Many riders talk about using weight aids to cue the horse as to what to do next – bend, turn, stop, etc. As a Pilates instructor, I prefer to talk about body language. There are two reasons for using the phrase “body language” instead of “weight aids”. If you’re not on the horse, but working him in hand or longeing him, what you do with your body can only be called body language. You’re using your body and its parts as a language that we hope the horse understands.
The second reason I use the term body language is less obvious than the first. When you ARE in the saddle, how you use your body does translate to “weight applied here”, but the bigger issue is HOW you apply the weight. That thoughtful application of weight is in the realm of body language. Body language is communication from my body to the horse whether on the ground or on his back.
I’ve been rehabbing my horse, Ollie, for the last couple of weeks for a stifle injury he received some time ago. Since all we’ve been doing is walking and leg yields, I’ve been experimenting with my “weight aids” or body language. Our basic routine involves walking along the perimeter of my arena for ten minutes on a side and then a little leg yielding, all on a loose rein.
I usually start out with stretching tall and twisting. If I’m on the right rein as I stretch tall and twist to the right, several things happen at once. If my seat is perfectly centered in the saddle when I twist, my right hip and leg come back a bit and my left hip and leg come forward a bit. My right shoulder, obviously, comes back more than my hip. The weight of my left seat bone has now shifted forward and to the right into Ollie’s left shoulder, wither area, and spine. Stretching tall has caused the right seat bone to lift, lessening the weight on that side. Moving all the way down my body, I find my left leg unbent and the foot pressed a little more into the stirrup, despite focusing on keeping absolutely centered as I twist.
In turning Ollie at the corners in each direction, I get a slightly different response from him depending on which way we’re going and which corner we’re in. Since I’m not using the reins at all, it is all up to my body language to ask him to navigate the corners. In the first corner nearest the barn on the left rein, I really have to remember to straighten up and twist. Usually by this time, I’ve started to slouch! In the next corner where he usually turns too much, I have to ask more softly, quit earlier, and even ask for a little counter bend to keep him on the track. That one is a very iffy corner to ride and Ollie is very sensitive. Just a hair too much of anything and we’re going off in all directions!
It’s interesting to me how different each of the corners is for Ollie. In the corners closest to the barn, he gets much deeper into the bend. In the corner going down the long side away from the barn, he automatically turns too much and heads for the diagonal. I think if I didn’t catch this tendency in time he’d just make a U-turn for the barn. It is always necessary to keep adjusting my posture and body rotation to use the right body language to keep Ollie where he should be.
In this corner, I have to ask a little earlier but more softly and stop asking a lot earlier. Then I have to plan to catch his inside shoulder or correct the path of travel with my inside seat bone leg so that he doesn’t over do the turn.
Depending on which corner we’re in and how I want to ask for the bend and the turn, I’ll use my weight or body language differently. Sometimes if I weight the inside seat bone, I’ll get what I want. Sometimes I have to weight the outside seat bone. To an observer the horse is giving the same response, regardless of what I’m doing.
In one corner I can just twist and stay centered. In another I might put more weight to the inside. But in the corner near the gate (closest to the barn), if I put more weight to the inside, he’d get even deeper into the corner. So there, I have to make sure that I emphasize my outside seat bone and give a little push to the inside so that he doesn’t go quite so deep.
The leg yields have been even more interesting and fun. I stretch up tall and push a tiny bit with my right seat bone for a leg yield to the wall on the right rein. If I do too much, Ollie pretty much goes sideways like a big hairy crab. So I ask for one step of leg yield and then one step straight. It’s a little like using my right seat bone to ask for the leg yield and then catching his left shoulder with my left leg to straighten him out. After a couple of days of doing one stride over and one stride straight, I could then aim a little better for the far corner.
Before you head out to use body language/weight aids under saddle, try practicing your movements in a rotating office. Begin by placing your feet either on the floor or the base of the chair. Be ready to notice the movements of your whole body, but especially be aware of your legs and feet. Start moving your chair by pushing with one foot or the other. What is your seat bone doing now? You can also push one hip bone forward and keep the seat bone on the chair and get the chair to turn.
Next, stretch tall and try some twisting. What happens to the rest of you? What happens to the chair? If you lean a little to the right while twisting right, what happens to the weight in your seat bones? The weight will come off the left seat bone. Depending on what you want to the horse to do, this can be a good technique or it might not.
Of course, if you’re leaning left, you’ll put more weight into the left seat bone. If you’re slightly leaning forward the pressure into the left seat bone will be more forward and less sideways. If you’re slouching backwards, there is less effect overall and it’s harder to twist, at least for my body it is.
How will these different ways of using your seat, legs, feet, hips, and shoulders affect how your horse turns? Each of your movements becomes body language as soon as you are beside or aboard your horse. For your communication to be most effective, you should be aware of what exactly you are communicating with your body. Once you get some answers from the chair, go outside and ask your horse.