Getting With the Feet, Part 1: Lateral Movement

by Jan Young

Published in Eclectic Horseman
May/June 2018, Issue No. 101, p. 18

"Get with the feet." What does that mean, and how do you do it?

The horse moves his feet with a certain rhythm and footfall. If my body can get in sync with my horse's rhythm, I can improve my feel and timing. But if my body presents my desires in a way that does not coincide with the rhythm of his feet, I am less effective in my communication.

Getting with the horse's feet actually means getting with the whole horse. What the horse's feet do is shaped by his mind. I can't know his thoughts and feelings, but I can observe his attitude and attention. These are shaped by my approach--my attention, attitude, intent and body language.

I strive to ride my whole horse with my whole body moving as a unit, not as a bunch of separate parts. Picture a metal clothes hanger bent into the shape of a little man--his arms bent to the front where he would hold the reins (above the horn, so that later on he'll be able to easily handle the coils of his lass rope), his legs spread to fit over a horse--and of course a little hat on his head!

Hangerman

This little man fashioned from a clothes hanger illustrates how the rider's body operates as a unit to communicate effectively with the horse.

When "Hangerman" wants to circle to the left, he looks where he wants to go. His head does not move separately from his body; his whole body "looks" (eyes, hands, bellybutton). He does not take one arm or hand out to the side; his arms hang from his shoulders, shoulder-width apart, holding the reins, so both reins move together when he turns. His hands need not move the reins--his body does. Hangerman is one of many tools that can help me ride and communicate effectively with my horse.

As my horse walks in a straight line, his body moves and my body moves. I allow my body to move with the horse. I don't perch like a clothespin or sit stiffly like a rider in an equitation class. I sit tall but not rigid. I don't tip my shoulders or weight forward by looking down at the horse--I look straight ahead, as if I was looking for cows in the distance. My back is loose and moves like a U-joint; my upper body bobs up and down, as my hips and thighs alternate left-right, forward-back and up-down in a kind of figure-eight.

Awareness of these various movements is crucial to getting with the feet. Don't resist them by trying to "sit still." In fact, it helps, at first, to exaggerate them. As we walk along, I think about what my horse is doing that moves my body in these ways. I notice how my horse's hind and front legs move, moving my seatbones. I notice how my thighs move as his legs step forward. I feel his ribcage sway left and right, taking my legs slightly in and out.

As they do, my shoulders alternate up and down, causing my hands and reins (which have light contact) to also slightly swing, matching the bob and swing of my horse's head. On each stride, one hand is slightly "giving" to the bit and the other hand is slightly "taking." Riding with a snaffle bit or a hackamore, only one hand at a time "takes."

Through the movement of my horse's body, I can feel his feet, almost like I am holding them in my hands. How can I use this feel to ride better--to get with the feet?

I want to start circling to the left. As his ribcage swings to the right, my left shoulder and seatbone drop a little, arcing my ribs to the right also. Now my whole body is naturally positioned to look, and go, a little more to the left on the next stride. I begin to look left a little. I don't look left over his shoulder, but I look left over my horse's ears and eyes; his body is longer than mine, and lining up my eyes with his eyes will help me aim his body.

Seth lateral step

Seth, 12, a beginning rider, uses the Hangerman concept to ask for his first lateral step. His eyes have left his horse's eyes, but Quatro fills in and responds to his body and intent.

As my attention goes to the left, I want my horse's attention to also go to the left. I prepare for a new position so we can make a transition. As I look slightly to the left with my whole body, he feels me shifting, and his body also prepares for a change of position. All of this happens in the instant before we make the transition from straight ahead to moving on a left circle. Let's freeze the action here momentarily and see what else happens in that instant.

Jack & Ladies

Jack demonstrates Hangerman for these two ladies with their hands tucked under his legs. They can feel how his thighs, knees, and calves are all affected by the turn of his body's core.

Because I swing with the horse's rhythm--the rhythm of his feet--I can get with his feet effectively. On that step where we froze the action--where his ribcage swings to the right--my left leg (inside leg) swings in to his ribs with a little more energy. Like Hangerman, I look with my whole body: my core turns slightly to the left, rolling my left calf back a little and bringing my right knee in and forward a little. My left calf draws his attention a bit to the inside--his nose tips left, he arcs more around my left leg, and he is positioned to go to the left.

Because I am not riding my horse with trained-in "aids" but with my whole body and intent, he easily understands that my left leg is not touching him in a way that says "go right" but rather in a way that says "look over here to the left." Likewise, he can read my intent and does not turn when I leave the Hangerman mode to look at something behind me or to the side with my head and even my shoulders, because I leave my hands in front of me and don't turn with my hips and legs.

The energy that adds to my leg comes from my core, also adding a little more rhythm to my reins. I don't pull the rein--the stronger swinging in of my left leg drops my left shoulder a little, bringing my left rein in and back just a bit more, supporting the suggestion to look left. His left front foot is on the ground, my left seatbone pushing down and toward the right.

Unfreeze the action into slow motion: As he begins his next step, his left front foot comes off the ground. My body is still moving with the rhythm of his feet, which now brings my left seatbone up and left, taking my left shoulder, arm, hand, and rein out to the left. Riding like Hangerman, my right rein comes in to touch his neck, supporting. As his left front foot comes off the ground, the extra energy in my core helps him take that foot farther left, through my left rein, my right seatbone pushing down and to the left, and my right leg which now swings in to the left with his ribcage. My left leg has swung out, opening up his left shoulder, encouraging him to step into the space I have created.

Jack on Tessio

As Jack asks for the front end to step to the right, he turns from his core: he weights his left seat bone, which drops his left shoulder and raises his right. The lift of his right seat bone takes his right leg out to the right and slightly back bringing Tessio's attention to the right, and creating a space for his right front foot to step to the right. Jack's hands and reins work together, not separately, bringing the nose in the direction of the horse's attention. His eyes and Tessio's eyes are looking the same way.

If instead I ask him to go left when his feet and body are not set up to go left, I send confusing signals. If, instead of getting with his feet, I hold firm steady pressure with one or both legs, or bump rapidly instead of in time with his footfall, or I try to move a foot when it is on the ground instead of in the air, he will probably still go left, but not with the softness, fluidity, good attitude and unity that is our goal.

You can feel his feet with your seat, legs and hands, and with light rein contact at first; later on, as your seat and legs get with his feet more, rein contact is not even necessary. Staying out of the horse's mouth as much as possible appeals to the horse's attitude; being too much in his mouth can be annoying to the horse.

As you begin to get some distance to your feel, you can change hand positions on the reins, ride with more slack or one-handed, and still get with his feet. Getting with his feet, you get with his mind and body. As you follow his rhythm, you will notice that he begins to respond to changes in your rhythm. He begins to get with your mind and body, responding to your slightest suggestion or even your thought. The horse's legs and feet are your legs and feet; your body and his body operate as one body as he responds to your thoughts and plans. This leads to the oneness we are searching for with our horses.

Earlier I said I strive to ride my whole horse with my whole body moving as a unit, not as a bunch of separate parts--did I then contradict myself by talking about what the separate parts do? It's kind of a paradox. In order to get that oneness, I may need to first take apart the whole and look at the pieces. I can even play with them when I am not on a horse--when I am walking or sitting on a tall stool. But then after thinking about and playing with these pieces, I put them back together into the whole. I stop analyzing and focus on my feel and timing. Now it's time to just go ride!

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