by an expert that supported her own practices aiming to develop the equine athlete while safeguarding care, compassion and responsibility. Roz wondered who, then, exemplified these principles riding in pure classical dressage — the centuries old system which above all respects the horse’s well being? It did not take her long to find out about Anja Beran.

After reading Beran’s seminal book, In Deference, Roz initiated contact and was invited to attend the Second International Workshop on Classical Dressage. Along with several other trainers and riders from all over the world, Roz participated in the week long intensive workshop at Gut Rosenhof, headquarters of the Anja Beran Foundation this past July. “My experience there was even greater than I had imagined…Anja has the patience and insight of a Zen master with her horses and her students,” says Roz. “There is an overwhelming sense of tranquility and discipline at Gut Rosenhof. During our time there, upwards of fifteen to twenty horses daily came into the arena for schooling. Most were stallions; many with conformational weaknesses. Others had been lame or had behavioral problems resulting from previous harsh or improper training,” she continued. Yet, as Roz observed, these horses had all been strengthened and suppled through the gentle and incremental schooling following Anja’s rule: “little by little is best.” Since every horse in training at Gut Rosenhof is considered unique, appropriate schooling exercises are adapted to suit individual needs. Training there is not “one shoe fits all.” The work, according to Roz’s educated eye, was gentle, progressive and positively reinforced “always maintaining the highest expectations for each horse.”

After schooling sessions, whether intensive or not, horses walked out of the arena barely sweating. “The quality of fitness, condition and muscle tone was hard to believe, especially on the mature horses schooling at and above a Grand Prix level. They were positively brilliant!” enthused Roz. Traveling around her home province of Nova Scotia and in other parts of Canada as judge and clinician, Roz has been struck by the ever increasing number of repetitive stress injuries, chronic lameness and soft tissue strain among dressage horses. “We’re getting better at breeding performance horses but not necessarily at their training. I did not see any lame or injured horses at Gut Rosenhof,” she reported. “The horses were happy and focused in their work.” They are schooled carefully and with intention -and always with an awareness of safeguarding joints, ligaments and muscles. Sometimes a session lasted only 12 minutes; others were considerably longer. Unnecessary repetition is not a part of the schooling. “I never saw drilling of a particular movement,” remarks Roz. One day, Anja reminded workshop participants that the sport of dressage emanates from the art of dressage and that the real work of the art is in the “process” leading towards presentation. Modern dressage tests have become the “presentation” of our work. But unfortunately, many of the classic exercises that create the art while respecting the horse have been lost.

Roz agrees with Anja that too many dressage riders are looking only to their tests for information on what they need to school in preparation for their competition. Anja looks to the work of the old masters — and to the work of modern practitioners like her mentor, Manuel Jorge de Oliveira, and the renowned Nuno Oliveira (1925-1989) for guidance. As practiced at Gut Rosenhof, the classic exercises based on natural laws of harmony and balance that progressively lead to presentation of pure dressage, do not force the horse; they do not rely on draw reins, severe bits or any other gadgets that will have a negative impact on the horse. After being with Anja Beran for a week and watching her skilled and inspiring rides on horse after horse outside the regimented framework of competitive dressage, Roz adds: “Although I received a solid foundation in the fundamentals of dressage in Canada, it hasn’t always been easy in my tiny corner of Nova Scotia to find like minded riders and trainers who believe dressage is more than preparing for competition tests. Learning from this gifted equestrienne made the long journey all worthwhile.” In the end, Roz couldn’t help but feel validated; that she is on the right track to help riders attain the very best both for themselves and their equine partners. Always open to increasing her skill and knowledge base, for the past several years Roz has been incorporating the principles and classical dressage practices into her equestrian toolkit.

From her own experience and after the workshop at Gut Rosenhof, she is convinced that overall fitness and ability of today’s competition dressage horses would be greatly enhanced if riders followed a more classical approach to dressage. She would like to see a rapprochement; not a widening of the chasm between the two forms. Classical dressage is, after all, the foundation for modern, competitive dressage; the two are not mutually exclusive. Classical dressage may have its roots in the past but it is still relevant today. Says Roz: “I came away from the workshop with a real sense that what is being preserved by Anja Beran and her Foundation at Gut Rosenhof is less about our past and more about the future of dressage.”

Region 8: Dressage Training Clinic – Catherine Haddad

Finding Your Comfort Zone
This dressage rider learned the value of a quiet, firm rein contact in a clinic with dressage trainer Catherine Haddad.

By Risa B. Hoag

As a rider, one never knows exactly what to expect during a clinic. But Catherine Haddad’s comprehensive online training videos had caught my attention and when I learned she was coming to nearby Gladstone, New Jersey, I figured it was a great opportunity to learn from her in person.

My mare Mia, a 9-year-old Selle Français, is a former jumper and knew nothing about dressage when I bought her in 2009. So we’ve had our work cut out for us. During the clinic, Catherine complimenting Mia on her gaits and working trot rhythm, noted that she liked my rein contact and then sized up my uneven hands and went to work on straightening my body. She did this not by asking me to straighten my torso or shoulders, but by telling me to put my knuckles together (literally) and hold my hands out in front of me with a bend in my elbow. I was quickly able to see that my rein length was uneven, which I compensated for by twisting my body.

“By putting your hands together in front of you, you are forced to make your reins even and you automatically straighten your body on the horse,” said Catherine. “I do this all the time on my own horses and ask myself, ‘Catherine, are you straight?’”

Next, Catherine explained how I should quiet my reins in order to keep Mia consistently (and comfortably) on the bit, and to tell her where her head and neck should stay. I needed to understand how to use my reins in a more “workmanlike” fashion. To do this, Catherine asked me to hold my inside rein in an upward way, with a real bend in my elbow, while my outside hand remained lower and directly in front of the saddle. Once I was able to get past the mechanical feeling of placing my hands in this manner, the difference was amazing.

This was an “aha!” moment for me. It took a while to understand that my outside rein could be lower and have less movement, while my inside rein could be held higher and be more active. Also critical was understanding that by keeping my outside rein firmly against her neck and by carrying my inside hand in an upward way, not only was I preventing her from escaping through the outside shoulder, but I was also keeping the bit evenly placed in her mouth. When I got it right, her relaxation was immediately apparent and she came round and through.

Catherine also pointed out that I did this exercise more naturally to the right. At first I didn’t agree, but as I have practiced with this new rein contact I have found this to be true. I have a much more natural feel to the right, and it is taking more work to get comfortable to the left. Every rider has a better side, as do most horses, and while it is easier to work on the more comfortable side, forcing myself to work more to the left has enabled us to become more symmetrical.

During Catherine’s second visit to Outfoxed Farm she got on Mia to demonstrate the steady and consistent rein contact she was looking for, as well as the frame I should expect. She rode Mia with a quiet, steady and upward contact and explained, “There shouldn’t be any conversation going on. It’s a piece of metal in the horse’s mouth and the more you work it and the more you use it, the more resistant most horses get.”

After about 10 minutes, I got back on Mia and Catherine positioned my hands where they needed to be. My job was to keep the contact exactly the same. This technique worked brilliantly. Catherine reiterated that my hands should remain quiet and neutral in order to show the horse where I want her head and neck to be, without playing and fiddling with the bit. The quieter and steadier the rein contact was, the quieter and rounder Mia became. “In good riding, the bit is not there for you to play with,” said Catherine. “It is there for the horse to carry softly and quietly and evenly without interference.”

Mia remained in a steady, forward and through frame the entire time as I focused on my quiet but firm rein contact. While we often read about lightness in the bridle, I found there was a certain amount of pressure in this connection. But neither one of us was pulling. Mia and I were both comfortable, and I was able to maintain that connection in the canter as well as in the downward transitions.

While the bulk of my lessons focused on rein contact, Catherine also provided some insight into my seat and using it more effectively in the canter. “Use your seat to tell the horse canter like this, canter like this—adjusting your seat as you ask for more collection or extension,” she said. I have always used my seat to send the horse forward in the canter. However, Catherine helped me understand how to use my seat to collect and balance the horse as well. I find myself saying canter like this over and over in my head when we are working, regardless of whether I am asking for a lengthening in the canter or collection.

Throughout both clinics, Catherine reiterated to many of the riders, “You need to give your horses the amount of rein that is appropriate for the work and tell them to get comfortable there.” The same is true for the rider. Put your body and hands in the right place and get comfortable there. Thanks Catherine!

Region 5: Dressage Clinic – Shannon Peters

Back to the Basics – Rider Position and Affect of the Aids
By Catherine Chamberlain

On March 26th and 27th I had the opportunity to ride my horse Chance in a two-day dressage clinic with accomplished international dressage rider and dressage trainer Shannon Peters at Round Mountain Ranch in Scottsdale, Arizona. The biggest help I received from Shannon was her constructive criticism of my riding position. She clearly explained and demonstrated every small change that needed to take place in my body position and also defined the biomechanics of why the change needed to occur. It was incredible how even tiny changes in my position had such a huge impact on my horse! Shannon has a great eye as well; she was able to point out five things that I needed to work on in my position just as she came out to meet me when I was walking around on a long rein. The biggest difference I feel that she made was with my seat. I have a quiet seat so many people do not comment on it, but Shannon recommended that I use my abdominal muscles in front to pull my seat more underneath my center of gravity as I tend to balance just slightly too far in front of my hips. She explained that it’s important for a rider with a longer waist like me to always check my balance and position in the saddle to ensure I am affective. If I allowed my position to tilt forward slightly with my seat out behind me, then it was much easier for my horse to get behind the aids. We also worked on me being able to turn to the inside with my waist to increase the bend of my horse’s body.

Then, Shannon made me work on achieving a definite bend in my elbow which caused me to become strong in the back, shoulders, and biceps, but soft in the forearm and hand. My horse enjoyed this connection a lot more and I had much less resistance in the bridle. She also had me think about turning my pinkie fingers towards each other in order to keep my thumbs up and my elbows in.

Finally, Shannon had me work on pulling my lower leg back by using the muscles in the back of my thigh instead of just bending my knee, which causes my lower leg to become short and positioned too far in front of me. In this new position I felt much more balanced and automatically my bad habit to pump my upper body in the canter went away. I also felt like my seat was more independent of my hands and I could use one aid without accidentally using another.

Once we spent the first day working on my use and affect of the aids and my body position, the second day we included some work on the movements from the Prix St. George and FEI Young Rider tests. Shannon clarified for me how to bend the horse in the body instead of only bending the horse in the head and neck. Immediately our half-passes, haunches-in, and other lateral work became much softer and easier for my horse and I. We also worked on the three and four tempi changes and how the preparation was essential to having a good line of changes every single time. Finally we finished up with a few medium and extended trots and concentrated on the power coming fluently from the hind legs to a soft connection in the bridle. Over the last couple of weeks I have worked on everything she said in the saddle and also during my daily workout routine and I definitely feel many improvements in my balance and the coordination of my aids Overall it was a fantastic weekend and I cannot wait for another opportunity to train with Shannon!

Region 5: Dressage Training Clinic – James Shaw, Tai Chi

James Shaw Tai Chi Clinic Teaches Riders to Ride from Within

By Julia McSherry

Twelve lucky participants learned more about riding with less force through releasing areas of tension in their bodies that impede the horse’s ability to move freely at the James Shaw Tai Chi for Equestrians Clinic February 26-27 at Windy Creek Ranch in Longmont. Sponsored by SVB Equestrian, LLC and Windy Creek, the clinic provided an opportunity for two mornings of ground work followed by mounted lessons that created a better understanding of how breath and balance can make a more effective rider.

Shaw, who has worked with Conrad Schumacher, Betsy Steiner, Lyndon Gray and many riders from beginner through Olympic, offers numerous tips for translating Tai Chi movements into better dressage riding. Concentrating on ground work will help immensely in the saddle.

Tai Chi is similar to yoga and Pilates in that it focuses on breath, balance, and body core to improve communication between horse and rider. But there are differences as well. Tai Chi uses the bones and proper structural alignment over muscles. It is important to identify and bring to consciousness imbalances in our own body and work to be able to correct them before getting into the saddle. The horse can feel our imbalances and these imbalances impact the way the horse moves. Tai Chi principles apply to everything and can make you a better rider at age 70 than 40, moving healthier at 80 than 60.

Tai Chi fosters an independent seat for riding by training the body to turn at the waist or belly button for sitting trot.

Foundation in breath and balance is essential. For example, if you hold your breath, nothing gets better. Breath is one thing we can learn to control with practice. Who doesn’t forget to breathe when we are in stress conditions, such as in the middle of a test at a show, but it’s here where practice on the ground can make deep breathing natural, something we don’t have to remember to do. Since breathing impacts weight in the sit bones, it’s possible to breathe into upward and downward transitions rather than relying on the leg aides.

According to Shaw, we have the ability to control our breath 100 per cent of the time. Breath is the only thing we can control 100 percent of the time. Our breath sets the rhythm of our bodies. It impacts our center of balance. When it moves down into our body, the horse’s energy comes up to fill that space. It is then that you can feel each step push up through your body. This is key for getting in synch with the horse to feel the movements rather than look for them.

Shaw believes if that you focus too much on your horse, your horse doesn’t focus on you. When you focus on you especially your breath, the horse relaxes and focuses on you as well. Tai Chi also helps one become self aware, to look inward deeper. It is a healing art, which incidentally helps the immune system.

Breath and balance are essential to health and to effective riding. “Breathe in through your nose like smelling a flower,” he explains to his students. “Breathe out through your mouth like playing a flute.” Breathing out through the nose tightens the throat creating tension. This tension transfers to the horse.

Smile to relax the jaw. Inhale/exhale one count apart, that is one count longer on the exhale. Releasing all the air from the abdomen opens the space to breathe in a full belly of air.

Try halting on the exhale. The horse drops its head when the back releases, when breath lowers into the body. Practice at the walk, breathing in for three counts, out for four for a regular walk and in for five counts out for six counts for a slower walk, more relaxed on a longer rein. You can change the rhythm of the gait by changing your breath.

Shaw also explains that the pelvis (sit bones), femur, and lower back comprise the seat. Balance here, in the core, is what you need to make the horse go straight. If the horse drifts right, breathe into the left sit bone. If the horse drifts left, breathe into the right sit bone.

The sit bones tell you where your weight is and you need to control your weight with breath. A key concept is how our weight drops from your sit bones into the horse.

Ground work and practicing simple breathing exercises mounted at the walk can be amazing to foster riding improvement. Shaw encourages riders every time they ride to get on and at the walk, check the breath, awareness of the sit bones, making sure all the “gates” (a Tai Chi term) are open in the body. The sit bones drop when the horse’s back foot hits the ground. Riders can learn to feel each of the horse’s foot falls through the sit bones. This is important for feeling when to give aids for transitions. “You should be able to feel the foot falls all the way up your spine to the back of the skull,” Shaw emphasizes. “Many people block in their lower back. Practicing at the walk is very beneficial and makes the walk much more interesting to ride as well.

If the rider pushes down too much into the stirrups, they can’t feel the sit bones. Riding without stirrups is beneficial. If the rider’s body opens to receive the energy from the foot falls, it creates throughness as the horse moves over the back to the poll. The rider has to have it too.

Weight in the proper sit bone is very important for balance of the horse. For example, more weight should be on the inside sit bone when working the horse in circles. To get the correct diagonal, ask for the trot as the inside sit bone drops because the rider’s sit bone drops as the horse’s same back foot is stepping forward. More efficient turns can be made when aids are given when the horse’s inside leg is in the air. Seventy percent of the power in the canter is received into the inside sit bone so that means we need to learn how to maintain much more contact with the inside sit bone during the canter. Sit bone weight is critical in canter departs and flying changes. When you lose contact with the sit bones, the horse shortens its stride.

In Tai Chi, as in dressage, relaxation and balance are the root of power. Power, not strength, results in calm and precise movement.

James Shaw will return to Windy Creek Ranch September 9-11. For information, contact Sarah V. Barnes at sara...@yahoo.com. James Shaw has been a student of the martial arts for over 20 years and translates Tai Chi to dressage principles with riders throughout the U.S. and United Kingdom. He is the author of Ride from Within: Use Tai Chi Principles to Awaken Your Natural Balance and Rhythm.